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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: The pain of losing a sibling

Rika Kayama

I encounter a great variety of "household issues" in my examination room. There are a lot of similar patterns, like strains in the relationships between parents and children or grandparents and grandchildren, but one that I don't think many people are aware of is the pain of losing a sibling. In a case where a sibling passed away, the surviving member is left with painful "what ifs" troubling them. To make it clearer, I would like to present a fictitious example.

    University student P lost his brother, four years older than him, when he was in junior high school. His brother had leukemia, and fought against the disease valiantly, but regrettably passed away soon after entering university. Even while battling cancer, P's brother had a bright personality, and his death was a loneliness like a light had been extinguished in the house.

    Their mother still cries often. While P feels sadness losing his beloved older brother, at the same time, he also wonders if his parents have forgotten that he is still there. He even occasionally thinks, "It would have been better if I had gotten sick instead of my brother," and when P fails to get into his top-choice university, he thinks, "Are my parents disappointed that I am not as good as my brother was?" With tears in his eyes, P says to me, "I really have to do my best in place of my brother but..."

    Of course, P's parents truly treasure him. However, the pain of losing their first child is just too much, and there is little room for them to tell P, "We're glad that we have you." In P's heart, the want to try hard enough to make up for the both of them exists in conflict with the resignation that he will never be as good as his brother, and he ends up not knowing what he should do.

    "You are not filling in for your brother. I think you are a completely separate individual," I say to P. "Your parents also surely recognize this. So, it's okay to do the things that you want to do without thinking too much about having to work extra to fill the space left by your brother." When I say this, it brings a shocked expression to P's face.

    The kinder a person is, the more they focus their thoughts on their parents who lost a child, the sibling that passed away, and end up living while having to shoulder a heavy burden. Such empathy is admirable, but there is no need to limit themselves to only that. Parents should also be careful not to say things like a child must work harder to make up for their lost sibling as well. That's because the one who feels that the strongest is the child themselves. I believe that while sharing the burden of grief, parents should tell their surviving child, "You live your life the way you want to," to offer them support.

    I can only pray that it will lighten the painful emotional burden carried by children who have lost a sibling -- even just a little bit. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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