Sibling Loss Increases Risk of Suicide

Losing a family member is one of the hardest things a person can experience. Many families pull apart and suffer extreme emotional distress after the loss of a child or parent. This is especially true if the loss is sudden and from an accident or suicide. But even anticipated deaths, like those resulting from terminal illnesses such as cancer, can cause immense emotional pain that some people cannot easily overcome.

Although research in this area is extensive, another type of loss that can have similarly negative effects has not been examined nearly enough. When a person loses a sibling, the results can be equally as devastating, and in fact, some believe even more difficult than losing a parent or other family member. Siblings often represent the longest friendship and closest relationship many people have had.

When a sibling dies, the effect can be traumatic and even life-threatening if the death is sudden. People can become easily depressed when they are overwhelmed with grief. These emotions, if not reconciled, can put someone at risk for suicide.

Mikael Rostila of the Centre for Health Equity Studies at Stockholm Univesity in Sweden wanted to see if sibling death resulted in increased suicide in surviving siblings. To assess this, Rostila looked at population data between 1981 and 2002 on over 1.7 million Swedish adults between the ages of 25 and 64.

The analysis revealed that women who lost a sibling were 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide in the two decades following the death than those who did not experience the loss of a sibling. Men were 1.28 times more likely to commit suicide. And if the sibling death was the result of a suicide, the rate increased to 3.19 times for women and 2.44 times more risk for men.

Other types of deaths, such as cancer, resulted in much lower suicide rates in surviving siblings and there were relatively no differences by gender for these suicides. Additionally, Rostila did not find any association risk for suicide based on length of time since the sibling death. This research provides new and much needed insight into the effects of a sibling death on surviving siblings. Rostila added, “The mechanisms linking the death of a sibling and completed suicide among the bereaved person need to be further investigated.”

Rostila, M., Saarela, J., Kawachi, I. (2013). Suicide following the death of a sibling: A nationwide follow-up study from Sweden. BMJ Open 2013;3:e002618. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2013-002618

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  • David

    June 21st, 2013 at 11:50 PM

    Was surprised to see this research was amongst adults.Childhood death of siblings would have a greater effect I thought,as they share the home environment and other things that could effect both.But seems like death does have its effects on near and dear ones no matter the age!

  • Noelle

    June 22nd, 2013 at 4:34 AM

    I have a very good friend of mine who, within the space of five years, lost her younger brother to suicide and then her sister to cancer. I can tell you that there were times after each death that I was so worried about both her and her mom. One lost her siblings, both of whom she was super close to, and the mom lost two of her three children. Both of them are very strong women but there were times all throughout their ordeal, and even sometimes now, years later, that I worry about them and wonder just how much they have to take. Luckily they both seem to be at a good place in their lives right now, but there is no doubt in my mind that had not the rest of their friends and family circled the wagons throughout so much of this that we could have lost one of them as well.

  • Jude.R

    June 22nd, 2013 at 11:19 PM

    “And if the sibling death was the result of a suicide, the rate increased to 3.19 times for women and 2.44 times more risk for men.”

    Is this the trauma an loss only?Or does this mean there is some sort of a genetic link to vulnerability to commit suicide?Because there have been instances of quite a few people commuting suicide and belonging to the same extended family.Is there any study on this?

  • Brayden

    June 23rd, 2013 at 9:52 AM

    I can certainly understand the grief that you feel after this happens as I lost my sister years ago to a childhood disease.

    I felt so sad and seeing that my parents were so lost after her death just made me think about leaving this world too. The only thing that held it all together was me realizing how hurtful it would have been for them if I had ended my life this way. I did not want to be responsible for causing them even more pain than what they were already feeling.

  • solomon

    June 23rd, 2013 at 9:43 PM

    it’s a close relationship,I agree.but would it be similar for all sets of siblings?I don’t think so.the level of the bond shared with the sibling and maybe even the age group would dictate how close you are I think.all these factors would come into play into deciding the risk factor I suppose.

    as for young children I think they need to be counseled if they do lose a sibling.death could seem like a place to meet the departed sibling in their mind and this should be dispelled as soon as it can be.

  • Kenneth

    June 24th, 2013 at 10:27 AM

    It is a disturbing trend for sure, made even more complicated by the fact that women are going to be more likely to try this than men even though I think that suicides in general are higher among males.

  • Stephen W

    September 27th, 2019 at 2:10 AM

    I lost my mother when i was 20. My brother committed suicide at 25. My sister committed suicide at 45. I still struggle with living every day. Every day for 22 years gets no easier.

  • Rachel

    August 3rd, 2022 at 12:06 AM

    Stephanie if you see this, I understand. And I hope you are still here with us. You are loved, and thought of.

  • Rachel

    August 3rd, 2022 at 12:07 AM

    **Stephen, sorry, autocorrect.

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