Sibling bereavement when death is drug-related: A qualitative study

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

139 Downloads (Pure)


This research develops a rich understanding of the participants’ experiences of sibling bereavement when the brother or sister dies for a drug-related reason, and informs social work practice theories in bereavement, drug and alcohol, and families. The sibling relationship is one of the four significant lifetime attachment relationships formed alongside parents, partners, and children, yet the relationship receives less attention in research and practice. This qualitative study uses Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics to guide all aspects of the research project. Hermeneutic phenomenology concerns the interpretation of experience; philosophical hermeneutics includes an additional component which is the phenomenology of understanding – how understanding occurs in the first instance. Therefore, philosophical hermeneutics presents a dual process of how understanding occurs, and understanding the experience.

The study involved 21 people, all of whom described the death of their sibling as drug-related, and had been bereaved for longer than five years. Conversations revolved around their experiences using a semi structured interview. The analysis was undertaken using three distinct fields of practice (horizons) – thanatology, drug and alcohol, and family therapy. This yielded 63 interpretations of the same experience from very different standpoints. The key outcome of the research resulted in multiple ways to understand a situation. Taking different standpoints to intentionally alter the view, brings with it flexibility, making room for new possibilities, new ways to understand, new ways to support, and new ways to act.

In all the fields related to this research, it is apparent there is much to be gained by tuning into the sibling. In thanatology, sibling bereavement is an intense life-changing event, carrying implications throughout the lifespan. The magnitude and extensiveness of change that occurs for the individual and family, and the secondary losses experienced, are deserving of public attention, recognition and emphasis, in theory and practice. The notion of disenfranchised grief is a critical concept in the research because it publicly and privately silences bereavement and makes the experience ‘less than’. In the drug and alcohol sector, where a drug-related death is often a stigmatised death, it is also subject to disenfranchisement. The sibling is sadly neglected. For example, the stress and worry experienced by siblings can be extraordinary but also their potential as a resource is currently unrecognised and, therefore, under-utilised. The sibling relationship is nestled within the broader family culture, which is intricate and nuanced, with intimate knowledge of all family members. There is a need to be respectful that drug use and death are family affairs; understanding the family culture and how the family protects individual members and the family as a whole is critical. By also emphasising the benefits of ongoing connection and belonging, the involvement of families and siblings in the drug and alcohol field is encouraged.

Highlighted in this study is the stigma associated with drug use and how it reverberates through all relationships. Harsh judgements are made of individuals, their siblings and family. The research findings show that protective responses are instigated to shield relationships, driving duality and secretiveness and forcing silence.

Through in-depth analysis of the sibling relationship, in the context of drug use and bereavement, this research is thought provoking while promoting newer, broader and deeper understandings in the fields of thanatology, drug and alcohol and family therapy. Recommendations are made for social workers in regard to the significance of sibling bereavement. These include: the disenfranchisement of sibling bereavement when their brother or sister dies for a drug-related reason, how family culture shapes the sibling relationship, and impact of drug use on the family, the stressors endured by the siblings and the family through drug use, and the stigma that flows from drug use to death and bereavement. Social workers are also reminded through the research that there are always multiple ways to understand a situation.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Mlcek, Susan, Principal Supervisor
  • Healy, John, Co-Supervisor
Award date01 Aug 2022
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2022


Dive into the research topics of 'Sibling bereavement when death is drug-related: A qualitative study'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this