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Sibling Grief: A New Book

siblijglossjpg.jpg I’ve been trying to understand the unfathomable depth of blood ties that rose up in me and my family members when Jim and Dan died. In looking closer at the sibling relationship, I realized that siblings, who have the same mother and father, are closer biologically than any other relationship. The only way to be closer is to be a twin. ~ From “The Jim and Dan Stories”

When I lost my 2 brothers in 2001, I was overwhelmed with grief. I might have wondered if the degree and length of it was normal if it wasn’t for the fact that I had 6 other siblings who were obviously as stricken as I was.

Losing a parent is painful, but it’s something we expect to eventually have to deal with. Losing a child is unthinkable, and every one understands the heartbreak of losing a mate. Why did losing my adult brothers, who didn’t even live in the same state as I did, feel like an amputation, as though I had literally lost a part of me? I suspected that there was more to sibling loss than our culture lets on.

In my search to better understand the unique aspects of sibling grief, I found “The Sibling Connection,” an online site hosted by Pleasant Gill White, Ph.D. Ms. Gill is not only a counselor who specializes in grief and loss, she is also a survivor of sibling loss herself. When she was 15 years old she lost her 13 year old sister.

Within minutes of reading the information shared on The Sibling Connection, I better understood the magnitude of the sibling bond and felt supported in my grief: When someone has been a part of your life since birth, your identity is based on having them there. They form a part of the field or background from which you live your life, and as such, they are essential. They make up part of the unbroken wholeness that defines who you are. This relates to the concept of birth order. When the first child is born, he or she develops certain characteristics and talents. Other siblings will most likely choose other characteristics to develop in order to differentiate themselves from each other ... siblings actually loan each other their strengths …

The Sibling Connection provided me with my first introduction into “bibliotherapy,” using books on grief to access one’s own feelings. Because the site included a list of grief and loss books, I emailed Ms. White and then sent her a copy of the book I wrote about losing my brothers, “The Jim and Dan Stories.” She reviewed the book for her January 2004 online newsletter and listed it on her site.

Last week I received this in an email: Do you remember me? I am Pleasant Gill White from the Sibling Connection. I wanted you to know that your book inspired me to write one of my own. It is called Sibling Grief: Healing after the Death of a Sister or Brother ...

After we re-established our connection, she sent me a copy of her new book, which arrived today. Not many books can cause me to cry on the first page of the introduction, but this one did: My sister did not know that she was dying and we were not supposed to tell her. But one dark night, as I sat in a chair, leaning on her hospital bed, I thought she was asleep. Out of the silence, she began to speak. “Promise me you will keep on singing,” she said quietly. “Promise me you will go to college,” Ms. White wrote.

And this insight on page two is worth the price of admission: In some ways our siblings never age. If they die when we are adults, we feel the loss of the child they once were. If they die when we are children, we grow up and feel the loss of the adult they would have become. It’s true that when my emotions about Jim and Dan surface, I’m often grieving the loss of our childhood together and them as the children I remember so well.

After they died, I was profoundly changed, but I didn’t look any different to others. I experienced not only an identity crisis, but a sense of alienation in my own community because no one in my immediate surroundings, apart from my husband and sons, knew my brothers. Here’s what Ms. White has to say about the feelings of alienation that may come with the loss of a sibling: When adults lose a sibling, they often feel abandoned by society. The sympathy goes to their parents, but brothers and sisters are supposed to "get over it" quickly so they can comfort the parents or replace the lost sibling. This is one of the reasons why adult sibling loss falls into the category of "disenfranchised grief". Bereaved individuals are encouraged to feel guilty for grieving too long.

A large component of Ms. White’s book deals with using creativity as means of healing. Although I never related to the standard stages of grief that I read in other books, I resonated with Ms. White’s “Five Healing Tasks,” which are: 1. Learning about sibling loss and the grief process. 2. Allowing yourself to grieve. 3. Connecting to other bereaved siblings. 4. Telling your story. 5. Finding meaning in the loss.

A sampling of intriguing headings found in the book include: Bridging the two worlds, My scrapbook Life, How children grieve, Sibling rivalry beyond death, Seeking a new identity, The energy of grief, and The best gift.

Drawing on hours of research, counseling others, and personal experience, Ms. White’s contribution to sibling loss is a valuable and insightful life’s work. Like her online site, her book offers a wide range of resources, personal stories, and even poetry. I highly recommend it for anyone who has lost a sibling, and I thank her for writing it.

Post note: To read more post on sibling loss click and scroll HERE.


