Coping with the Suicide of a Sibling

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When a loved one takes their own life.

The suicide of a close family member is a traumatic event that can have lasting effects on those left behind. Last week, I wrote about how the death of a parent by suicide creates particular challenges for surviving children. This week, I will discuss the unique difficulties faced by siblings who lose a brother or sister to suicide.

First and foremost, suicide is a taboo topic in our society and one that is often not talked about openly within families. This can leave surviving siblings feeling isolated and alone in their grief. Furthermore, because of the stigma surrounding suicide, there may be a reluctance to seek out support from others. This can make it difficult to process the loss and cope with the many emotions that come with it.

The suicide of a sibling can also have a profound impact on family dynamics. It can create a rift between siblings if they respond to the loss in different ways. And it can put a strain on relationships with parents, who may be struggling to cope with their own grief while also trying to support their children.

Alone with Complex Feelings

As surviving siblings try to make sense of their new reality, they often feel overwhelmed by intense emotions. Siblings of someone who has committed suicide often feel ignored and overlooked in the aftermath of the death, which is particularly true of older children who are perceived as being “stronger” [1]. They may feel that they are not allowed to mourn in their own way or that they are not supposed to talk about what happened because society often expects them to be strong for their parents or other surviving siblings [2].

However, this pressure can lead to increased feelings of isolation and loneliness. Keeping silent can be just as harmful as talking openly about what has happened. In order to cope with the suicide of a sibling, it is important to find an outlet for grief and talk about the death with other family members or close friends. This will help to normalize the experience and can provide some much-needed support during this difficult time.

Among the challenges faced by siblings after a brother’s or sister’s suicide is the guilt they may feel, which can be compounded if they feel that they should have been able to prevent the death from happening. They may also feel that they were not supportive enough in the time leading up to their sibling’s death or that they did not attend to their mental health needs early enough. The blame that siblings may place on themselves can make the grief even more difficult to bear.

Siblings can also struggle with confusion about why their brother or sister took their own life. This question can be especially difficult to answer when there was no indication that anything was wrong before the death occurred. Additionally, many siblings find it hard to accept that someone who seemed so strong could succumb to suicidal thoughts and actions.

These complex feelings can make it difficult for siblings to cope with the suicide of a brother or sister. In some cases, they may bottle up their emotions and suppress their grief in an attempt to deal with everything on their own. This can lead to long-term mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and thoughts of taking their own lives [3].

A Missing Piece

The death of a sibling by suicide can also have a lasting impact on family dynamics. In many cases, the surviving siblings will find that they are no longer as close to one another as they were before the death. This is because each person may deal with the loss in their own way, which can lead to disagreements and tension within the family.

When a sibling dies by suicide, it is often difficult for family members to grapple with the enormity of the tragedy. Unlike other types of death, suicide carries with it an intense stigma which can make it difficult for loved ones to talk about openly [4]. This can put a strain on relationships with parents, who may be struggling to cope with their own grief while also trying to support their children.

The surviving siblings may feel that their parents are not coping well with the loss or that they are not there for them emotionally. It is not uncommon for siblings to feel like they are walking on eggshells around one another after a suicide, because they may be afraid of saying or doing something that will upset the other person. This can lead to a breakdown in communication as well as to resentment and conflict.

Additionally, if the parents were already struggling with mental health issues before the suicide, the death can exacerbate these problems and make them even more difficult to deal with. In some cases, the suicide can lead to substance abuse disorder, as parents may seek ways to numb the pain. This can further damage family relationships and make it even harder for the siblings to cope.

Opening up the Conversation

In the wake of a sibling’s suicide, it is important for family members to be open and honest with one another about their feelings. This can be a difficult conversation to have, but it is an important step in the grieving process. It can also help ease the self-imposed pressure to stay strong for the family that siblings may feel.

In many cases, siblings will find that they are able to support one another through the shared experience of loss. Talking about the suicide can also help dispel some of the myths and stereotypes about mental illness and keep a family united during a difficult time.

If siblings are struggling to talk to one another, there are a number of resources that can help. Counseling and support groups can be beneficial in normalizing the feelings of grief that each person is experiencing [5] and provide an outlet for talking about the suicide. Additionally, there are a number of online resources available which can help start the conversation about suicide and mental health.

The death of a sibling is a tragedy that no one should have to endure. However, by talking about the suicide and opening up the conversation, families can begin to heal the wounds left behind. While this represents an arduous, lifelong journey, it is one that can ultimately lead to a stronger and more united family.

Sources:

[1] What’s Your Grief. (2015, August 18). Grieving the Death of a Sibling. What’s Your Grief. https://whatsyourgrief.com/death-of-a-sibling/

[2] Supporting children and young people bereaved by suicide. (n.d.). Child Bereavement UK. https://www.childbereavementuk.org/information-bereaved-by-suicide

[3] After a Suicide, Sibling Survivors Are Often Overlooked. (n.d.). NPR.org. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/08/25/545554065/after-a-suicide-sibling-survivors-are-often-overlooked

[4] Breaking the Stigma about Suicide – Mental Health – Wellness and Health Promotion – Seattle University. (n.d.).  https://www.seattleu.edu/wellness/mental/stigma/

[5] Zisook, S., & Shear, K. (2009). Grief and bereavement: what psychiatrists need to know. World Psychiatry : Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 8(2), 67–74. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2691160/

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