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Featured this Month:

Difficult Sibling Relationships and Suicide Grief
Saturday, November 01, 2014 by Cynthia Waderlow, MSE, LCSW
It can be challenging to think about how an adolescent grieves the suicide death of a sibling if that relationship was troubled by intense issues of rivalry and conflict.  The negativity and damage within the relationship may not have been obvious, or may have been minimized by other family members.  Such relationship difficulties are more common than one might expect, and pose unique challenges for the adolescent’s grief and subsequent healing. 

From birth, primary attachments and early identity experiences are set in motion as a child takes in the multiple reflections that come from parents and siblings.  We recognize sibling rivalry, and understand how children learn to compete for attention, individual needs and empowerment through skill mastery within their families.  We see resilience when triumphs and losses are transient, with fluctuating periods of mutuality and sharing between siblings.  Racing to claim the passenger seat is normal sibling rivalry.  Pummeling your brother for the TV remote device on a regular basis is not.  Systematic ridicule and physical or verbal abuse go beyond normal sibling rivalry.  
 Families struggle when sibling relationships become entrenched in conflict and power plays that can deteriorate into patterns of cruelty.   There can be a number of situations that may explain a continuum of unhealthy sibling interactions. The dynamic can also develop over time when parent flexibility and emotional resources are stretched, leaving a sibling to feel chronically left out.  The associated anger can get displaced onto other family members.   Children react according to their understanding of whether they are accepted as they are.  When one child perceives emotional inequity, a sibling can be the target of jealousy or resentment, particularly a sibling who seems to be aligned with the caregiver’s idea of the way to behave.  Families are relationship systems where all of the family members affect each other.  

As children develop in relation to parents, sisters and brothers, powerful messages are systematically exchanged about how each child is viewed. When physical intimidation or put-downs become a pattern in a sibling relationship, each child will bear unresolved conflict and issues of self-esteem.  When death, and particularly suicide, interrupts a sibling relationship that has been troubled in this way, grief is complicated by the previous losses and negativity that each sibling took in.

Adolescence is a period for embarking on individual and shared processes that develop personal identity.   Much of the way we understand ourselves is based on our relationship to others, and history of severe conflict with one’s sibling can have harmful effect on the adolescent’s developing self.    We would want to support the bereaved sibling in making sense of the conflict, to emerge with skills to create a healthier sense of self.   With the support of grief counseling, this would involve exploration of the difficult relationship to the deceased sibling as an important aspect of their grief process. Retrieval of positive memories can balance the more negative and painful recollections.  The feelings that may have held the conflicted siblings in their roles would be explored. Did the conflict relate in some way to parents or to other family members?  The negative messages can be examined for distortions, for how one coped with, or compensated for them.  How did the conflict affect the surviving sibling’s self-esteem?  Had one or the other sibling held a secret for the other?  Is it possible to acknowledge specific resentments and jealousies?  These may be mixed with unexpressed admiration for the sister or brother who died.    And who or what continues to set off feelings and memories of the conflict?  Undergirding the exploration, the surviving adolescent will interpret the sibling’s impulse to end his or her life.  In keeping with the complex nature of the troubled relationship as well as the death, the questions that support conflict resolution within the grief process are challenging, but they can be adapted to a range of developmental levels and revisited over time in the grief process.  “Death forces us to dissolve and re-create the deepest human bonds that form us” (Shapiro, 1994, p. 5).

 We suggest that parents need to understand how the harmful sibling rivalry, the issues of resentment, jealousy and competition were sustained and tolerated within the family.  How did it affect everyone?  Family members may need to talk about the effects of the conflict as they mourn the death.  Does the recognition of the painful relationship engender feelings of guilt in grieving family members?    Do they experience guilt related to not having been able to stop the sibling conflict?   We should not underestimate the difficulty of a young person’s grief related to unresolved sibling conflict, and the need for family support in addressing it.  Shapiro validates the challenges to adolescents who face such a loss.  She cautions that, “We can risk the potentially destabilizing exploration of our own and our family’s anguish only when there is sufficient access to resources that support the safe reestablishment of stable functioning” (p. 15).  Emotional safety and acceptance of all feelings are necessary conditions in the family for anyone addressing complex grief issues.   This grief work can be addressed in pieces over time, extending into adulthood.  Because adolescents face many competing developmental tasks, it is usually beneficial to do this type of grief work in doses.   But initial acknowledgment of the difficulties of the sibling relationship at the time of the loss, and validation of the unique challenges that will be confronted in the aftermath are deeply compassionate steps that can be taken by parents who want to support their grieving child.   

This type of adolescent grief will look much different from that of the parents who have lost a child to suicide.  The surviving sibling may feel a need to draw closer to the family, or pull away with less influence from the family, as they assimilate their crisis of attachment and identity. We always recommend counseling and parent consultation for children facing complex grief.

Source:
Shapiro, Ester (1994). Grief as a family process.  New York, London:  The Guilford Press.