I don't believe the blood is thicker than water thing. Maybe it is different for different families. My best friend's brothers HATE each other. I am sure they might regret it if one died but they don't act like it now.

I told Martin once that kids that seemed to have too much given to them too easily fought against each other for their parents attention and often hate each other as adults.

Siblings who had alcoholic parents or fighting in the home are usually extremely close because they so needed to protect each other. They were all each other had so to speak. My mom and her step-sister fall into this. My aunt's daddy died in the war. My nannie remarried and mom is 7 years younger than her sister. But my aunt is the light of my mom's life. My aunt took care of her and as mom says "was always so good to her." But again they had a shaky home life.

In normal homes, like ours was, I say that we have a normal closeness but have friends that understand us better than our siblings. We all 3 seem independent and confindent. We love each other and respect our differences and we are all 3 very different. Though I imagine if I lost one of them it would throw my whole world bubble into pieces and it never be the same for my family.

Anyway...I guess my question would be how would you account for all the hatred throughout history in siblings (Cain and Abel to my friends) and so many siblings that never speak after they reach adulthood?

This sounds like a really good book.
Thanks for the recommendation.

Hi Deana, My take on it is that hatred is the flip side of love in the same way that your best assest is usually your worst liability when overused. If you didn't care so much what someone thought you wouldn't have the inclination to hate them. The hatred some siblings feel towards eachother is probably unexpressed hurt. Maybe hatred is like pain. We assume pain is bad, but in reality we need it to know when something is wrong and needs attention.

When I visit the classes that use my book, we get into good converstaions about family dynamics. One common response I get from some readers is that my book stirred up their grief of not having a close family.

My siblings and I are the children of an alcoholic, and I agree with what you said. My dad was somewhat broken by his WWII experiences and all his kids carry some of the burden he carried. He was also playful, loving, and tenderhearted, and so we were bonded by the good and the bad times.

I didn't expect to be so shaken and fundementally changed by my brothers deaths, but I'm glad I was, because it helped me to grok the reality of death and gave me a roadmap into my deepest self. I don't think anyone knows what it's like till it happens to them and there are so many variations on how one feels grief or not.

Thanks for your feedback, Deana! And yes, we also fought like cats and dogs growing up.

What can I say?.......another thought provoking blog entry at a time when we all could use it.

I grieve everyday and WONDER WHY????? Some days I am angry and some days I am accepting and at peace.

I'm an only child, Colleen, so I found your post very interesting. As a child, I desperately wanted a sibling...mostly as a playmate. Due to medical reasons, my mother was only able to have me.
I married and had 3 children of my own and THAT is when I truly began to miss that special relationship that only siblings share.
I agree with all that both you and the author said in relation to this. Because around age 40, it suddenly became imperative that I maintain the very few childhood friendships that I kept over the years. Why?
Mainly because they "were there when" and they were an important part of the growing up process.
I believe that's why, to this day, my friendships are so precious to me. In a strange way, I believe they're the siblings I never had.
And despite your terrible loss....I envy you what you had.

I know from personal experience what it was like losing my brother. When he died at 3 years old (I was 16 when he was born.. 19 when he died and due with my oldest child) part of me died with him. I wanted to lay down with him and it be the end.. It was the most trying time in my life.. It was like losing my own child.. I cant say that my feelings would be that much if my sister died. I know thats a horrible thing to say. I love her.. No doubt. I dont ever wnat to lose her. But the bond isnt the same..

Thanks for commenting at my place & the great infomation you have here about the loss of a sibling. I'll be looking for the books, my beloved lost his brother 6 years ago & still struggles. Especally since the passing of his mom & dad. Thanks

I couldn't imagine life without my family - or having a family that is filled with hate or anger. Reading Deana's comment put some kind of a pit in my stomach. I think it's horrible for families that aren't close like we all are and I feel bad for anyone in that situation!
(Eric's family was like this...)
I guess mostly I'm just proud to be in the family I am!

Excellent that your book inspired someone else!

Me again...I was thinking about your post at the gym this afternoon while walking...
I had thought like you said, hate is such a flop of love, if you didn't have some emotion there would be no hate. I think in my friends situation it is such petty jealousy. Cold immature hearts still jealous over daddy's attention. And as you said if there wasn't a connection there couldn't be hate I suppose! Still so sad to lose those years and family harmony.
Good post....made me think!

Having just read Anderson Cooper's book, which as some stuff in it about his older brother's suicide at age 23, I'd like to read this one also. You might like to read the Cooper book; "Dispatches from the Edge"

Very touching post, Colleen. I'll be interested to read her book.

