How to Mourn a Sibling Relationship

A short while ago, we did a video podcast on the tasks of mourning with regards to sibling estrangement. It continues to be one of the most important videos I produced, due to the fact that there’s so little out there with regards to mourning the loss of a sibling relationship. While we can look at different stages, there seems to be much talk about the emotions associated with grief, but less about what to actually do with them.

What a number of us could use would be a roadmap towards grieving and bereavement, such that we can identify where we’re at, and what we are working on concerning our lack of relationship with our sibling. Here are those four steps that I’ve adapted from Worden’s tasks of mourning.

#1: To accept the reality of the loss:

This particular step has to do with recognizing that denial can prevent us from experiencing the sense of loss. It can manifest by numbing ourselves from overwhelming feelings that can cause pain, regret, and hardship. This is a defense mechanism that we all potentially have. But pushed to the extreme, it can cause us to put away objects, avoid places that remind of us of our estranged sibling, or even to avoid people who know them. There is a concept called “middle knowledge”, which comes from existential philosophy. It means to know and not know at the same time. Applied to mourning, it can mean to believe and not believe simultaneously. We all go through this ambiguous loss of a relative still living, and yet, having them voluntarily choose not to have a relationship with us, which can affect us at varying degrees. Whether we deny it or not is what is important to remember here.

#2: To Process the Pain of Grief

If we don’t learn to deal with difficult feelings, they can come back with vengeance, and cause us to have to work harder at processing them at a later time, sometimes in therapy. This becomes more of a challenge to address in our private lives, especially if family has been contributing to the problem, by enabling difficult behaviors that end up in power struggles with other members and create otherwise toxic situations. It takes courage to look at feelings of loss, and the ensuing feelings of anger, guilt, depression, and loneliness that can likely occur. A good exercise to do is to practice “what’s in the box.”

By imagining that your feelings are held in a box, you can choose to explore them from a distance that you’re comfortable with. You can define just what that feeling is showing you through words, sensations, and other associations. Does it feel heavy? Does is feel hot? Cold? Volatile? Prickly? If you get close, what happens? If you give it a voice, what does it say? Can you talk with it? If you breathe with it for just a few moments, what happens? Does it grow? Diminish? Feel more acknowledged? It’s ok to dive in, and come back up and write about your experience. This is a type of exercise used in Emotion Focused Therapy. This is an exercise that you can also do with a qualified therapist, as with the Empty Chair, which uses active imagination to get beyond things left unsaid, or feeling stuck.

(**As a note to remember, if it’s too unbearable to do, then cease doing it, or wait until you feel able to do so.)

#3: To Adjust to a World Without our Sibling

According to Worden, Three areas of adjustment need to be looked at with regards to the loss of a relationship. These would be the external adjustment, internal adjustment, and the spiritual/value-based adjustment. 

In terms of what’s external, it might be that some skills were never really developed as much within your family, perhaps due to what was said to you, or of you, by your sibling. Thus, you may see yourself try certain activities or handle certain situations that would otherwise have been someone else’s role, or in which you were discouraged from doing.

The successful completion of certain tasks will invariably give us the confidence that we are able to accomplish them, despite the sibling or the family’s words of discouragement. 

This is an opportune time to examine what meaning we can make of this loss of relationship. And this is where inner work can be required.

Regarding internal adjustment,  this is the type of shake-up that can affect our self-esteem, our self-image, and our overall sense of self-efficacy. An example of a goal could be to work on seeing our self more as a whole, rather than as half of something else. People that are enmeshed in families have a harder time seeing themselves as a separate part. And thus, can fall prey to negative influences about themselves, according to their family/sibling’s false perspectives. Eventually, we start to build and carry on in the world according to our own terms instead of theirs. This is the type of internal adjustment that needs to happen to all of us going through this.

In terms of spiritual or value-based adjustments, our values and philosophical beliefs can be shaken up after experiencing a loss of relationship. It’s normal for us to try to make sense of the loss in order to regain a certain control of our lives. Janoff-Bulman said that certain assumptions are challenged when we experience the loss of an important person in our lives: 

1) That the world is basically a good place.

2) That there’s a sense to the world.

3) That you, yourself, are worthy. 

Over time, our beliefs can be modified such that we recognize the fragility of relationships, and the idea that it’s not completely in our control, in that it’s a shared responsibility. 

In this task, either we learn to recognize the changes, and revise what our model of what family or sibling relationships can be, and thus redefine our goals accordingly, or be held in a dilemma that keeps us stuck with a problem that we can’t resolve.

#4: To Reassess the role our Sibling in the Midst of Embarking on a New Life

A good indicator that we’re embarking on a new path for ourselves is the idea that we’re not thinking as much about our sibling, and what they would say to us, but rather fostering an openness at building new relationships. This can mean that we’ve processed some of our past associated to them, and relegated them to a position of a simple memory. Sometimes, this type of work remains to be done in a counselling setting. This can involve finding an appropriate, and small place inside of ourselves for our experience with a sibling, and seeing how we can broaden our perspectives about ourselves, such that we define ourselves differently. What has our sibling taught us NOT to be? How can we be contrary to how they saw us? This can help us to distance ourselves from their fake labels, and move on to actualising and empowering ourselves through healthy relationships, and actions that cause us to grow and learn.

Lastly, grieving is a fluid process. We can go back and rework on these tasks as we wish, just as we can be working on more than one task altogether. It’s good to recognize that we aren’t locked in any of these particular tasks. Here’s hoping this roadmap gives you a pro-active way to move forward in your journey.

Ali-John Chaudhary is a Registered Psychotherapist with offices in Ontario and Quebec. He helps clients going through sibling estrangement issues, and produces YouTube videos on the same subject, with author Fern Schumer Chapman. He also hosts an online support group on zoom for those looking to empower themselves with this rarely discussed subject.

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