Three months after my brother died, I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in about six weeks. When she asked how I was doing, I naturally assumed she was concerned about how I was handling the grief. (This particular friend sent me a lovely condolence letter a few days after my brother’s death.) When I told her that I was “doing as well as could be expected, considering the circumstances” she looked confused. “What ‘circumstances’?” she asked. Feeling somewhat confused myself, I reminded her that my brother died just three months ago. She squeezed my arm and said, “Don’t you think it’s time to let go of all that stuff and get on with your life?” Having my grief reduced to a pile of “stuff” by someone I thought was a friend was almost more than I could bear; sadly, most grieving people are able to relate similar stories of insensitivity. This lack of compassion for the bereaved is especially commonplace in America, where our attitudes about death, dying and grief mirror our hurry-up, drive-through-window culture.
There seems to be a preconceived timetable of grief in this country that tolerates mourning for about six weeks. After that, the message is clear: It’s time to move on. But my friend’s thoughtless comment actually points to a more complex reality: Not only are we allotted a specific time period for grieving, but there also seems to be an unwritten pecking order of mourners. For example, the death of children, parents, or spouses, are generally considered to be “major losses” (and they surely are!) while the deaths of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and pets are often relegated to the minor leagues by non-grievers. I want to believe that this unspoken ranking system is unconscious, but experience has taught me otherwise.
The truth is, all losses are relative to the mourner. For example, for one person, the loss of a treasured grandparent may be more traumatic for than the loss of a parent. The depth of our grief is directly proportional to the relationship and love we had for the deceased.
In the case of adult sibling grief, a split occurs. The death of a brother or sister in childhood brings condolence, support groups, and books in great abundance. The death of a brother or sister in adulthood, however, is a different story entirely. When an adult sibling dies, surviving siblings are usually cast into the role of caregiver rather than legitimate mourner. Condolences are reserved for the parents, spouse, and surviving children (if there are any), while surviving siblings are instead assigned tasks. In lieu of sympathies, others admonish us to take care of our parents or to look after our deceased sibling’s spouse or children. And, when a condolence is given, it’s usually in form of an inquiry about “legitimate grievers”: “Your brother/sister died? How awful! How are your parents?” Few condolers seem to recognize the fact that we’ve experienced a profound loss, too.
The sibling relationship is more complex than nearly any other, a mixture of affection and ambivalence, camaraderie and competition. Aside from our parents, there is no one else on earth who knows us better, because like our parents, our brothers and sisters have been beside us from the very beginning. Unlike our parents, however, our siblings are people we assume will be part of our lives for the rest of our lives. In terms of the span of time, the intimacy, and the shared experience of childhood, no other relationship rivals the connection we have with our adult brothers or sisters. From schoolyard bullies to teenage broken hearts, from careers to marriage to dreams unfulfilled, our siblings have been there through it all, life-partners in our journey through time. They are the keepers of secrets, perennial rivals for our parents’ affections, and a secure and familiar constant in an often precarious and uncertain world. Why then, are surviving siblings often passed over and even ignored in the grief process, not only by condolers, but also by the so-called grief professionals?
As I began to speak more openly about this topic, I found that there were countless cases of unresolved grief among other surviving siblings. As one bereaved sibling put it: “How could I go into mourning when I had my brother’s wife and children to take care of, not to mention my parents? I can’t recall anyone ever asking me how I felt during that time.” I soon reached the conclusion that adult sibling bereavement is what psychologists call a disenfranchised loss, which, in simple terms means that society fails to classify our mourning as a legitimate loss.
After my brother’s death, I felt a special need to connect with other siblings who might understand my grief. I hoped that they could offer me some insight, some comfort, some practical advice that might help me through those first difficult weeks and months. I wondered: How had they survived this? There must be some special formula, some secret that I didn’t know about. But, much to my dismay, I soon found that there was very little information and virtually no support groups in place to aid the nearly 4.2 million adults who experience the death of a brother or sister each year.
Almost all the information concerning sibling loss was geared almost exclusively towards young children. Not that those resources aren’t necessary and pertinent (losing a sibling at any age is a devastating event), but I recall asking myself: “Are we suddenly expected to stop caring for our siblings once we enter adulthood?” After all, the endless resources available to aid youngsters in dealing with the death of a sibling indicate the importance of the sibling relationship in shaping our lives. And why would this initial relationship lose any significance as it ripened into adulthood? Wouldn’t it render itself only more important (and certainly more complex) than it had been to start with? Surely there must be others, I reasoned, who felt as I did; that the death of an adult sibling is a profoundly painful, life-changing experience.
As it turned out, I was right. Two years after my brother’s death, in an attempt to heal my own battered soul, I started a non-profit web site for bereaved adult siblings. Surviving siblings flocked to the site and, soon, a caring community of bereaved brothers and sisters quickly formed. The web site, presently attracts over 80,000 visitors per month and our interactive message board receives so many postings, we’ve had to establish an archival system. The site also has a popular memorial page, weekly chat, and a sizeable compendium of resources.
Three years after the web site was born, my book, Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies was released and entered almost immediately into a second printing (since then, it is in it's fourth printing). I regularly receive letters of gratitude from both surviving siblings and caring professionals who have searched in vain for resources to aid surviving brothers and sisters cope with such an overwhelming loss. All of this confirms my initial hunch that surviving siblings are indeed the forgotten bereaved.
During the past ten years, I have been honored to speak with thousands of bereaved brothers and sisters who have helped me to both understand and articulate this often-neglected type of grief. In many ways, I feel as if I have been drafted into a club no one would ever voluntarily join. My fellow club members—my brothers and sisters in grief—travel beside me down a path riddled with potholes and pitfalls. Some navigate the path better than others for their path is well worn. And there are those who embark more tentatively, afraid and uncertain where their journey may take them. I have observed an odd solace and comfort in the company of the “liked bereaved,” unspoken truths we all hold within our hearts. But more than anything, my kindred siblings have taught me that we when we reach out to others, we heal a little, too.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. TJ Wray is the author of "Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies" published by Random House/Three Rivers Press, 2003 and "Grief Dreams: How They Help Heal Us After the Death of A Loved One" (Wiley, 2005). For grief support or to learn more about adult sibling loss, visit her web site,