The writer of another blog I read (http://livingsmall.typepad.com) lost her brother about 2 years ago and her devastation was a revelation to me. I had never even imagined what it might be like to lose one of my sisters, and I saw it in a whole new way as I read her writings throughout the early stages of her loss.

What a very wonderful touching post Colleen...I feel so very many of the things you shared about the loss of a sibling...I don't think even my sisters children understand the heartbreak that their mother's loss is to all of us--her siblings...And I do feel abandon in a way that is very hard to explain. Robin was an anchor of sweetness and acceptance in a world that often is so judgemental and jealous or competitive...She was none of those things and I felt she loved me uncondontionally. This is a terrible loss to me...And these very dear loving attributes were unique to her in our family dynamic...I miss her every day and it has been a year and a half...I know grief is so very individual but I also know there are some generalized constants if one is truly in touch with one's feelings...How long I will feel as I do, I don't know, and I am not concerned about it...what I am concerned about it the loss and where that leaves me, you know?

I very much want to read this book you speak of and think it is quite wonderful that your book inspired her book! Lovely, my dear. Really really lovely.

4. Telling your story.
Thanks Colleen for creatively telling yours (which is also mine to a large degree) and inspiring others to creatively do the same. Societally and individually we become connected via our stories.

I hope to read 'The Sibling Connection.' What a good title.

When you get into the book I recently gave you "Storycatchers" this point is also creatively expressed.

We are our stories!

Thank you for this post, so beautifully written. Like Terri, I am an only child...my mother lost two other children. I have often looked on sibling relationships with longing.

I know that if anything would happen to either of my children, the other one would feel that loss of so deeply.

Thank you again.

~xOOx~ hugs.

Thank you for writing this. This says everything I felt was so weird about my grief, namely grieving our childhood. I lost my brother last year due to a motorcycle accident. I was 30; he was 33. In some strange way, it's nice to know that my feelings were normal.

I just now found your website...I am reaching here...I just lost my brother...will ever fill joy again??? My heart aches...

I wish my family was close. Brought up with an alcoholic father and a mother who worked very hard. We did not get much attention. I am in my fifties now, the oldest of five children. I am very close to my youngest brother but the others are so angry and very difficult to get along with. I have only one sister and she acts like she hates me some times so I just stay away from her. It makes me very sad that we are not a close family. My parents are both dead.

it has been 6 years that my only sister died.. she just turned 43 years old and i was 41. she wasn't sick, it was unexpected and we were all in shock.. she died of a aneurysm and i was not there.. we very different , like night and day, but very close. we complimented each other, supported each other, loved each other.. not with words, but with actions. we do have 3 other brothers who had their own special relationships with her.. normally it's the mother or father who the family surrounds but for our family, it was her.. i know people dont' have relationships like ours..the first time after her death, i heard someone say the word sister and talk about plans, i physically felt like i was punched in the stomach, the pain was so great. i have been blessed to have dreams about her and that i can remember them in great detail brings bittersweet joy. i am married but feel that i am pushing my spouse away because he can't understand how much i miss her== it's as though he wont' say her name and that upsets me very very much.. i need to get help so i can function in this different life without losing those that are still here and whom i love.. i came upon this website and am going to buy the book and see if helps me. thankyou.

I can't believe that 1 1/2 yrs. later, my heart aches like this for my little brother. He was so damaged from a life of pain and abuse, culminating in a heroin OD which took his sad, desperate and lonely life, and not even being found until days later, alone in the desert. Maybe if I had been nicer to him when we were little instead of joining our parents in the teasing, trying to be the "good" child... I tell myself these things would have made the difference, but I know, too, that I was just a child trying to survive, like him. I loved him, and I hated him in the later years. I hated that he wouldn't pick himself up, get a job, lose some weight, stop drinking and doing drugs - be the brother who cared about my kids and gave them cousins. I can't get past the pain of hurting him with my selfish anger. I should have held him close to me and loved him, let him cry to me like the baby he was. It was just too hard, letting him break me like that. Instead I pushed and pushed. The very last time I spoke to him we fought, and once again my heart broke. Now he haunts my dreams. He is half of me and I can never breathe another breath without him beating in my chest. I see him as the little boy I love with all my being. The child I protected from the broken glass and broken home. I hope there is peace one day, and forgiveness.

Your sharing really hits home and breaks me up, kris. I understand the part of him being half of you. That's the part that I didn't understand the power of until I lost my brothers. And I too see them as the children I remember and every pain they endured in life seems so unjust considering how short their lives were. They should have been more cherished. We should cherish each other so much more. We learn from these deaths and our love is deepened, but how can more love hurt so much?

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