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The death of a sibling is potentially harmful

Losing a brother or sister in childhood, irrespective of the cause of death, means an increased risk of dying – particularly during the first year after the death. This is shown by a study from Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital.

The grief of losing a brother or sister is not the only thing that follows such an experience. So, too, does the risk of dying. If your brother or sister dies during childhood, you have a 71 per cent increased risk of dying, particularly during the first year after the death. The risk is highest for siblings with an age difference of less than two years or siblings of the same gender. 

In other words, the mortality rate among surviving siblings is 61.5 per million persons per year. The mortality rate among people who have not lost a sibling during childhood is 27.8 per million persons per year.

This is shown by a recent registry study from Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital, which comprised more than five million Danes and Swedes who were followed for up to 37 years. Of this group, 55,818 lost a brother or sister before the age of 18.

"These figures are both surprising and alarming. Apparently, losing a sibling is even more devastating than we previously believed," says one of the researchers behind the study, Professor Jørn Olsen from the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University and the Department of Clinical Epidemiology at Aarhus University Hospital.

Support during bereavement

Their study findings have recently been published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Several studies have documented what it means to lose a spouse, parent, brother or sister as an adult, but little research has been done on what it means to lose a sibling before turning 18. The new knowledge should therefore be used to help the bereaved.

"Support and counselling can help to reduce the level of grief. Healthcare professionals should be aware of the children's vulnerability and support the surviving siblings and their parents, so they have an easier time dealing with the tragic and challenging situation," says Jørn Olsen.


The research – more information

The study is a register study from 1973 to 2009 covering 2,060,354 Danish and 2,944,675 Swedish children from the age of six months.

Partners: Department of Epidemiology, Fielding School of Public Health, University of California, LA, USA; Clinical Epidemiology Unit, Department of Medicine, Solna, Karolinska University Hospital, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden; UCL Institute of Child Health and Administrative Data Research Centre for England, University College London, London, UK; Department of Biostatistics, School of Public Health, Fudan University, Shanghai, China.

The co-authors of the article are Postdoc Yongfu Vu and Associate Professor Jiong Li from Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital.

The study is financed by an adjustable grant from the European Commission, together with funding from the Danish Council for Independent Research, the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research, the Nordic Cancer Union, Karen Lise Jensen’s Foundation and the Lundbeck Foundation.

Link to the abstract of the article ‘Association of Mortality With the Death of a Sibling in Childhood’


Professor Jørn Olsen
Aarhus University, Department of Clinical Medicine and
Aarhus University Hospital, Department of Clinical Epidemiology
Email: jo@ph.au.dk
Mobile: (+45) 2276 5330