‘Concentric circles of pain’: Losing a sibling to gun violence

Posted at 12:59 PM, Aug 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-12 14:59:16-04

(CNN) — To lose a brother or sister while growing up is painful enough. When it’s the result of gun violence, the weight can seem insurmountable.

It’s a burden often overlooked with every new headline about bullets killing children.

Kathryn “KC” Conway knows the pain these surviving siblings carry. For two decades, she’s worked with the Center for Grief Recovery, a Chicago-based nonprofit that began by focusing on sibling loss.

When a child loses a sibling in an instant, Conway says, the trauma can arrest development, emotionally or physically. It can also complicate or delay grief.

The experience is different than losing a sibling to terminal illness.

When a child is sick, a family has time to process what’s happening and is better equipped to grieve together when that child is gone. There’s a force that brings everyone together. Family members rally around the one who is dying, and even children can participate by making cards or drawing pictures to express their love.

But when a sibling dies suddenly, there’s helplessness, regret (perhaps the last words expressed during a fight that day were, “I hate you,” because that’s what kids do), and oftentimes survivor’s guilt.

“Kids are always convinced the wrong child died,” Conway says.

How parents respond to such loss can shape the surviving siblings.

“Often they become orphans at the same time because they lose parents to grief,” Conway says.

Parents may not want to speak of the loss or may not know how to process it with surviving children. And that means children can flounder and feel invisible.

“How can you be special in that environment? How can you possibly make people aware of your needs, because your needs seem so trivial?” Conway says.

Siblings may believe their lives will be cut short, too, that they won’t live beyond the age that their brother or sister died. When they lose a sibling in a headline-grabbing way, such as a mass shooting, they may be re-traumatized each time that story resurfaces — or another one like it occurs.

During rights of passage — such as graduations, proms, even getting a driver’s license — siblings often think of the one they lost, and the milestones he or she missed. Later in life, if they have their own children, the loss may be felt anew when their kids reach the final age of the brother or sister who died.

“The concentric circles of pain keep widening,” Conway says. “They get less acute, less sharp, but they never become small.”

The context of the gun violence — whether it was an accident or intentional — can also shape the coming years for surviving children, Conway says.

“It’s always harder to heal from an act of human evil,” she says of intentional shootings.

The nonprofit where Conway works opened in 1985 as the Rothman-Cole Center for Sibling Loss. The first of its kind, the center was the brainchild of two men who’d lost siblings early in their own lives.

For families reeling from such a loss, Conway offers some advice:

Reach out for help: Parents may not have the strength to provide everything their remaining children need; they should ask for support from communities their surviving children feel connected to, spiritual or otherwise.

Watch closely: Kids may not say how they feel, but they often show their feelings in other ways. Are they eating normally, taking care of their appearances or acting out? Are they shutting down, injuring themselves or misbehaving in school? Everyone in a family affected by gun violence can benefit from trauma therapists, including children. Therapists can often draw kids out in ways parents can’t. Community mental health centers and local police departments may offer referrals. And the Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children is also a good place to start.

Talk honestly: Discuss what you loved about the child who died, but also those aspects that were less than stellar. Likewise, the home should not be turned into a shrine where nothing changes. The home needs to grow, change and be touched by those who live.

Don’t compare: When speaking about the child who died, parents should be careful not to make comparisons to the ones who survived. Already those children may be wracked with survivor’s guilt, and it’s better to celebrate the living children for who they are individually.

Don’t overprotect: Every parent may be inclined to be overprotective, especially after they’ve lost a child to something like gun violence. But they should work to find a compromise. The goal of parents is “to launch children into the world” and that means “they have to experience independence.”

Keep rituals: Parents should talk to their surviving children about how they’d like to observe holidays — and how they’d like to incorporate the lost sibling in these ongoing traditions. The sibling may be gone, but he or she will always be part of the family.

Honor the deceased: Finding ways to do this can help the surviving family members. Perhaps it means making donations in the lost child’s name or creating an annual event that keeps the child’s memory alive. It’s important not to isolate; this is one way to participate in the world and do good while acknowledging that a family is changed.

Conway marvels at those who emerge from these tragedies determined to make a difference. A child who lost a brother to gun violence, for example, could easily grow up to seek vengeance.

But there’s a real power to saying, “It stops with me,” Conway says. “I will do what I can to make sure no one else suffers from this. … That’s how the world heals.”