How Can I Move on When My Sibling Dies?

Loss is difficult to handle no matter the circumstance, and the emotions that follow are called grief. Any type of loss can cause grief, but when the loss is in your immediate family or unexpected, the grief may feel insurmountable. If you’re here because you’ve lost a sibling, the first thing we want to say is that we are so sorry for you and your family. The death of a brother or sister will have a lasting impact on your life, but it doesn’t mean your life is over. Let’s talk about how you can healthily grieve your sibling, process their death, and find ways to build a new life for yourself.

Get to Know Your Grief

Grief, famously, comes in five “stages,” which is an idea developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the 1960s. The stages are known as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Learning about those stages can be helpful, and you should check out some of our posts that go into more detail there, but there are other ideas out there about grief, too! In the 1970s a pair of British scholars had the idea to organize grief into four “phases” instead. These phases are:

1. Shock and numbness. This is the part where you’re more focused on surviving than feeling. You’re in go-mode. Maybe you’re busy helping your parents with the funeral arrangements, trying to comfort your other siblings, or maybe you don’t even take the day off from work after you hear the news. You’re on autopilot.

2. Yearning and searching. This is the part with a lot of feelings. Sudden outbursts of anger, weeping, fear, loneliness. Longing for the old times. Wishing your brother or sister could just come back. Feeling guilty for being the one who survived. Wanting desperately to ease the pain you see in your parents and other family members.

3. Disorganization and despair. You’ve given up hope that things could be different. You’ve accepted that they’re gone. You slip into a state of depression, more numbness, and perhaps you pull away from your friends and activities that you used to love. This is the part where you feel like nothing can ever make your pain better.

4. Reorganization and recovery. This is the part where you feel like, just maybe, you could play soccer again. You could see a funny movie and laugh with your friends. You could try something new. You know life will never be the same, but that doesn’t have to mean that life is over.

It’s helpful to learn about these stages/phases so that you can begin to understand and process your feelings, but it’s also important to know that everyone’s journeys through grief are different. Don’t worry if you’re hitting certain stages out of order or more than once. The point is not to get it “right,” but to get a feel for where you are on the grief path each day.

Your Grieving To-do List

It probably feels impossible to know what to do when your sibling dies. There is simply no handbook for how one should proceed when the unthinkable happens. The good news is that means there isn’t really a “wrong” way to go about your grieving. There are, however, healthy and unhealthy ways to tackle the grieving process. In VeryWellMind, Angela Morrow talks about four “tasks” you could focus on to keep yourself on a healthier grieving path:

1. Accept the reality of the loss. The truth is: your brother or sister is gone. The only way to move forward is to face this harsh reality.

2. Work through the pain of grief. Take the time you need to feel all the feelings that come in the wake of this loss. Let yourself cry. Let yourself be angry. Let yourself question why this happened. Avoiding all these thoughts and feelings will only make the grieving process last longer.

3. Adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing. Again, it’s going to take time to get used to your sibling simply not being around. You’re going to have to pass by their old locker. You’re going to have to eat breakfast across from their empty seat. You’re going to have to watch your favorite show alone. You may even, eventually, need to do their old chores or drive their old car. Give yourself time to adjust to that and be patient with yourself when it’s hard.

4. Find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life. Eventually, you’ll find ways to tuck your sibling’s memory away into its own special place in your heart and memory. You’ll carry them with you all the time, but they won’t necessarily be part of everything you do. And that’s okay! You can try new things, enjoy your life, and find meaning in things they aren’t a part of.

You don’t have to forget your brother or sister, and nobody wants you to, but you also don’t have to bear the full weight of your grief every day until the end of time.

Sharing Your Grief

Grief is often overwhelming, and that means you shouldn’t have to do it alone. One of the worst parts of heartbreak is the feeling that nobody could possibly understand the pain you’re in. This process of grieving is something that many people have done, many people are currently doing, and many people will do in the future. You are not the first, and you won’t be the last. Look to others for support and observe how they’ve walked through their grief. Relating to others through a grief support group could be an excellent way to find people who are in your position right now or have been.

