Young Adult Sibling Loss
It seems almost unimaginable to most of us, and yet young adult sibling loss happens and leaves a lasting impact on the surviving sibling or siblings. Their grief may even go unnoticed in a process in which different people mourn different losses. I see it confirmed in my own work that young adults often find themselves unsupported in their bereavement and pain. When a grown child is lost, there is customarily an outpouring of support for the parents of that adolescent or young adult. The surviving sibling, on the other hand, will likely hear, “I am sorry to hear about your brother, or sister. How are your poor parents doing?” One can easily understand the horror of a loss of a child of any age. But this same loss impacts any surviving siblings who are at risk of receiving the message that their grief is less acute or important than that of their parents.
For better or for worse, sibling relationships are unique. Brothers and sisters are sensitive to the subtle quirks, cues, and quips that make up their family’s dynamic. Siblings develop priceless idiosyncratic talents when it comes to laughing, crying, loving, arguing, and protecting each other. When that is gone, a void is opened up, and the surviving siblings silently mourn the loss of these vibrant interactions, as well as their identity without the living presence of the sister or brother they loved so deeply.
Yet this loss somehow remains undefined, eclipsed, and elusive. Because of these features of young adult sibling loss, the loss of a sibling or, for some, siblings, is often referred to as “ambiguous,” a term used to describe losses that go insufficiently recognized. One sign of this ambiguity is that the majority of people I have known or seen in my practice who have experienced sibling loss end up preoccupied with comforting other people in the grieving process. Further preventing a direct recognition of the severity of the loss is the haze of awkwardness that descends when someone asks “how are you?” shortly after you have buried your brother or sister.
Sadly, adult siblings often suppress their own grief, which increases the risk of their remaining paralyzed and silently consumed by it. The complexity of the loss for someone in their 20’s, for example, is different from that of someone who loses a sibling in later stages of adulthood. The pain of the loss is arguably as deep, but one aspect of the gravity of young adult sibling loss is that the bereaved loses so much more of the future as a consequence of their loss. In fact, some young sibling survivors report feeling disconnected from their peers who are going about life with relative ease. Many surviving siblings feel guilty about not being able to prevent the loss. This type of loss robs the young adult survivor of their young identity and propels them into a world they had not imagined possible.
In my work, I see a range of loss: lost childhoods, divorce, infertility, infidelity, loss of a parent or parents, loss of a child, loss of a friend, and so on. All are painful and difficult. What happens to the adults who are struggling to find support in their story of sibling loss? Partly because of the “ambiguity” or elusive recognizability of that loss, resources for adult sibling loss are scarce. That is why I hope to make my own practice one forum where such loss can be recognized, explored, and alleviated.
Texting and Relationships
How does the age of texting affect the nature of dating? What are the uses and rules of texting in a serious relationship? Is frequent texting detrimental to healthy communication or can it be a new path to closeness? There is a segment of research suggesting that texting is damaging to romantic and other relationships, but observers and users also report “texting enhances their relationships.” Not many contest that this particular technology has introduced potentially overwhelming changes to the manner of communication and thus to our relationships with friends, family, as well as other professionals. It would be helpful, then, to think about these changes from several angles.
Starting from my own experience, I recall that when I moved to Chicago in 2001, I was clueless as to the nascent world of texting. And then, when I did step into the modern world, my less than smart phone at the time was more trouble than it was worth. I relied on the old-fashioned phone call and found this to be quite satisfactory. In the present world of 2014, however, the phone call, while not yet obsolete, is being relied on less and less as a way to communicate. While I have improved my texting skills and count on it in a variety of contexts, I find myself reflecting on it as both a useful tool and an impediment. It is doubtlessly efficient for operations such as sending groceries lists and little notes that one is running late. But what about more complicated and substantial items such issues at work, or an unresolved conflict with one’s spouse?
Precisely in a delicate and charged situation, texting can reduce the anxiety of a direct encounter. This may indeed allow for a way of avoiding an uncomfortable situation or conversation and permit a gradual easing into the issue. But the respite from an uncomfortable situation may be only temporary and entering such a situation may at the end be necessary for achieving a resolution. In this respect, harmful effects of texting that I observe directly in my practice tend to happen when couples rely almost exclusively on texting as the method for relationship-shaping conversations. Indeed, researchers have found that the condition of couples, who used texting as a way to apologize, settle disagreements, or make major decisions correlates with a lower relationship quality, for women; for men, lower relationship quality was correlated with too much texting simply. On the level of dating, even without the emergence of substantial issues, I observe that texting seems to create confusion for many of my clients, and precisely for those who are well-versed in the art of texting and assume it can be used in all instances. In fact, if one does a web search for “dating and texting etiquette,” there are a number of articles and rules that crop up, the first of which is “8 Signs You Are Doing This Texting and Dating Thing Right” immediately followed by “The Do’s and Don’ts of Cell Phone Dating Etiquette.” I imagine that this proliferation of sometimes-contradictory advice is daunting for my dating clients who might have thought that texting is a natural or unproblematic way to communicate.
