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When Teens Grieve a Sibling’s Suicide

Family systems are often initially paralyzed by the suicide death of a child, with parents being the primary focus of grief support. A 2005 study on sibling suicide bereavement for children who are still at home identify these children and adolescents as “the forgotten bereaved,” for whom “necessary help is impeded due to the extraordinary experience leaving siblings outside the circle of friends and parental grief community”(Dyregrov & Dyregrov, 2005). The study recognizes the devastation of parents who have lost a child, as well as a period of emotional absence that may diminish previous patterns of attunement to surviving children.

We have spoken with teens who perceived themselves as having engaged in grief work “by myself.” Not infrequently, grieving teens will reject the support of parents and family members. What are the grief needs of teens under such disrupted circumstances? What are the unique issues of those experiencing sibling suicide loss?

We recognize both risk and resilience in these young people engaged in the process of becoming their own persons while in the midst of profound family tragedy. Parents may underestimate the levels of their children’s grief, not only because the grief expression looks so different from their own experience, but because adolescents have a tendency to minimize their grief in the presence of their parents (Bank & Kahn, 1975). A study of adolescent sibling grief observed that adolescents did not discuss personal matters with their parents after a sibling’s loss for up to a year (Balk, 1983).

Children may feel the need to protect their grieving parents from caregiving tasks and responsibilities before addressing their own pain (Jaques, 2000). Our work with youth suggests that for individuation purposes, some teens interpret the process as intensely private and boundaried, and emphasize not needing their parents as they confront the great work of mastering loss. For various reasons, teens may prefer to process the loss of a sibling in isolation, a possible characteristic of adolescent grief that may heighten the potential for either risk or resilience as teens deal with the pain of their loss and the questions it generates.

The grief process will be shaped by where teens are in the developmental process. Commensurate with the developmental surge in cognitive skills, teens begin to create a meaningful narrative about the suicide. This is an intense introspective process, varying with the cognitive and emotional capacity of each young person. We notice that if the teen can direct expression outward to a journal, or art, or through speaking to another person, this outward expression externalizes grief while raising the consciousness of thoughts and feelings.

One teen mourned her sister’s suicide under the silent depth of a pool, using the discipline of repetition, breath and the resistance of water to move through her thoughts and feelings. Others have used homework, technology, excessive activity or socialization to distance from grieving because grief feels too unsafe, or the tasks of grieving appear to conflict with the mastery of other developmental tasks. Because adolescent grief can resemble that of children and adults, teens may process aspects of grief with abstract thinking abilities similar to their parents, or with shorter attention spans like their younger siblings, where grief is experienced in spurts.

The immaturity that is associated with adolescence can affect judgment regarding ways to cope and can contribute to denial or distortions about the loss, as well as an inability to find appropriate and reliable support. Developmental limitations, which may include immature coping, can be present at the same time the teen is showing a greater capacity for forming ideas and opinions about their experiential world and can be an indicator of the risk and protective factors in their grief process.

There are some features unique to adolescent grief of a sibling’s suicide. Relational aspects of sibship, such as rivalry, modeling of positive or negative behaviors, gender, birth order, birth spacing and the teen’s observations of parents’ perceptions of individual siblings have implications for how adolescents interpret the sibling relationship, the meaning of the suicide and their role within the family. Siblings can have powerful influences on self-perception, and exploration around this becomes part of the grief process. Was it a validating relationship? Did the teen feel criticized or less important than the sibling who died? Had either sibling taken a protector or caretaking role? Was there anger, or estrangement? If the sibling who died had a history of troubling behaviors or mental illness, was the surviving child idealized or valued more favorably?

Other issues may include survivor guilt and feeling the need to restitute the loss for parents. Some surviving siblings will attempt to replace the role that the deceased brother or sister played in the family (Bank & Kahn, 1975). In sifting through these layers, teens will need to explore and challenge potentially distorted perceptions that increase the pain of bereavement. The conflicts, jealousies and rivalries that may have been part of the teen’s relationship with the deceased sibling will need attention in the grief process, so that feelings of guilt, remorse or responsibility for the sibling’s suicide can be addressed.