Another way people have shared their journeys with grief since the beginning of time is through their art. Poets, painters, singers, dancers… they’ve used their mediums to communicate their grief in ways that may help you feel seen. Writer Christina Patterson shares her own story of losing a sister by interviewing poet Joanne Limburg, who lost her brother to suicide. Both women were able to process their personal grief by relating to each other’s experiences.

Songwriters and poets have often written about grief as well. From Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth to Kenny Chesney, contemporary artists have expressed grief and loss in song over and over again. You may also relate to poetry, such as W.H. Auden’s line from “Funeral Blues,” which says, “The stars are not wanted now; put out everyone….For nothing now can ever come to any good.” The speaker is so saddened by his loss that he can’t even bear to look at the beauty of the stars, a feeling which sounds like one of those phases of grief. Which one do you think it is?

Or maybe you can figure out the stage of grief in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied,” which talks about how the speaker can’t go anywhere that doesn’t remind her of who she’s lost:

There are a hundred places where I fear   
To go, —so with his memory they brim.

Not all the poems about grief are depressing, though! Quite a few poets write about death in a more hopeful way, such as the famous line: “Do not stand at my grave and weep. / I am not there; I do not sleep.” In this poem, Mary Elizabeth Frye points out the way in which those we’ve lost to death are still with us because we can see them in the small details of our day to day lives.
And this one, by Mary Hall, which encourages the grieving to live:

If I should die, and leave you here a while,
Be not like others sore undone,
who keep long vigils by the silent dust and weep.
For my sake, turn again to life, and smile,
Nerving thy heart, and trembling hand to do
Something to comfort weaker hearts than thine,
Complete these dear unfinished tasks of mine,
And I, perchance, may therein comfort you!

Then, in a poem that seems to just be about watching a ship sail so far past the horizon that the speaker can no longer see it, Henry Van Dyke writes, “Gone from my sight. That is all,” as if to say that those who are “gone” will never really be truly gone, regardless of whether we can see them anymore. Rather, they live on, both in your memory and in eternity. As Christians at TheHopeLine, we have great hope that those who have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior go to heaven when they die. We look to passages from the Bible like 1 Thessalonians 4 and Luke 23:43, which promises that those who see the light of Christ “will be with [Him] in paradise.” So take heart that if you and your sibling have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, you can rely on the promise that you will see them again–and THAT kind of hope can be a soothing balm to your grief.  

Sharing Your Life with Your Grief

If these artists sharing their grief and hope resonated with you, perhaps you could try sharing yours in a similar way. Write your thoughts down. Paint them. Sing them. Bake them. Don’t keep them to yourself, or they may become so overwhelming that you forget to live.

It’s important that you accept the fact that your loss will be with you for the rest of your life. That doesn’t mean that you won’t have a good life. You will learn to cope with it but losing someone as close to you as a brother or sister leaves a permanent mark on our hearts. Every once in a while, you’ll see a flower, a movie poster, a burger, or a rock that, for whatever reason, reminds you of your sibling so intensely that a wave of grief will hit you. Ride the wave. Feel the grief. Try to feel grateful that you got to have this moment with your brother or sister, and then go about your day. There’s enough room for both deep sadness and lasting joy in your heart, so allow yourself to experience both.

Learn More About How to Cope With the Loss of a Sibling

If you’re struggling with the loss of a sibling, and you don’t know where to turn, now is a great time to reach out to TheHopeLine. We have Hope Coaches and mentors who will listen to your feelings without judgment and can help you find resources to move through your grief. We want you to know that you’re not alone, and that there is abundant joy in your future, even after deep sorrow like this. Never hesitate to reach out for support!

For more here are some healthy ways to experience and process grief that I hope will help you along the path to healing.

-Jen DeJong

We also have a partner, GriefShare, who is a caring support group of people who will walk alongside you through one of life’s most difficult experiences.

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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