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.