Sibling Survivor Guilt
Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
Des Moines, Washington
We know that guilt is a part of the human condition; and it is certainly part of most people's bereavement process. If you experienced survivor guilt when your brother or sister died, join the crowd. Let’s look at some of the common types:
Being alive: Knowing that your brother or sister will never experience life again while you continue to live day after day may bring guilt feelings. It’s that you can’t understand why your sibling’s life was cut short and you continue to live.
Surpassing the age he/she was: Survivor guilt can rear its ugly head when you reach and surpass the age to which your sibling lived…. And every day you live beyond that date may somehow feel strange, unfair, or even a relief…..
Using his things: For some bereaved siblings, using items that belonged to their deceased brother or sister brings comfort and produces feelings of closeness. Others report that using items brings feelings of unworthiness…. When an item inevitably wears out or becomes unusable, you may feel bad that yet another piece of your brother or sister has faded from use. Other people may not understand this significance.
Doing things he/she never got a chance to do: This is a quite common source of survivor guilt and it becomes especially poignant when you see the look on your parents’ face that says, “I wish your brother/sister could have done this or been here for this.”
Experiencing pleasure: Here you are enjoying yourself at a party, on vacation, at the beach, the movies, or out to dinner and suddenly it hits you—”How can I be having fun like this when she can never do this again?” Friends may notice your sudden change of mood, but you may not want to tell them for fear of spoiling their fun.
Seeing your loved ones cry: One of the most difficult aspects of death is watching those around you grieve the loss and realizing there is not much you can do to ease their pain. You may have had the awkward experience of standing there and having the desire to say, “Hey, I’m still here!” You feel guilty for just standing there, being alive. Moreover, you realize your existence at that moment has little effect on easing your loved ones’ grief.
Taking risks you shouldn’t: Have you engaged in activities you knew were unsafe? Yet, because of your brother or sister’s death, you also know better than most people that a young person can die and leave their family devastated. Yet, here you are, taking risks.
Feeling like it should have been you: This is another common one, especially when you are feeling down on yourself or when your parents have criticized you. If you are having thoughts such as these it is very important that you call a friend, a counselor, your parents, the crisis center, or some person who can listen to you. These are thoughts that may indicate you are depressed.
Not doing enough to keep his memory alive: Here you are going through the course of your day when it hits you that you have not been thinking of your brother or sister. Or you find that you aren’t remembering some of the ways he did things. Then you kick yourself for “forgetting.” Do you realize that you will never forget your brother or sister? One way to help with this guilt issue is to begin writing down all your memories. If you’re not a writer, then talk into your voice recorder. It’s a great way to ease this aspect of survivor guilt: stories are the way we best remember.
Before I get to the last type of survivor guilt, I want to offer some ways that you might ease some of your guilt:
1. Go back through the list and circle the ones that are relevant to you.
2. Find someone who will be a good listener and not judge you. Tell this person that you wish to talk about some guilt that you have been feeling around your brother/sister’s death. Most importantly tell this person that you want them to listen without trying to “fix” it, and without saying, “don’t feel guilty.” You simply want someone who will listen. There is something positive about “getting out” your guilt feelings and not letting them eat away at your insides.
3. Next, focus on the positive. Tell your friend all the good things you’ve done since your sibling died. Don’t be modest. Omit the term “I should have” from your vocabulary because you can never fix the past. You can only work on the present.
4. Ask yourself the following question: “What would it take for me to begin to forgive myself?” Then, do something to work on this.
Let’s look at the last type of survivor guilt called: Not living up to his standards. Someone said it well years ago, “The dead have it easy. We are reluctant to say bad things about them and, unlike us, they make no further mistakes in their life.” In other words, your brother/sister was a hard act to follow. So, you feel more guilt because you are not this ideal person. Your challenge is to live up to your own realistic standards, allow yourself to make mistakes, and forgive yourself for not being perfect or living up to some unrealistic standard. A good method to follow the next time you make a “stupid” mistake is to say, “What would I say right now if my best friend made the exact same mistake?” And then say that exact thing to yourself. I challenge you to treat yourself as well as you would your best friend! Besides, I bet that’s what your brother or sister would want for you. Don’t you agree?
Published in The Compassionate Friends Magazine We Need Not Walk Alone, Summer, 1998.