The Place of the Sibling Bond in Psychology

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Sibling Losses in Adulthood

Most of the research on sibling loss ends with adolescence with little attention given to adult sibling
bereavement. Yet an exploratory, hermeneutic study by Cicirelli (1995: 87-105) of relationships between adult siblings in one large family, reveals that brothers and sisters maintain vital connections in adulthood. The author notes that, despite a special closeness among certain siblings, a degree of conflict and tension between certain siblings and parents, and conflict between certain siblings and certain spouses, all the siblings in the study seemed ready “to close ranks, to give help in the event of a crisis or outside threat, as well as to co-operate on family tasks and projects” (1995: 105).
Although bereaved siblings are generally referred to as “forgotten” and “invisible” mourners, perhaps the most neglected in the bereavement literature and possibly also in clinical, social and therapeutic situations, is the sibling who loses a brother or sister in adulthood. With few exceptions (Moss & Moss, 1986; Robinson & Mahon, 1997; Robinson & Pickett, 1996; Pape, 1999, 2002; Rodger & Tooth, 2004; Eaves et al., 2005), adult sibling loss has been ignored.
Some writers provide testimony to the depth of the grief experienced by adult siblings, whose loss is frequently unacknowledged and overlooked. Gorer (1965/1987), who lost his younger brother, Peter, when he himself was 51 years old, wrote poignantly about the impact of this loss. He emphasised that his grief was profound and intense and also described the failure of friends and society in general to understand the depth of his loss or his need to mourn (1965/1987:14). Engel (1975) also described the emotional and physical turmoil that he experienced following the death of his identical twin at the age of 49 years.
In their concept analysis of sibling loss, Robinson and Mahon (1997) outlined three characteristics of adult sibling bereavement: (a) a multi-dimensional bereavement reaction consisting of grief with physical, psychological, and/or behavioural components; (b) a change in self-perception; and (c) a change in world-view, including one’s roles and responsibilities. To a large extent these characteristics align with the themes of Moss and Moss (1986) who ground their findings in the sibling bond. The authors (1986: 399-402) examined 6 interwoven qualitative characteristics of the childhood sibling bond: affective ties, rivalry, family solidarity, assistance, companionship, and socialisation. They argue that although the meanings may be manifested differently in adulthood as the family and social contexts change and the focus shifts to new nuclear families, these characteristics persist for life. For each, some early childhood patterns may persist, and other new behaviours and patterns may develop (1986: 403).
In exploring the loss of a sibling in adulthood, the authors describe three pervasive interrelated themes that underlie adult sibling loss: (a) personal vulnerability towards death; (b) impact on the sense of self; and (c) threat to family unity. These themes will be used to highlight certain aspects of sibling loss in adulthood.

Personal Vulnerability Toward Death

When an adult sibling dies, the survivor may experience a heightened sense of “personal vulnerability toward death” (Moss & Moss, 1986: 408) particularly if the sibling dies unexpectedly or “off-time”. This insight aligns with the findings of Pape (1999), which refer to increased vulnerability following the loss of a sibling and a heightened awareness of finitude that challenges survivors to face existential realities. Because the sibling came from the same family and was in the same generation, the loss may affect the survivor’s perception of how long he or she expects to live (Moss & Moss, 1986: 409). The authors note that the sense of finitude triggers the question: “Am I next to die?” but it can also lead to a more positive acceptance of death. The fear that he or she may die at the same age or from the same cause as the sibling may manifest in somatic (identificatory) symptoms as demonstrated by Engel (1975) following the loss of his twin brother. A higher increase in “personal death awareness” has also been noted in the event of childhood sibling loss (Worden, 1996: 117) and by those who experience the loss of a friend (Oltjenbruns, 1996). As noted by Worden (1996) our own mortality becomes more figural when we are confronted by the death of a contemporary, of a peer. Moss and Moss (1986) elaborate on what they refer to as “off-time” life events, particularly as these relate to sibling loss in adulthood. The authors describe “off-time” life events as events that occur earlier than the normal expected time, and which may be particularly traumatic because they upset the natural “rhythm of the life cycle…” (1986: 409). Survivor siblings may experience the death of a brother or sister as “off-time” in various ways: (a) if the sibling that died is younger than the surviving sibling; (b) if the sibling dies before the parents; (c) if the sibling dies at a younger age than the parents died; (d) if the death occurs at an age younger than the survivor expects to die; (e) and if there are “unfinished developmental tasks” (1986: 410). Moss and Moss conclude that “it may be that all sibling deaths, except those of the very old, are perceived as being off-time, since our own generation – one’s self – is not yet ready to die” (1986: 410).

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1.1. Motivation for the Study
1.2. Overview of the Study
1.3. Aim of the Study
Too Little Acknowledged; Too Little Mourned
3 Introduction
3.1 The Place of the Sibling Bond in Psychology
3.3. The Dimensions of the Sibling Bond
3.4. Concluding Comments
4. Introduction and Definitions
4.1. Theoretical Perspectives on Loss, Grief and Mourning
4.2. Literature and Research Review of Sibling Loss
4.3. Concluding Comments
5. Introduction
5.1. Methodological Orientation
5.2. The Research Process
5.3. Data Gathering
5.4. Data Explication and Analysis
5.5. Concluding Comments
6.1. The Research Question
6.2. The Research Participants
6.3. Data Analysis
6.4. The Findings
6.5. Structural Synthesis
6.6. Essential Structure
7. Introduction
7.1. Findings and Theory
7.2. The Gestalt of Sibling Loss
7.3. The Pattern of Sibling Grief
7.4. Professional Perceptions of Siblings and Sibling Loss
7.5. Cultural Perceptions and Social Practices
7.6. Implications for Psychotherapy
7.7. Revisiting the Method
7.8. Concluding Comments


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