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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