Adolescents should be in the process of individuating, distinguishing themselves from parents while remaining a functional part of the family. During this developmental phase they are challenged with forming an identity, becoming competent in chosen areas, building a capacity for nuanced ways of thinking, learning to value intimacy and tolerance for difference and forming a world view. In this process lies the potential for resilience after a life-changing loss such as a sibling suicide. These developmental tasks are central to the grief work of representing the self in the pain of loss and creating a meaningful perception of the deceased sibling and his or her experience leading to the suicide. We observe that some teens use the existential questions invoked by grief to actualize their individuation processes, leading to provisional narratives that may depart from what parents are saying about the suicide. These explanations can evolve over a lifetime as the young person develops socially and emotionally. The adolescent’s past history of coping with disappointment, frustration, failure and other losses can be an indicator of his or her ability to navigate their grief process.

Each family and loss is unique, and this brief article can only speak generally about how an adolescent might process grief when a sister or brother dies by suicide. We always recommend supports, such as a trusted adult friend outside the immediate family, individual counseling or a teen grief group such as offered by The LOSS Program for Children and Youth. We wish to offer teens a place to explore grief safely, hold the vulnerable feelings that can be an extraordinary challenge for those leaving childhood understandings behind, and use new levels of consciousness to create meaning through loss. In addition to the necessary help with coping, the goal is to offer teens support for a private, authentic exploration of their relationship with the sibling who died, and to facilitate growth in identity formation and self-compassion.

References: Balk, D. (1983).Effects of sibling death on teenagers. Journal of School Health, 53, 14-18.Bank, S., & Kahn, M.D. (1975). Sisterhood-brotherhood is powerful: Sibling sub-systems and family therapy. Family Process, 14, 311-337.Dyregrov, K., & Dyregrov, A. (2005). Siblings after suicide—“The forgotten bereaved.” Suicide and Life-threatening Behavior, 35(6), 714-724. Jaques, J.D. (2000). Surviving suicide: The impact on the family. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 8(4), 376-379.

When Your Knees Hit the Floor

Since writing A Different Kind of Same about losing my brother to suicide, I’ve had the privilege of talking to a couple of book clubs. Yesterday I did a Q&A with one over the internet. It was a great group of women who were friendly and engaged. They had prepared insightful questions and made me feel welcome, even though I was kind of awkward and super nervous. I can’t shake the belief that I’m rubbish in person. I think a lot of writers feel this way. Like, I’m happy to respond to any questions you have; just give me six months to write 15 drafts of my answer. But overall (I think) I managed to sound coherent. Until one woman asked, “How do you deal with the feelings of guilt and helplessness?”

That shut me right up.

You see, this club lost one of its members to suicide last year. They were right there in it, in the messiest, stickiest part of grief.

I floundered. There were a lot of “Ummmm,” and “Wow, that’s a good question,” and a few ramblings about grief as evidence of deep love. I finally said I needed more time to think about it and asked if I could email them my response. “I want to give you guys a really good answer,” I said.

The problem was that I already knew the answer, and I was worried that it was crappy. Nearly 12 years out from my own loss, I still want to believe there’s something we can do to escape all that pain. There should be a handbook, a manual, or at least a list of helpful suggestions. I know there are a few things we can try: We can read books about grieving; we can talk to our friends and family about what we’re feeling; we can pray, or meditate, or go for walks in quiet places; we can volunteer with suicide prevention efforts. These are all things I did, and they helped, some. But the truth is that the only way to deal with guilt and helplessness is to feel them, to let them soften us, to let them be part of our grief, and to be as gentle with ourselves as possible.

It’s awful. It’s really, really uncomfortable. It hurts. It takes a long time. And it isn’t fair.

All last night I pouted and grumbled about it. I didn’t want to be the bearer of this bad news. I wanted to be the hero, the sage, the one who knows where all the land mines are buried in the field of grief and, most important, how to dig them up safely. Then I remembered a quote that one of the other women shared at the end of our meeting, from the author Marianne Williamson.

“Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor.”

And I realized, “Who am I to stop anyone’s knees from hitting the floor?” The intent — to decrease someone’s suffering —is pure, but the action robs survivors of the validation their grief needs. The most powerful, most helpful thing I know to do is to tell the truth, even when it isn’t what I want it to be. I also remembered that when you stop trying to chase away the guilt and the hopelessness, they have room to become kindness and compassion. When you give them space, they can lead you to empathy and love.