Archives:

Difficult Sibling Relationships and Suicide Grief
Saturday, November 01, 2014 by Cynthia Waderlow, MSE, LCSW
It can be challenging to think about how an adolescent grieves the suicide death of a sibling if that relationship was troubled by intense issues of rivalry and conflict.  The negativity and damage within the relationship may not have been obvious, or may have been minimized by other family members.  Such relationship difficulties are more common than one might expect, and pose unique challenges for the adolescent’s grief and subsequent healing. 

From birth, primary attachments and early identity experiences are set in motion as a child takes in the multiple reflections that come from parents and siblings.  We recognize sibling rivalry, and understand how children learn to compete for attention, individual needs and empowerment through skill mastery within their families.  We see resilience when triumphs and losses are transient, with fluctuating periods of mutuality and sharing between siblings.  Racing to claim the passenger seat is normal sibling rivalry.  Pummeling your brother for the TV remote device on a regular basis is not.  Systematic ridicule and physical or verbal abuse go beyond normal sibling rivalry.  
 Families struggle when sibling relationships become entrenched in conflict and power plays that can deteriorate into patterns of cruelty.   There can be a number of situations that may explain a continuum of unhealthy sibling interactions. The dynamic can also develop over time when parent flexibility and emotional resources are stretched, leaving a sibling to feel chronically left out.  The associated anger can get displaced onto other family members.   Children react according to their understanding of whether they are accepted as they are.  When one child perceives emotional inequity, a sibling can be the target of jealousy or resentment, particularly a sibling who seems to be aligned with the caregiver’s idea of the way to behave.  Families are relationship systems where all of the family members affect each other.  

As children develop in relation to parents, sisters and brothers, powerful messages are systematically exchanged about how each child is viewed. When physical intimidation or put-downs become a pattern in a sibling relationship, each child will bear unresolved conflict and issues of self-esteem.  When death, and particularly suicide, interrupts a sibling relationship that has been troubled in this way, grief is complicated by the previous losses and negativity that each sibling took in.

Adolescence is a period for embarking on individual and shared processes that develop personal identity.   Much of the way we understand ourselves is based on our relationship to others, and history of severe conflict with one’s sibling can have harmful effect on the adolescent’s developing self.    We would want to support the bereaved sibling in making sense of the conflict, to emerge with skills to create a healthier sense of self.   With the support of grief counseling, this would involve exploration of the difficult relationship to the deceased sibling as an important aspect of their grief process. Retrieval of positive memories can balance the more negative and painful recollections.  The feelings that may have held the conflicted siblings in their roles would be explored. Did the conflict relate in some way to parents or to other family members?  The negative messages can be examined for distortions, for how one coped with, or compensated for them.  How did the conflict affect the surviving sibling’s self-esteem?  Had one or the other sibling held a secret for the other?  Is it possible to acknowledge specific resentments and jealousies?  These may be mixed with unexpressed admiration for the sister or brother who died.    And who or what continues to set off feelings and memories of the conflict?  Undergirding the exploration, the surviving adolescent will interpret the sibling’s impulse to end his or her life.  In keeping with the complex nature of the troubled relationship as well as the death, the questions that support conflict resolution within the grief process are challenging, but they can be adapted to a range of developmental levels and revisited over time in the grief process.  “Death forces us to dissolve and re-create the deepest human bonds that form us” (Shapiro, 1994, p. 5).

 We suggest that parents need to understand how the harmful sibling rivalry, the issues of resentment, jealousy and competition were sustained and tolerated within the family.  How did it affect everyone?  Family members may need to talk about the effects of the conflict as they mourn the death.  Does the recognition of the painful relationship engender feelings of guilt in grieving family members?    Do they experience guilt related to not having been able to stop the sibling conflict?   We should not underestimate the difficulty of a young person’s grief related to unresolved sibling conflict, and the need for family support in addressing it.  Shapiro validates the challenges to adolescents who face such a loss.  She cautions that, “We can risk the potentially destabilizing exploration of our own and our family’s anguish only when there is sufficient access to resources that support the safe reestablishment of stable functioning” (p. 15).  Emotional safety and acceptance of all feelings are necessary conditions in the family for anyone addressing complex grief issues.   This grief work can be addressed in pieces over time, extending into adulthood.  Because adolescents face many competing developmental tasks, it is usually beneficial to do this type of grief work in doses.   But initial acknowledgment of the difficulties of the sibling relationship at the time of the loss, and validation of the unique challenges that will be confronted in the aftermath are deeply compassionate steps that can be taken by parents who want to support their grieving child.   

This type of adolescent grief will look much different from that of the parents who have lost a child to suicide.  The surviving sibling may feel a need to draw closer to the family, or pull away with less influence from the family, as they assimilate their crisis of attachment and identity. We always recommend counseling and parent consultation for children facing complex grief.

Source:
Shapiro, Ester (1994). Grief as a family process.  New York, London:  The Guilford Press.