Sibling Loss, Faith and Family

Dear Dr. Neimeyer–

This last December I lost my oldest brother and since then I lost two additional brothers. The grief has been so hard. My main concern is for my precious 92 year old mother. She has always been a strong Christian woman. This was almost more than she could bear.

Kayla

Dear Kayla—

In addition to the anguish of multiple loss within a short period, presenting you with fresh grief before you have had a chance to process and absorb the previous ones, your question raises the issue of sibling loss–probably the most neglected form of bereavement. When we stop to consider it, our brothers and sisters are usually our longest form of intimate relationship: they are the witnesses, playmates, antagonists and co-conspirators of our childhood, and their lives typically are interwoven with our own across the course of our adolescence and adult lives. As we mature, our bonds can shift as a function of who we and they choose as partners, where we live, and how tightly or loosely we maintain our earlier ties, but we commonly celebrate life’s joys, such as the arrival of children and grandchildren, as important parts of one another’s growing families. In the natural order of things they might also become our fellow supporters for life’s inevitable losses, as well as helpmates in caring for aging parents. And unquestionably, our lives are impoverished by their deaths, even if our grief is regarded by the social system as less important than that of others in their families of procreation.

Beyond the impact of sibling loss on us as individuals, your note also recognizes the inevitable impact on others in the family system, in this case, on an aging mother. The death of her eldest son, followed by two others, must seem almost surreal to her, as each reverses our taken-for-granted generational order of departure. It also challenges every parent’s inborn imperative to care for her children and protect them, and cruelly exposes just how helpless we sometimes are in the presence of illness and unpredictable death. In other words, such loss challenges our assumptive world, the way we believe the world works or should work. In many cases, for religiously inclined mourners, such untimely deaths can also challenge our beliefs in a benign and loving God, or more perniciously, leave us wondering what we did to deserve such punishment.

And yet, taken in perspective, we also have to acknowledge the inevitability of death, the way in which all lives, and all relationships, will one day end–at least in a human, earthly sense. Viewed through this lens, the only questions are when and how they will end–and whether it will be we, or they, who are left bereaved. Finding a way to live gracefully with the grief, perhaps revising or reaffirming core personal or spiritual values, would be the task faced by whichever sibling is left behind. In your case you have been given the gift of the longer life… but at a price. That price is grief, times three, and my hope for you, your mother and others who love your brothers and you both is that you find new and meaningful ways to step toward one another during this time of painful transition, and renew family bonds that may be all the more precious for their being fewer in number.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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