Your knees are going to hurt like hell. You’re going to think you might never stand up again. But you will.

I hope this answers her question.

This New Life: What is Healing?

New survivors of suicide loss often wonder if healing is even possible. And they fear that “being okay” equates to the death of their loved ones being okay. (Not true). Recently I talked to a group of long-term survivors about healing – what it is, how it looks, and how we navigate it. They generously shared insights about how their lives had changed over time, which I share now with you.

One survivor said: “Healing for me was the slow return of my senses. When I could actually begin to see, smell, taste, hear, and feel again. When the love I feel for my son was more in balance again with the love I feel for others.”

Another survivor, who also lost a son, described healing as when you can talk about the person and/or the way they died without falling apart or experiencing anxiety. “Healing is when their death doesn’t have a negative influence on your day-to-day living or occupy your thoughts 24/7, when memories aren’t met with tears, and when seeing/touching their belongings doesn’t bring you to your knees. Anniversaries aren’t filled with the same level of anxiety as before, and memories don’t hover in the back of your mind all the time to jump out when least expected.”

The earliest signs of healing may go unnoticed. Eating, washing/styling hair, wearing makeup, leaving the house, not having a panic attack, not crying during the day – all are signs of healing. As time passes thoughts turn to “Now what?” Sometimes our children move us forward. “I found myself seeking ways to return to life and living, venturing out, joining a widows’ club, planning ahead a little, and envisioning a future. I tried harder and wanted to return to life.”

What is healing? I asked the group. “When you can laugh again. Giving yourself permission to be happy. When you can see joy in your life. When you can function without your every thought being about your loved one. It is realizing you will always miss them but you can go on living a decent life.”

Three to five years out from the loss brought a “real shift” for a woman who lost her husband. “Truly believing I could still have a happy future, I toyed with the idea of another relationship. I no longer felt my kids were in danger and saw they could have a happy future, too.”

In another couple of years, the widow continued, the kids are finally grown up and independent. “My focus was no longer just on them. I know for a fact I will and have survived. Confident that we are over the worse, I have a sense of pride and accomplishment in how we’ve coped and what we have achieved.” Despite a “Mega What Now?” moment, another feeling triumphs: the best is yet to come.

The theme of joy kept coming up in the conversation. “Healing is accepting you will miss the person you lost forever but realizing you will have joy and happiness in life. It is a duality. That is a word I have heard recently and it resonates with me. The biggest part of healing for me is that when a grief wave creeps up, I know without a shadow of a doubt that I will survive. I know it will pass and joy and happiness will reign. I know it for a fact. That is true healing.”

Advice to Someone Who Is Feeling Guilty

Guilt is part and parcel of “survivorship.”

I had not spoken to my sister for the six months prior to her death. The separation itself was not ‘pretty.’ Her parting words to me were the most hurtful of all the things she had ever said to me in anger. I did not retaliate, I just separated for my own survival.

I spent the first three months after her death beating myself up, crying over the separation, and hating myself for not being a part of her life for those last six months. I kept thinking that if I had been, she would still be alive.

The truth I’ve come to know is that I was not powerful enough to change her decision. While I might have delayed what she did, I believe that once she decided to go down that path, I could not have stopped her.

I allowed my guilt to turn into regrets instead. Regrets for me are things that I might have done differently, while guilt is taking the blame for things I caused. I did not cause my sister’s death. It was her choice and her decision alone. If I could have stopped her I would. I don’t blame myself; I just regret my decisions and choices, but I have finally let myself off the hook.

Concentrate on all the good you brought to your loved one’s life. Try to remember all that you did for him or her instead of what you didn’t do or what you perceive as things you might have done differently. Don’t forget the love you gave and all the ways you helped. Allow, if you can, yourself to let go of the blame/guilt and replace it with regret. Guilt is such a soul-wrenching emotion and makes healing from this grief much more difficult.

About the Author

Wisdom From Our Community

"Wisdom From Our Community" posts originally appeared on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors and are reprinted with the permission of the authors. Our online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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I Cannot Change It Now

Today, I can feel the sun as I sit outside. It is a beautiful Spring day. Days like these bring some peace and rest. This feels amazing, coming out of a tough few weeks.

