Because the bond between siblings grows from a shared collection of experiences, family culture and history, it can be one of the strongest and most unique relationships in a person’s life. In fact, the sibling relationship is often the longest-lasting relationship we have – longer than even the child-parent relationship. Thus, when a sibling dies and this relationship is cut short, the sibling(s) left behind often face an intense mixture of loss, grief and anxiety.
Children, especially, can face a unique experience, one filled with a mixture of emotions, when a sibling dies. Thus, acknowledging, addressing and respecting the different ways a child grieves, compared to adults, can help parents and guardians provide comfort, and support, to a child following the loss of their sibling:
- Create time and space for your child
Listen when your child needs to talk and offer hugs for comfort.
- Be forthright when answering your child’s questions about the death
Children often invent information to fill in missing gaps so it is better to share information about the death that is age and development appropriate than to let the child create their own version of the loss.
- Address any feelings of regret or responsibility
A child may feel guilty about the arguments he/she had with their sibling before h/she died. It helps to explain fighting is a common behavior between siblings and it had nothing to do with their sibling’s death.
- Encourage playtime
Play is how children learn and make sense of what is happening in their world so expect your child may “play out” themes of illness and death.
- Recognize how the loss impacts the child’s surroundings
Siblings often share living spaces, such as the bathroom, backseat and bedrooms, so when their sibling dies these spaces may seem empty. Address this change with your child and, together, figure out how to make environmental changes to address the new circumstances, and their grief.
- Expect feelings of anxiety over mortality and concern about other family members’ well-being
Your child may be afraid of another loss in the family. Reassure your child about the safety and health of other family members and/or educate them about the cause of their sibling’s death. Addressing these concerns openly may help to alleviate their intensity.
- Expect that children may start to show regressive behaviors
Behaviors they’ve long since outgrown, such as wetting the bed, appetite changes, or sleep problems, may re-start. Adjust to these behaviors as you would if they were younger (i.e. leave the bedroom door open, keep a light on, etc.). These type of behaviors are typically temporary.
- Remember teachers are part of your child’s support system
Stay in touch with your child’s teachers and share with them how your child is coping. In turn, ask them for updates on his/her behavior.
Because the sibling relationship is often built on sharing – from toys to physical spaces to experiences – memorializing this relationship can help children move through their grief journey. Scrapbooking, creating a collage or a memory box are ways children can remember the sibling who has died. Children also benefit from being with peers who have experienced a similar loss. Consider registering them in our two children-specific bereavement programs: Grief Street and Camp Erin San Diego. If these options aren’t possible for you, consider reading age-appropriate books with your children about losses similar to theirs.
Of course, many factors, including the child’s age, relationship with the sibling who died, and past and present family support, will influence how a child will grieve however, taking an active approach in the family’s grief process can help all involved. For more information or support regarding sibling loss, contact a counselor at The Center for Grief Care and Education at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-Post provided by The Center for Grief Care and Education at San Diego Hospice. The Center for Grief Care and Education demonstrates San Diego Hospice’s commitment to our community by supporting families after the death of our patients as well as providing support to community members who are grieving a death that occurred without the benefit of our hospice program.