The Long-Term Effects of Separation and Loss on Sibling relationships. By Keith White  

The effects of traumas associated with separation and loss on individual children and young people are well-known, and those seeking to help, whether social workers, residential carers, or counsellors and therapists, usually have strategies that they employ when they come alongside. A notable example is Building the Bonds of Attachment, by Dan Hughes.

I wonder however whether there is either an awareness of, or resources, to help siblings who have been all suffered trauma and loss, in their relationships with each other.  Put simply, how might their mutual loss have affected the bonds and attachment between them not only during their childhoods, but in later life?

On reflection I realised that we are in an unusually privileged position to comment on this at Mill Grove, for two reasons.  In the first case because we have been blessed with unusually spacious accommodation, we have able to welcome and care for many groups of siblings over the decades.  On occasions we have received up to seven children from the same family or household.  Secondly, we have remained committed to and in contact with many of these right through their lives.

My experience of living with and caring for children during their childhoods, and then listening to them in their adulthood has left me in little doubt that their relationships as siblings have often been strained and difficult.  Let me give some examples from the many available.

Three girls who lost both their parents when they were young, have always found their relationships with each other tortuous.  One is withdrawn and has resisted any contact for months, even years, at a time.  Another is depressed and feels she does not get the support she expects and would like from the other two.  The third occupies the middle ground while struggling with her own feelings.

Five of a group of six siblings sharing the same biological parents, finds one impossible to get on with.  And the others have tended to pair off.  One told me recently, following three deaths in his grown up family and major surgery for cancer that he rang a brother for a chat hoping for support and was told “You ought to be over this by now”.

A brother and sister who came and left Mill Grove at the same time have drifted apart and have had no contact at all for years.  One feels this keenly, finding it inexplicable.

A younger sister takes care to find out how her older siblings are, but finds it is a one-way street: they don’t want to know her.

A family of six siblings is gregarious and they regularly meet up, even though they are spread around the UK, but one of the six is out of touch with all the rest.

Another group of five siblings have scapegoated the youngest sister….

When discussing this with Ruth, my wife, we realised that the list could be extended virtually indefinitely.  Although there are exceptions, a pattern was worrying clear: relationships between siblings who have all suffered separation and loss, are often fragile and unpredictable.  Now it needs to be acknowledged that sibling rivalry, and difficulties in relationships between sisters and brothers, are not the preserve of those who have suffered trauma and loss.  In so called ordinary or normal families there are often tensions, and broken relationships.  But is there, I wonder, something going on that deserves attention?

My sense is that there is, and so here is a working hypothesis, representing work in progress, based on the steady supply of evidence that I receive. The siblings who I have known over several decades have all at one time or another shared with me how deeply their separation from their parent or parents affected them, and how they have struggled to understand and make sense of what might have been going on, including the cause.  In several cases, we have been able to work out together some of their survival strategies.  Often there is a sense of guilt caused by a feeling, unconscious for much of the time that they might have been one of the reasons for the break-up in the first place. And when there was a return to one of the parents (as there often, but not always was) some years later, this was associated with very mixed feelings, and often went badly.  This exacerbated tensions between siblings, and sometimes led to a parting of their ways.

The initial separation from kith and kin often resulted in relations with the siblings’ extended family being attenuated, thus cutting them off for potential sources of understanding and empathy.

In the light of this, here is a tentative suggestion as to what might have been going on in many cases.  The loss caused by separation has been deep, and the siblings have usually tried to cope with this by themselves.  As with those serving in the armed forces during conflicts, there is often a reluctance, even inability to share their experiences with anyone else including their closest relatives.

It is therefore no surprise to have discovered that during their childhoods, the siblings rarely, if ever, talked about this with each other.  Unconsciously there may have been a feeling in each sibling that the other(s) had been the cause of the separation. Or that others did not feel the pain of loss and separation as much as the one struggling with his or her own feelings of anxiety and depression.  A pattern has built up whereby each child cuts off from the others as a survival strategy, conscious or unconscious. Later in life, things are too emotionally charged and fragile to begin to build bridges and explore feelings together.  Where the siblings start their own families, these are often sealed off from each other as if to avoid contamination of emotions.  This may sound dramatic, even overdone, but the thoughts and feelings shared with me are of this intensity and nature.

There is not space here to develop this line of analysis.  But in the process, I have come to see that understanding what is going on between such closely related people involves complicated issues of guilt, blame, and shame.  My hunch is that the last of these three may be the most universal.

If this is so, and I would appreciate comments from readers on the subject, what might our strategies be?  At the outset I suggest this dynamic receives proper attention.  One of the ways of dealing with it might be some form of groupwork, even family therapy.  It is apparent that the problems identified will not be resolved without some form of intervention.  Each sibling will find this difficult, but there are individual wounds as well as wounds in the sibling relationships, so each and all may benefit if this is done sensitively and in an informed way.

If this has not been available during childhood, then the question arises: what can be done later in life?  My experience here is not encouraging.  It seems that that trying to change behaviour and patterns that have become entrenched over decades, is nigh on impossible.  It is that serious.  So, the task in later life, may well need to focus on damage limitation.  So, one can be there for each individual sibling who wishes to share, and sometimes for more than one, whether they are in contact with each other or not.  In doing so there is a tacit acceptance of the unfortunate status quo.

In the process, as intimated earlier, it may be possible to discuss survival or defence strategies that have been employed unconsciously.  If so, this can lead on occasions to insights into how another sibling might have been trying to cope. An example is of a person who had lived at Mill Grove while I was a teenager.  Recently, he had suffered three deaths of people close to him within a matter of months.  He contacted his older brother who told him that he should have got over it by now. I was able to suggest that the older brother could well be still suffering from the loss of his home and family five decades later; and that he might be unable to come to terms with the death of an in-law two years ago, where he had felt in some way guilty, though objectively there was no reason to do so.

This assumes of course that there will still be contact and relationships all these years later, and this is one of the great benefits of the continuity of Mill Grove since 1899.  In some ways what is happening is what would take place in an ordinary, good-enough extended family through the generations.  Which takes us back to the beginning: the problem is that these groups of siblings lacked this sustained relationship with their blood relatives.  This was the starting point of the long-term effects of the initial separation and loss.


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