This story was originally published on Jan. 29, 2020 and is being republished in light of the Kobe and Gianna Bryant Memorial.
In the wake of the tragic helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, much of the media focus has thus far been on Vanessa — Kobe’s widow and now-bereaved mom, who must not only grieve over her husband and child, but “be the strong one,” as a source recently noted, for her three surviving daughters.
Not as much attention has yet been paid to what the surviving children must bear — not only over the loss of their father, but of their sister, too. It’s that latter type of grief, over a sibling, that’s often referred to as “forgotten” or “invisible,” despite its crushing complexity.
“It’s so minimized,” Heidi Horsley, a psychologist and sibling loss expert who co-founded the grief resource Open to Hope Foundation, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I think there is definitely a hierarchy in the world of grief and loss. When a sibling dies, the focus is on the parent’s loss. The parents are the focal point, because people feel the worst loss that can happen is the loss of a child.”
Of course, with the multiple-loss trauma of Kobe and Gianna, not to mention their friends, the situation is heartbreakingly specific. “I think the focal point will be ‘Kobe Bryant’s gone,’” says Horsley, whose own brother died many years ago in a car accident, at age 17, along with their cousin. “But the family has lost a child sibling, too.”
According to psychologist and grief expert Joanne Cacciatore, “One of the things that’s unique about sibling loss is that [those children are] made invisible, to some extent, and tend to be overlooked in the family bereavement experience.”
She adds, “Also, I think their lives change in so many ways that people miss — not only has their sibling died, but the adults in their lives have dramatically changed because of this tragedy. The house becomes a house of pain. And that’s lot — for a young person to go from a ‘happy, normal, well-adjusted childhood’ to this, where everything gets turned upside-down and inside-out. It’s layered and nuanced in ways that others often don’t perceive.”
“Teenage years are the hardest”
Because she’s Kobe’s oldest daughter, 17-year-old Natalia — as compared to Bianka, 3, and Capri, just 7 months — will bear the brunt of the grief, particularly over her sister Gianna. And that loss might be compounded because of her age, Horsley, author of Teen Grief Relief, explains.
“Teenage years are the hardest time to lose a sibling,” she says. “That’s because it’s when you are separating from the family. And when you lose a sibling, you get pulled back into the family.”
Further, says Horsley, “No teenager wants to be seen as different, or even as having too much attention. You want to blend in, but having the death of a sibling — and father — puts you almost under a microspore. You want to keep one foot in your normal teenage life, but you’re not a regular teenager anymore.”
It can often be tricky for adults within a bereaved family’s support system to know how to best offer their help to a child or adolescent who is grieving a sibling, let alone a parent. But according to Horsley, it shouldn’t be impossible.
“You want to acknowledge but not to over-acknowledge. While they want acknowledgment, they also want breaks,” she advises. Further, she stresses, “Do not ask the child to be strong for the parent. We will do it, but then we’ll hide our own grief.”
It’s also helpful to know that teenagers, in particular, “grieve in small stretches,” she says, “and that’s adaptive — to not feel completely and totally overwhelmed by it. So, it may not look like they’re grieving, but they are.”
That’s one of the reasons it can be hard for some grown-ups to know how to best comfort bereaved children, according to Cacciatore. “If one of the siblings is preverbal or doesn’t have good articulation skills, then it’s not likely they will be able to communicate, ‘Look, I’m really hurting here,’ in a way that adults can understand,” she explains. Instead, she says, the expression of grief tends to be more behavioral, and should be paid attention to.
Pay attention to subtle signs — and convey compassion
“So instead of articulating, they might regress, become clingier, and more emotional about things that don’t seem related to the loss — maybe easily frustrated when playing with toys, or aggressive with classmates,” she says. “If adults are not perceptive, then they are not connecting it to the emotional upheaval of the loss.”
With older children like Natalia, who can likely articulate feelings of loss, whether they do or not depends largely on the “family-system style” of communication, Cacciatore explains. “If it’s open communication, then oftentimes children do feel comfortable speaking about their sadness, pain, confusion, anger.”
It’s the less expressive families that concern her most, she says, “because the child’s narrative is shut down, and their capacity to share is shut down, because the family system style is avoidant — pictures come off the wall and get put away, children are explicitly forbidden from talking about the person who died. And that’s really deleterious in the long term.”
In fact, says Cacciatore, author of Bearing the Unbearable, “I’ve worked with adults in their 40s, 50s, 60s … who lost a sibling in childhood. And the pain they suffered in silence is still palpable years and decades later. It’s very important that the family itself gets good support when a tragedy happens, so people can come together and learn how to communicate in open and healthy ways about distress, grief, guilt, whatever comes up.”
And while therapy can of course be helpful, Cacciatore, who runs a therapeutic care farm in Sedona, Ariz., where bereaved adults and children can work through their grief by working with rescued animals, stresses the importance of “meeting the child where the child is,” and of being careful to not force the child into anything they’re not ready for. “Some may not have the emotional skills yet to deal with whatever [a therapist is] trying to evoke,” she says. “It’s why I love the outdoor nature-based therapy, which gives them space to feel what they feel without the pressure of the four walls.”
As a family outsider wanting to lend support, she, like Horsley, stresses the importance of acknowledging the loss, and of expressing compassion to the sibling explicitly. And if a young person seems uncomfortable with the attention, saying something like, “I’m fine,” it’s OK.
“The idea is not to extract information,” Cacciatore says, “just to convey caring.”
And, adds Horsley, who was 20 when her teenage brother died, it’s to really try and understand how huge a sibling loss can be.
“We walk through life with our siblings, and expect to grow old together,” she says. “80 to 100 percent of your lifetime is spent with siblings,” so when one is gone, “you’ve lost your past, present, future — everything.”
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