In today’s society, becoming aware of the various ways in which texting infiltrates relationships—sometimes as an efficient instrument and sometimes as a stumbling block — is a necessary part of broader reflection on the requirements of healthy and clear communication in relationships of many types.
Loneliness and Wellness
Most people have some experience with loneliness. By definition, it is a complex and usually unpleasant response to isolation. The experience of loneliness is unique to each of us in that it has no single common cause and is not necessarily about being alone. In fact, many experts agree, “it is the perception of being alone and isolated that matters the most.” Therefore, we can be surrounded by others and still feel empty, alone, and unwanted. The subtlety needed for approaching loneliness is due to the fact that some differentiation from others, some sense of separateness, may be necessary for the formation and preservation of one’s distinctive personality and identity. The problematic character of loneliness emerges when this natural and legitimate differentiation generates or facilitates a degree of insecurity, tentativeness, and paralyzing self-consciousness at which the person cannot find the confidence to navigate the territory between independence and a sense of belonging and harmony.
Our need, to belong to a group or society has deep and strong roots. In the psychology literature the concern for community, support, acceptance, membership, and related experiences to belonging has been emphasized as a fundamental need since the appearance of the work of Adler, Fromm, and Maslow. And even apart from a general theory about the problem of sociality and alienation, there is overwhelming clinical and experiential evidence of the harmful effects of loneliness on well-being. In fact, research finds that extreme loneliness is potentially more lethal than, for example, obesity. Chronic levels of loneliness have been linked to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, impacting cardiovascular health and immunity. A sense of not belonging is easily linked with a wide range of other kinds of emotional distress and reduced levels of functioning. Loneliness can manifest itself in palpably physical experiences such as exhaustion and discomfort. It is predictive of depression and a range of unhealthy behaviors that include increased alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, a high-fat diet, and sleep disturbance.
In societies where an individualistic culture prevails, the problem of loneliness may be especially acute since a person may feel that he or she is expected to be able to “go it alone” or be ruggedly self-reliant. This tends to make it hard to find a middle ground between denying the problem of loneliness, on the one hand, and rushing to pathologize it, on the other. Thus, one falls short of understanding loneliness in its fullness, complexity, and legitimacy. Different forms and aspects of the experience of loneliness--from not fitting in, to feeling like an outside or a stranger, to a more radical feeling of being forlorn, abandoned, and disconnected--have different causes and would require very different approaches for their alleviation. The reflections here only allude to certain aspects of this universal and multi-faceted phenomenon. For example, sometimes loneliness is caused by circumstances simply beyond our control. Even then, therapy can assist individuals in preventing such unavoidable and natural loneliness from becoming protracted or deteriorating into a dysfunction. Therapy would be able to help individuals work through the particular causes of their feelings of loneliness and identify a way toward greater well-being.
In the modern world of technology and social media, loneliness is more common than it was 20-30 years ago. Respondents to a polled questionnaire in 1984 reported having three close confidant(e)s. When the same questions were asked in 2004, the most common answer was zero confidant(e)s. With so many ways to connect to people, we find ourselves more disconnected emotionally from others now than in the past. The use of Facebook, for example, can exacerbate feelings of worthlessness associated with loneliness. Many people perceive their friends as happier and more successful, which contributes to an increased sense of isolation from others whose lives are seemingly happier and more fulfilled. While this may be a misperception, it is perception that is most relevant to our experience with loneliness. The feelings of loneliness are not invalid because the narrative we create is what we experience, despite knowing that users often post selectively only about their good experiences.
After all, we should not forget that loneliness is a very common human experience. It is a paradox that loneliness is something we all share to one degree or another. When we hold the insight about the near universality of loneliness in mind, we can already find ourselves partly liberated from the grip of isolation. The human condition is the interplay of delightful and sometimes problematic connectedness and hard but occasionally unavoidable separateness.
Therapy, finely attuned to the needs of the client’s situation, can help individuals work through the particular causes, symptoms, and trajectories of loneliness and assist them in finding a path to well-being through a greater connectedness with others and with themselves.
Vanessa Bradden, LMFT