Wednesday, February 11, 2009


What's worse--the loss of a sibing, or the loss of a parent? That's not my question, incidentally. It's something I found while googling around with the phrase "sibling loss." Read more here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The question of "worse" is surely disturbing in that, the presumption is that one type of loss is more significant than the other. I have read your book, and I can appreciate how harmful this presumption must be, especially as it fosters the debilitating effects that result from not being allowed to grieve. In exploring the question of how different the experience of loss might be for that of a parent versus that of a sibling, however, I am reminded of the concept of the "fear/shame dynamic" as described by Patricia Love's marital counseling book titled "How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It: Finding Love Beyond Words."

I am sure I won’t do the book justice – though I recommend it strongly because I feel the underlying insight applies to every relationship, not just the troubled marriage. In any event, the basics of this dynamic boil down to something that resembles this: the loss of the “sense of connectedness” as experienced by people in so many troubled marriages is often the result of misreading our partner’s emotional responses due to varying predispositions for feeling either fear or shame. According to the book, the person that tends to react in fear usually worries more about abandonment or not being loved, while the person that tends to react with shame worries more about being seen as a failure. These tendencies have some gender bias, so the stereotype of a clingy, neglected wife and a distant, emotionally withdrawn husband may jump to mind. A very simplistic illustration in the book includes this wife (fearful of abandonment) as she insists that her husband (feels like he can’t do anything right) talk with her about his inability to show the same amount of affection to her as he did when they were first married. From such a husband’s point of view this interaction would likely elicit feelings of yet another failure on his part – instead of protecting her, he’s unknowingly hurt her deeply. As result, he may very well withdraw even further. From this wife’s perspective, such an interaction would be equally disappointing – even though she’s spelled out her needs and revealed her darkest fears, her husband instead is reading it as just another criticism. She would be left every bit as vulnerable, if not more so. The disconnect between what is said and what is heard is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.

Anyway, I had hoped to keep this brief, given that the book I am referencing is somewhat off-topic. What particularly interests me is how this dynamic fits in with the experience of a sibling’s death and the surviving families as described by you and the many people you interviewed in your book, “The Empty Room: Surviving the Loss of a Brother or Sister at Any Age.” I would imagine that the feelings would tend much more toward that of shame amongst parents (“this was surely my fault somehow”) versus any tendency to worry about not being loved or being abandoned. On the other hand, for surviving siblings I couldn’t guess whether there would be a stronger tendency for fear of abandonment (“isn’t there anyone left that cares about me?”) or the shame of failure (“shouldn’t it have been me?”). I remember that some of the siblings in your book experienced the loss somewhat similarly depending on whether or not the lost sibling was older or younger (their protector or the one they protected). In any case, I would suspect that such circumstances would mean that either tendency would be experienced at a heightened level. It would seem that families that experience such a loss face an especially daunting challenge because the fear and shame of each family member is manifested so strongly and differently – in addition to recognizing and overcoming these manifestations within themselves, they must recognize and cope with them as manifested in the other members of their family.

Working through these obstacles within the context of a marriage is not easy, though I can attest that the aforementioned book was very helpful and incredibly rewarding. At the risk of repeating myself, I think overcoming these obstacles in the context of the death of a sibling would be HUGELY challenging. Given your expertise however, it did occur to me that this particular book might be a worthy avenue of investigation for you as you continue your sibling research. Anyway, I am grateful to you for your book on the subject and the other blogs you’ve worked on – it is very clear that you’ve been a valuable resource to many other families that are enduring such a loss. I also wish the best to you, your mom, your dad and your brother Ted.

Mike in Austin