The few studies that have examined the impact of sibling loss have highlighted a devastating impact that ripples outwards through all areas of life.
You might say this is the case for any group that has suffered a significant loss – and you’d be correct. However, there’s reason to believe that suicide-bereaved siblings suffer in ways that are unique to them.
Of particular concern is the way in which this suffering has the possibility to destroy future possibilities.
Not many researchers have studied this, so admittedly we’re going back millennia in academic terms. But the few studies that have focused exclusively on sibling suicide bereavement show that if sibling loss is a rough, uncertain, painful and dark path to navigate, losing a sibling to suicide is akin to watching the path ahead disappear under an avalanche. It’s a cascade of trauma and confusion, piled deep and dangerous.
In a study which is now very old, a researcher named Ariate Rakic conducted interviews with two groups of people – one who had lost a brother or sister to illness, and another who had lost a sibling to suicide. Ultimately, Rakic noted many differences between the two groups but one she called particularly ‘striking’ was the path their lives had taken since the loss.
Even though they shared many demographic similarities, the sibling survivor group – at least, in Rakic’s view – were operating at well below their potential. While the other bereaved siblings were taking positive, active steps towards a secure future, “all the siblings in the suicide group … envisioned a narrow range of possibilities for success, and blamed themselves for the decisions and choices that proved to be detrimental to their lives.”
She also noted the tendency for sibling survivors to enter painful, unsatisfying romantic pairings, which ultimately ended in them feeling abandoned and betrayed yet again. “Many surviving siblings ended up forming relationships with individuals who were basically self-centered and insensitive to other peoples' needs.” They had low expectations from the people they loved, and did not expect them to consider their feelings and wishes. Though they had some awareness of how unsatisfying their relationships were, they felt that aspiring to emotionally fulfilling partnerships was unrealistic or impossible for them.
By contrast, Rakic’s siblings who lost a brother or sister to fatal illness described their friendships and romantic pairings favorably and did not express major dissatisfaction. They felt hopeful about their futures – in work, friendship, family, love, and life as a whole.
So what’s going on?
We can only speculate rather than draw particularly concrete conclusions. Rakic’s study was published more than 25 years ago, and society has changed dramatically since then. Additionally, it was based on interviews with a small handful of people, and it may not be appropriate to assume her conclusions hold true for all people who lose a sibling to suicide. But there’s little else to draw on, so the research bears examining regardless.
Here are some possible contributing factors that could explain why losing a sibling to suicide has such an impact compared to other types of loss:
Stigma and invisibility. Research into suicide-bereaved siblings has shown that they typically don’t receive a lot of support within their families (though this is nobody’s ‘fault’ in particular, as everyone is struggling so much). They feel immense pressure not to show their pain – particularly in front of their parents – and this generally leads people to assume they’re doing better than they really are. Additionally, suicidally bereaved families tend to receive less support than families that lose a member to ‘natural’ causes. We’re social animals, and even the most introverted and avoidant amongst us need human contact. When we’re traumatized, connection with empathic others usually plays a huge role in healing. But because of the circumstances around the death, siblings fade into the background and tend not to receive the support and understanding they badly need to make sense of what has happened.
Guilt and self-recrimination. Rakic felt that guilt likely played a large role in the suicide-bereaved siblings’ plight, though how it manifested varied from survivor to survivor.
Siblings bereaved by fatal illness were likely to express that ‘everything possible’ was done to save the life of their brother or sister. They did not dwell on the thought that anyone was responsible for the death, nor that a different course of action would have resulted in a different outcome.
The suicide-bereaved siblings, on the other hand, felt responsible for the loss, and were wracked with guilt for having ‘failed’ to save their lost brother or sister. Many “tormented themselves with self-reproach,” and Rakic suspected they did not believe they deserved to be loved and successful in life because of this unforgivable failure.
An earlier study, which found similar relational patterns in sibling suicide survivors, seems to add weight to this idea. This study found that siblings who carried the most guilt around death typically engaged in the most dysfunctional and self-destructive romantic relationships.
Repetition, repetition, repetition. Many psychoanalytic theorists believe we re-create painful experiences over and over again – both because we’re drawn to the familiar, and because we hope to ‘fix’ the situation that originally hurt us. Some sibling suicide researchers have wondered if this phenomenon helps explain why siblings seem to be drawn to relationships in which they are abandoned or betrayed. Maybe this time will be different – maybe this time, I’ll be good enough to make them stay.
Of course, this dynamic of abandonment has little to do with being 'good enough', and everything to do with the emotional unavailability or selfishness of the love interest. Love isn't something you need to work hard to 'win' - but it's hard to see that when you're in a place of guilt and doubt about your worth and lovability.
‘It wasn’t OK’ (so I won’t be either). Something that emerged in my own research, which requires further investigation, was the possibility that this underperforming and outright self-destructiveness may be linked to a (mostly unconscious) wish to ‘punish’ the lost sibling.
I came to this conclusion myself in therapy following my own brother’s suicide. Obviously, my functioning was impaired by the shock and pain and upheaval afterward, and this put me at a disadvantage in terms of being able to look after myself well. But months passed – then years – and I continued to make risky, impulsive, and downright stupid choices. I knew better – but I never did better.
As I explored my inability to be kind and wise with myself in therapy, I realized something important which explained why I felt so stuck (and helped me, finally, to change). I knew my brother would have assumed I’d ‘be OK eventually’ following his suicide. Therefore, part of me felt like ‘being OK’ (or much worse, being happy or successful) would prove him right. I was damn well going to be damaged beyond repair, and the wreckage of my life would serve as proof of the unrelenting awfulness of his last act.
But in the end, I realized, it was unrelentingly awful no matter what happened to me.
It would still be unrelentingly awful in five years, in ten years, in 50 years, on the last day of my own life.
My brother's suicide completely destroyed the path my life was on, but I didn't have to give up hope of ever finding a way forward to a full, worthy life.
If it's possible for us as siblings to find a way to let go of self-blame, self-destruction, and guilt, it's important for us to do so. As Rakic pointed out, the suicide-bereaved siblings in her study doubted their ability to have a good future. It's possible those beliefs were grounded in evidence of how difficult it was to cope with this new, disturbing, painful reality. But it's just as possible that these low expectations and pessimism become self-fulfilling prophecies.
My therapist once said to me, very gently, "Haven't you lived through enough pain and sadness already in the things you had no say over? You don't have to keep hurting. Not in the ways you have a choice about."
Those words were a gift, and I would like to pass them on to you.
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