Next to the demise of a parent, the demise of a sibling can be the most traumatic event in a child's life. A sister or brother has passed away for whom the child shared a great bond. As those of us who have brothers and sisters know, sibling relationships are characterized by friendship, sometimes jealousy along with a special closeness and love. A child will feel a great loss.
A Caring Adult's Role
When a loved one passes away the actions of the grieving adult has a major effect on the way a child will react to the death. Many times the adult won't communicate with the child about the loss because they want to spare the child from as much pain as possible. For the same well-intentioned but misguided reason, adults hide their own feelings of grief. What bereaved siblings really need is for adults to be open and honest with them about the death. They need to understand grief is a natural part of life. Make sure to tell the child it's all right to be sad. When ignored, bereaved siblings may suffer more from feeling isolated than from the actual death itself. Worse yet, they may feel all alone throughout the grieving process.
What a Surviving Sibling Feels
Each person's grief is unique and changes from day to day. Therefore, it is impossible to predict what a specific child will feel after her brother or sister passes away. If you want to help, the most important thing you can do is to listen and to accept any and all feelings the surviving sibling expresses.
Children often feel:
- Guilt: For a number of reasons, bereaved siblings often feel guilty. Their power of "magical thinking"-believing that thoughts cause actions-might make them think they literally caused the death. "My brother died because I sometimes wished he would go away forever". This is a common response from young children who have not been given the concrete details of the sibling's death and who haven't been assured that they were not at fault.
- Relief: A child may also feel relief as well as pain when a sibling passes away. Responses such as "Now no one will take my things" or "I'm glad I have a room to myself" are natural and do not mean the child didn't love his or her sibling. It is important that you provide an atmosphere in which the child feels safe to express whatever he or she may be feeling.
- Fear: When a child's brother or sister passes, a young person just like them has passed away. So, for a child, confronting this reality can mean confronting the possibility of one's own death. Be prepared to honestly but reassuringly answer questions such as "Will I die, too?" The death of a sibling can also make a bereaved child fear that one or all of his other family members will pass away, too, leaving him alone.
- Confusion: One eight-year-old girl I counseled after the demise of her brother asked me, "Am I still a big sister?" This little girl was obviously struggling with the confusing task of re-defining herself, both within the family unit and the world at large. The answer to her question, of course, is both yes and no, but ultimately it is a question the child must answer herself. Adults can help, however, by letting the child teach them what this confusion is like.
Siblings Can Be "Forgotten Mourners"
When a child passes, most of the grief support from family members and friends gets focused on the parents. Indeed, losing a child may be the most painful experience in life, and those of us who are parents readily empathize with and offer our support to the deceased child's parents. The parents themselves are often so overwhelmed by their loss that they can barely help themselves get through the day.
So what about the surviving siblings? Though we can't quantify grief, we can say that siblings are often as profoundly impacted by the demise as their parents are. In some ways they are even more deserving of our attention because they are children. Let's not allow bereaved siblings to be forgotten mourners. If you are a bereaved parent, share your grief with your surviving children and make time to understand how they feel. If you just can't make yourself emotionally available right now, gently explain this to the child and appoint another adult as grief helper for the time being.
Allow Siblings to Participate
Create an atmosphere that tells bereaved children that their thoughts, fears and wishes will be recognized. This recognition includes the right to help plan and participate in the funeral. Although children may not completely understand the ceremony surrounding the death, being involved in the funeral helps establish a sense of comfort and the understanding that life goes on even though someone has passed away. Since the funeral is a significant event, siblings-no matter how young-should have the same opportunity to attend as any other member of the family. Encourage, but never force. Explain that a funeral is a time to honor the loved one that passed away, a time to support each other, a time to affirm that life goes on. When they choose to, siblings can participate in the funeral by sharing a favorite memory, reading a poem or lighting a candle. You might also suggest they place a memento or photo in the casket. For siblings, viewing the body of the brother or sister can also be a positive experience. It provides an opportunity to say goodbye and helps them accept the reality of the death. As with attending the funeral, however, seeing the body should not be forced.
Talking To Children about Death
Adults sometimes have trouble facing death themselves. Therefore open and honest discussions with children about death can be difficult. Yet adults who are able to confront, explore and learn from their own personal fears about death can help surviving siblings. Encouraging questions about the death is another way to help bereaved siblings. Children may repeat the same questions over and over again. This is natural. Repetition and consistent, patient answers on your part help the sibling understand and slowly accept the death. Don't feel you need to have all the answers. Your answers aren't as important as the fact that you're responding in a way that shows you care.
Let Children Be Children
Children need to be children-especially when they are hurting. Never tell a surviving sibling, "You need to take care of your mom and dad (or younger siblings) now." When you force a bereaved child to grow up too soon, you don't allow him the time and space he needs to mourn in his own developmentally appropriate way.
Help Siblings Embrace Their Memories
When a sibling passes, the surviving children must go through the long, arduous process of realizing and acknowledging that their brother or sister is gone forever. The permanence of death is difficult for everyone, even adults, to accept. Thank goodness for memories. Remembering the child who passed away is an appropriate way for the sibling to continue that precious relationship. Encourage her to talk about her memories, both good and bad. Show her ways to capture her memories, such as by creating a scrapbook or writing a poem. On special occasions like birthdays and holidays, help her remember what it was like to celebrate with her brother or sister. Remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible.
Guidelines for Helping Grieving Children
- Be a good observer. A bereaved child's behavior can be very telling about her emotions.
- Be patient. Children's grief isn't typically obvious or immediate.
- Be honest. Don't lie to children about death. They need to know death is permanent and irreversible. Don't use euphemisms which cloud these facts. Use simple and direct language.
- Be available. Bereaved children need to know that they can count on the adults in their lives to listen, support and love them.
- Listen. Let each child teach you what grief is like for him. Don't rush in with explanations. Usually it's more helpful to ask exploring questions than to supply cookie-cutter answers.