Coping with the Loss of a Brother or Sister

Learn more about dealing with the loss of a sibling with helpful practical advice

Last updated: 5 October 2017

Part of what makes the relationship with a brother or sister so special is that you are likely to have known each other for as long as you can remember. Some part of you probably believed that you would always be together. This makes the loss of a sibling profoundly affecting and it is likely that others around you will be grieving deeply for the loss too.

The pain of losing a sibling

Grief affects people in many different ways. From the moment you found out that your sibling passed away, you may have been feeling a huge range of intense emotions, or you may feel completely numb and unable to believe what has happened. Grief is unpredictable and you shouldn’t feel pressured to react in the ‘right’ way.

To help people understand the most common emotions associated with grief, Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross developed the five stages of grief. These five stages may give you some idea of how grief tends to work, but don’t worry if you don’t experience it this way. You may move in and out of stages, experience them in a different order, at the same time, or not at all. As long as you are not hurting yourself or those around you, there is no ‘normal’ or ‘wrong’ way to grieve.

Some things you may experience while grieving for a sibling include:

  • Feeling as though you have lost a part of yourself. Siblings are often a big part of a person’s life and childhood, which can leave you will a sense of emptiness.
  • Sensing ‘grief inferiority’. This is the feeling that other people’s pain is more important than yours and that you are being ignored. For example, people may give more attention and support to your sibling’s spouse or your parents.
  • Feeling isolated from your parents or other family members, because of different ways of coping with the loss.
  • Pretending to be coping better than you are. You may feel the need to protect parents or other relatives from extra worry. This may stop you from getting the help you need.
  • Feeling pressured to support your grieving parents. You may feel like you have to put their needs above yours, but remember that you have a right to grieve too.
  • Feeling jealous of the sibling who has passed away. A small part of you may be jealous that they are now receiving more love, affection and praise than you. This symptom of grief is common in children and teenagers, but can often continue into adulthood.
  • Feeling abandoned by your sibling. You may feel angry that they have left you behind and be irrationally angry with yourself or family members.
  • Mixed emotions. If you had a complicated relationship with your sibling, you may be confused and not understand your own emotions. You may be grieving more intensely than you expected, or feel guilty for not grieving more.

These are just some of the common experiences of people who have lost a sibling, but your grief will likely have different ways of affecting your life, depending on your specific situation. Remember that asking for support and expressing your grief are vital steps towards receiving the help you need.

Supporting your family

The loss of a sibling may put pressure on you to adopt some of your sibling’s previous responsibilities. For example, they might have been the one who always helped your parents organise their paperwork, or they might have cared for an elderly relative. It may be something less obvious, such as now being ‘the eldest child’ and feeling the need to ‘grow up’ and assume this role.

In these situations, particularly if you are the only other sibling, you might feel pressured to take on all these extra responsibilities at once, or to ‘replace’ your sibling in their particular role. This can be particularly stressful during the early stages of grief, so don’t be afraid to ask for extra support from friends or relatives. Ultimately, remember that your sibling cannot and should not be replaced by anyone and that the most important thing right now is to let yourself grieve and support your family in their grief.

Your parents may need practical and emotional support in the weeks, months and even years after the loss. The pain of losing a child is a unique type of grief that is particularly difficult to cope with, so bear in mind that they may not be experiencing grief in the same way as you. They may be angry, and lash out at you, or they may be emotionally numb and unable to cry. Sometimes they might be experiencing intense despair and sadness, and this may be hard for you to witness. Try to be sensitive to how they are grieving and, as long as they are not hurting themselves or others, allow them to express their emotions in the way they see fit.

Being there to support your family will also in turn give you support by being surrounded by those you love. Be there to comfort each other and, if they want to, try talking about your sibling. Spending time with your close family can help all of you come to terms with what has happened and help you heal. Your family will never be the same, but you can find a new way of being together and loving each other.

Managing the estate

If your sibling was married, it is likely that their spouse will be the executor of the will and will be responsible for managing their estate. In some cases, if your sibling was unmarried or specifically appointed you or your parents as executors, you may have to manage their estate. This includes distributing inheritance, reporting the death to relevant organisations such as banks and paying debts owed by the estate.

If you are an executor, or if you want to give support to someone who is, read more about managing an estate.

Moving towards healing

Grief is, unfortunately, something that needs to be experienced and processed in order for you to heal. Sometimes this will feel impossible, but there are certain things you can do to help yourself.

  • Look after your physical health. Try to eat and sleep well and seek medical advice if loss of appetite and sleeplessness continue for a long time.
  • Avoid substance abuse, such as excessive drinking or taking drugs. While these things may numb your emotions in the short term, you will end up feeling even worse than before.
  • Find a way to express your feelings. Writing a journal can be a helpful way of understanding your own emotions.
  • Consider talking to a specialist bereavement counsellor or joining a support group. You’ll be able to share your thoughts without fear of judgment or upsetting anyone.

Remember, if you find yourself feeling increasingly isolated or you simply need some extra support after losing a sister or brother, you can contact a bereavement support organisation for help and advice.