I usually come on to the Alliance of Hope forum, when I am at a really low place, reading others’ messages or writing my own to feel some support and comfort. I am glad to come on today with a peaceful feeling.

The past few days have been difficult. I stayed up for hours reading the forum, feeling so much longing and sorrow. I reread every email I have from my brother and wished there were more. I did the same thing with pictures. I could hear his voice and feel his presence, and it felt really painful knowing that there won’t be any new moments.

However, it reminded me of endless memories that I have from the past. I will carry my brother with me always. I will use my experience of loss as a learning experience, an experience that can make me more empathetic and understanding. I will find strength and a purpose in life, and my brother will follow me every step of the way. I do not know why this happened, but I must understand I cannot change it now. I can only move forward and give love to others who may be struggling.

I cry while writing this. Longing for my brother is so hard, but I know life must continue, and the best thing that I can do is remember him and cherish what I have in my heart and mind. He will remain with me, in every moment.

I hope everyone on this forum today can feel a little bit of hope and peace, even during such loss and pain.

About the Author

Wisdom From Our Community

"Wisdom From Our Community" posts originally appeared on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors and are reprinted with the permission of the authors. Our online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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Reflecting on How Far I’ve Come

Hi everyone,

It’s been a while since I posted on the forum, or come to read, respond, and encourage others. It’s been over 8 years since my precious brother Paul left. I miss him so very much and think of him every single day. I’ve been reflecting on how far I’ve come when I thought early on that I would not be able to exist and function in the next hour. My plan was to no longer participate in life. I was just existing – waiting for the moment I would die.

Well, life has forced itself upon me. We’ve remained very close as a family and I’ve walked beside my sister-in-law all this time. My heart has ached so badly for her. She lost the love of her life and her children lost a fantastic dad. She recently introduced us to a very nice man who she’s dating. He is crazy about her. She told him that Paul’s family is her family. We’re a package deal and he doesn’t seem intimidated by that. She thought she would never truly be happy again and now she is. 

I’m happy for her. She is a wonderful person who deserves to be loved and adored. But am I happy? I don’t know. Many days I’m surprised to hear myself laugh or sing along to music that I couldn’t listen to at all for a good year or so.

My precious brother, Paul.

One thing I vowed I’d never do again was dance because that’s something my brother and I, along with our other siblings, would do at every family celebration. You couldn’t get us off the dance floor. Everyone else is back on the dance floor and they want me to join them, but I just can’t. I was telling this to a friend the other day and she said because it’s the one thing you can control.

I don’t want anyone who’s not as far along to think they will always be completely crippled by this terrible thing that has happened. You will always carry your loved one in your heart and the sadness of this great loss, but there are so many ways to ease back into life.

I started by being out in nature. Enjoying the presence of a young child. Finding ways to show compassion and understanding for others who are going through not only this type of loss but so many of life’s other challenges and hardships.

I feel like I’m just rambling now, but I want all of you to know that I’m happy and sad most days and I’m so thankful for this community of people who understand all the above.

Forever Changed

About the Author

Wisdom From Our Community

"Wisdom From Our Community" posts originally appeared on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors and are reprinted with the permission of the authors. Our online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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A Matter of When

“It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.” These are the words that broke me. These words surfaced long before my brother ended his life. For years, I watched my brother – a lighthearted, smart, adventurous boy – disintegrate into someone I could no longer recognize. His mind took over his very being and, in the end, there was nothing to be done.

This wasn’t for a lack of trying. Not just for me or those closest to him, but for himself as well. Every holiday, every big celebration, and in all actuality, every moment of his life. He tried. His heart wanted to be with us. He wanted to see his family and friends. He wanted to be there. He wanted to work hard, find love, and settle down, but it wasn’t easy for him. He battled inner demons at every turn. Despite living hours away, he always made his best effort to be around. He constantly sent invites to join him for snowboarding or to take a simple 30-minute break to have ice cream together.

Valerie and Adam (AKA Georgie), Thanksgiving 2012

He came to every holiday, birthday, and graduation that he could. Yet, there was always a faint voice in the back of his head telling him he was unloved, that he would never amount to anything, and that he would never find himself where he wanted to be. For him, our family get-togethers quickly turned dark – often to the point he would want to disappear – and many times he did. We would find ourselves wondering where he was, only to realize he had just hopped in the car and left without a single goodbye.

