The loss of a sibling can have an overwhelming effect on a surviving brother or sister, powerful enough to alter one’s personality, behavior, and identity, regardless of age. For a child or adolescent sibling the grieving process must be recognized and attended to, along with the challenges unique to each developmental stage.
As a younger sibling matures there is an intrinsic desire to revisit the death, as the bereaved attempts to accommodate deeper understanding of the loss and its profound impact. Common reactions of sibling grief include disbelief, despair, guilt, anger, frustration, sadness, loneliness, and helplessness.
Younger children who do not have the verbal capacity to communicate express their emotions through behavioral modifications in an attempt to make sense of their experience with loss. Art and play therapy may prove beneficial, allowing a child to explore alternative means of expression. Adolescents must negotiate their expanding need for autonomy as they adjust to and allow for integration of the grieving process.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapies help restructure the potential development of negative self-beliefs that may contribute to the identification of the surviving sibling as a victim or outsider. Feeling uncertain about one’s mortality, and not understanding the change to the norms of life, confusion surrounding one’s role, and where one belongs in the altered family are common, as is a sense of being different, or not enough. All factors contribute to an overall sense of emptiness, and vulnerability.
Posttraumatic growth, or positive psychological change experienced as a result of the adjustment to the loss, may also occur during the grieving period. According to studies the death of a sibling has the potential to increase the bereaved siblings sense of empathy, competency and appreciation for life.
A consistent, genuine, and empathetic therapeutic response, that “comforts and consoles”, and accepts a client’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioral reactions is necessary to accommodate the grieving process.
Providing psycho-education around areas of concern that normalizes feelings and behaviors may reduce anxiety. Helping clients recognize and attend to their grieving process in an open, flexible and patient way will begin to facilitate a rehabilitation of the bereaved narrative, as well as the reconstruction of meaning in their lives.
© 2014 Maria Stella, PhD. All Rights Reserved.