Family & relationships

September 12 2016

Silent grief – the overlooked impact of losing a sibling

By Australian Psychological Society

The death of a brother or sister during the teenage years can affect how young people develop independence, romantic relationships and even career paths.

When a young person dies there’s usually an outpouring of grief as the extended family and local community step in to provide support for the bereaved parents and practical assistance caring for younger siblings affected by the loss. Tragically, adolescent siblings, caught between the innocence of childhood and responsibilities of adulthood, often miss out on the support they need, which can have a long-term impact on their development and mental wellbeing.

Misunderstood loss

Very little research has examined what psychologists call ‘adolescent sibling bereavement’. Researchers Jan-Louise Godfrey and Associate Professor Roger Cook from Swinburne University of Technology recently completed a study that examined how sibling loss affects development during the teenage years and beyond, being presented at the 2016 Australian Psychological Society Congress in Melbourne, 13-16 September.

The study found that adolescents confronted by the loss of a sibling often experience trauma associated with the loss or witnessing the decline of their sibling as well as a sense of disenfranchised grief, where the intensity of their grief may not be recognised by other people or may be seen as lesser than that of their parents.

“People often don’t recognise the intensity of the grief that the adolescent is experiencing and sometimes overlook just how important the relationship with their sibling was to them,” says Godfrey.

Worryingly, she says the combination of trauma and disenfranchised grief can lead to mental health problems like anxiety, depression and disordered eating.

Developmental delay

What’s more, because adolescence is a significant identity-building period, Godfrey says losing a sibling can impact long-term development in three key areas: independence, the formation of romantic relationships and career progression.

“The study found that witnessing parental grief can be hugely impactful for teenagers in knowing how to support their parents and wanting to be there for their parents,” she says.

“Quite a few of the participants said they felt responsible for their parents’ wellbeing and some took on personal care of their parents. Adolescents tend to stay around home when that happens so their normal process of separating from parents is influenced by this desire to remain at home and look after their parents.”

When it comes to dating, Godfrey says many participants avoided or experienced trouble forming relationships because they couldn’t bear the pain of it not working out. “Having some of those feelings of loss triggered by the failure of a romantic relationship wasn’t a risk that they wanted to take,” she says.

At school and university Godfrey says some participants reported that their studies suffered as a result of their loss as they were unable to concentrate, apply themselves or submit assignments on time, particularly at university. “That has long-ranging effects on career choices if they can’t get through the degree they want,” she says.

Later in life, adolescent sibling bereavement can impact on grown-up attitudes to child-rearing – characterised by anxiety that what happened to their sibling may happen to their child – and trigger an intense sadness among ‘accidental’ only children.

“You may end up being an only child if you lose a sibling,” says Godfrey. “That was reported as being a very lonely experience. With milestones like finishing school, getting married, having a child or as parents age, participants tended to revisit those feelings of loss. It’s an enduring grief that is often revisited.”

What you can do

 If you know a young person who has lost a sibling, Godfrey says offering a supportive ear can help. “One of the themes that came through in the study was being able to listen to the story,” she says. “The people who had someone who was able to sit there, listen and empathise tended to cope a lot better.

“It links back to the notion of disenfranchised grief because in today’s society we tend to shy away from death, especially because this is such an unnatural death in terms of the age of the person who died. Being open to listening to someone can be hugely beneficial. They may not want to talk but if they do at least you’re there.”

Bio: Jan-Louise Godfrey is currently completing a Doctorate in Psychology (Counselling Psychology) at Swinburne University of Technology. She also works at the Australian Psychological Society focusing on mental health in the workplace and with young adults as a student counsellor at Monash University. Jan-Louise holds a Master of Organisational Psychology and has a background in organisational development, psychological assessment, leadership development and HR consulting.