The darkness and anxiety I speak of aren’t born of my own thoughts. These are the words and feelings he expressed to me. Thanksgiving night, two years before his fall, was the first time he told me of his intentions. He told me about his despair, his sadness, and the internal struggles he faced. He told me he had been considering ending his own life and that the only reason he couldn’t was that he was a coward. He told me that he knew he’d never do it because of his fear of what’s beyond …what’s after.

I tried to help. We all did – his family, friends, co-workers, and girlfriend. We all reached out and begged for him to find help, but in the end, the war that raged inside of him wasn’t going to end. Battle after battle after battle. It took its toll.

One by one family members came to me. “Val, we’ve done everything we can. Yes, there is a chance it will happen, but there is nothing more we can do to help.” My mom, my dad, my sister, my oldest brother. Everyone told me about the possibility. Not even of the possibility, but the inevitability. It wasn’t a question of if, it was a matter of when.

For many, suicide is preventable. It is born of traumatic events. The loss of work, family, or some other deeply saddening event or experience – and sometimes, we can help. Yet there are other times, that little can be done. Sometimes a person must help themselves but can’t or won’t. For some, it is premeditative and planned. It’s born of addiction, mental illness, and a combination of all life throws at you. Sometimes it’s thought about for years.

It hurts and breaks us to know the inevitable is coming and is out of our control. The long, slow trauma leaves us shattered in a million pieces, obsessing about “what ifs and if only’s” but sometimes, it’s not a matter of if. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of when. 

I Know I am Getting Better

After ten months, I know I am getting better because:

  • I cry much less. 
  • I can tell people in a matter-of-fact way that my brother died by suicide.
  • I laugh.
  • I can think about other things.
  • I have reached back out to my friends. When my brother died, I shut the world out.
  • I baked I-don’t-know-how-many-dozens of cookies for a church fete.
  • My iPod and I have walked miles and miles this fall. In this late fall, I see the beauty of nature shutting down for the winter: the brilliant yellow leaves in the sunshine, the huge number of acorns the mighty oaks gave up, and, of course, those deep blue autumn skies here in the northeast.
  • I no longer drag myself through the supermarket in a fog.
  • I am so much less angry.
  • I am beginning to feel some inner peace – almost this Zen-like feeling.
  • I wish I could get back to doing some serious reading, but I’m not there yet. I can do newspapers, but I don’t have the concentration for books.
  • It’s remarkable what we human beings can come back from. I think about my darkest days, and I didn’t think I was going to make it. Now I know I will make it and have a good, productive future life.
  • I am deeply grateful to the people who have helped me. They have helped me cope with breast cancer, the loss of my mother, and the suicide of my brother. What a 15-month period this has been! I now realize I am still standing. That, in itself, is an accomplishment. 

How do you know you are getting better?

Find Your Tradition

It’s so rare to find something uplifting, but it can happen. My brother’s fifth Loss Day was a couple of weeks ago. Five years seems like such a significant milestone. His Loss Day is always really hard. My family and I have never really known the best way to honor him on such a difficult day. But we figured it out this time.

I was browsing through his digital files that were saved on my hard drive so long ago – looking for a picture or something – when I came across a document he had saved with some of his recipes (in his own words!) My brother loved to cook and shared his homemade meals with others.

So on his Loss Day this year, my family and I made a feast of his foods. It was amazing! It was such a sensory experience – smells and tastes – that really made me feel like we had reconnected to him. We all agreed without a doubt that this is the tradition we’ve been looking for. It was such a beautiful way to remember him.

If you have any of your loved one’s recipes or know their favorite foods or restaurants, I recommend using food as a way to reconnect with them!

About the Author

Wisdom From Our Community

"Wisdom From Our Community" posts originally appeared on the Alliance of Hope Forum for Suicide Loss Survivors and are reprinted with the permission of the authors. Our online forum transcends time and distance, offering a culture of kindness, hope, and understanding to people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Operating like a 24/7 support group, our forum is supervised by a mental health professional and moderated by a trained team of loss survivors. Members can read and comment, share their stories, and connect with other suicide loss survivors.Read More »

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