A Son Grieves for his Sister

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

My 18-year old son lost his sister (age 10) two years ago, as a result of cancer. He had a very close relationship with her and was and still is devastated as he grieves for his sister. He has so much anger around her death but he won’t ever talk to me about his grief.  He lashes out at me frequently and we are having a hard time getting along. He has seen a therapist and seemed to open up to her about his loss, but he is still so different and angry around me. He is in college now and is doing well, but I am worried about him. Our relationship has changed and I don’t know how to help him. Is his anger normal?

Stella S.

Dear Stella–

For an adolescent to be angry following the death of a sibling would surely be a common response to the violation of his world brought on by a cruel and unfair loss.  But cancer and other serious illness does not play by the rules, and the persistence of your son’s anger across a period of years poses the very real risk of further loss–in this case of the close and loving relationship you likely once had with him, and want to have again.  What then might you do to repair your mother-son relationship in the shadow of this shared traumatic loss?  Here are a few ideas:

  1.  Do a self-assessment. Although your son’s anger is his own, take an honest look at what you might be doing or not doing that he could be reacting to with his outbursts.  Might he see your attempts to approach him as too intrusive?  too blaming?  too mollifying?  What might others–perhaps a good friend or your spouse–candidly say about how you have responded to your daughter’s death?  Might she or he see any shift in your behavior toward your son that he could see as provocative?  It is always easier for us to see another person’s contribution to a conflict than it is our own, and only a strong effort toward empathy can help us override this built-in tendency and view our behavior through their eyes.  Ultimately, the goal here is to see whether you might be making some unintended contribution to the breakdown in the relationship, so that you can be more empowered to make changes.
  1.  Look through his spectacles. As an extension of the above point, try to imagine the unique meaning of your son’s relationship with his sister, and what her illness and death meant to him.  What did she give him that no one else did, and who was he to her in turn?  Did her death signal the loss of innocence, of safety, of trust in adults (and parents) to protect and care for those who are young and vulnerable?  Did a part of him seem to die with her–perhaps his youthful playfulness, or his own big brotherly sense of power to shield her from harm?  Understanding these deeply personal meanings of the loss, and the feelings associated with them, might help you read beneath the secondary, defensive emotion of anger, to the primary emotion of hurt or fear that lies beneath it.  And this could help you relate to him with compassion and clarity when he responds in externalizing, impatient, or blaming ways.
  1.  Consider family therapy.Even if your son’s anger is linked intimately with his grief, he is part of a family system decimated by the same loss, and how each person deals with it has a great impact on others.  Meeting together with a therapist who really understands family systems, communication patterns, roles and structures, and how death affects these, can go beyond the impact of individual therapy in healing the wounds in family relationships originating with a shared loss.  Most basically, such therapy can help family members speak to what they felt and needed at the time of their loved one’s illness (often healthy children feel neglected by parents who are preoccupied by the needs of the sick child), as well as now.  In this process, misunderstandings can be addressed, and the shifting needs of the surviving child as he or she grows toward greater maturity (sometimes all too quickly) can be understood and met more clearly.  Your son’s ability to succeed at college despite his loss is surely a good sign, and finding ways to validate his resilience and respect his grieving style while also rebuilding your relationship is both feasible and important.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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