A parent burying a child is without question one of the harshest blows that one can experience in life. It is a kind of loss that stands in its own category. Often, not only a parent feels the immense pain of loss when a child passes. The loss of a brother or sister deeply affects a sibling.
While we as a community are generally sensitive to the bereavement of parents, society is perhaps less attentive to the pain that the sibling endures. One who experiences the death of a sibling suddenly comes face to face with a level of suffering that is intense and can also be traumatic. There is a certain innocence about life that is now lost.
A child, teenager, or young adult who endures the death of a sibling experiences their own personal sadness at the loss of their playmate, buddy, or close friend. This in itself is deeply painful. The living child/ren now also live with the grave sadness of their parents.
What are the psychological and emotional ramifications of a death of a brother or sister? How does it affect siblings at the time of the loss? How does it play out over time?
Turning to the biblical story of Joseph, we gain a glimpse into a Torah teaching about sibling loss.
It has been twenty-two years since Benjamin’s older brother, Joseph, disappeared. In the Torah portion of ‘Vayigash,’ Benjamin is finally reunited with Joseph, his one and only full brother; the two of them being the only sons of Jacob and Rachel.
Benjamin was very young when Joseph was taken from him. Benjamin grows up, marries and has children. So much of his life is lived without his beloved brother.
When Benjamin is finally reunited with Joseph, the sages of the midrash dramatically describe Benjamin sharing the names of each of his ten children (Genesis 46:21, Tanchuma Vayigash 4). The Talmud teaches that Benjamin names all ten of his children after his dear brother Joseph. Over a long stretch of time, with the birth of each child, Benjamin had not forgotten Joseph. The memory of his older brother stayed with him in the years to come. Benjamin, when naming each child, highlights his bereavement and longing for his lost brother. He incorporates Joseph into his future family through the names of his children (Talmud, Sotah 36b).
One example: Benjamin names one of his sons Chupim which is the plural for the word chupa, which means wedding canopy. He chooses this name and says, “There were two chuppas, two weddings, that were deficient. My brother Joseph was not here to celebrate at my wedding and I was never able to celebrate at his.” This courageous Talmudic teaching accurately touches on the very raw pain felt acutely at times of joy. Often, it is at these times that we feel the absence of a beloved family member no longer with us.
Benjamin reminds us that a sibling is deeply impacted by the loss of a brother or sister. Siblings’ needs are often different than those of their parents. Benjamin teaches the important need for not only parents, but siblings as well, to have meaningful ways of eternalizing the memory of a loved one throughout their life.
The Joseph and Benjamin story opens a door to discuss the impact of sibling loss and how as a caring community we can find appropriate and meaningful ways to support those in need of strength and comfort.