By Laura Mendoza, licensed clinical social worker at CHOC
The death of a brother or sister is a deep and powerful loss. This loss can, sometimes, be considered a traumatic event. If adults are preoccupied with their own loss, they may perceive children or teenagers as having little feelings about the death of their sibling. Therefore, children and/or teens may not receive the needed attention to help them cope with the death of a sibling.
Bereaved children and teenagers may experience a range of grief reactions depending on their age, developmental stage and the closeness between the child who died and the grieving sibling. Their expressions of grief can also be influenced by how their parents and the adults in their lives react to the death.
What are common reactions to the loss of a sibling that children and teenagers may experience?
Some reactions are the same as grieving the death of a close person, while other reactions are specific to the death of a sibling.
- Avoidance. Some children and teenagers will not share or show any immediate response. It may take them time to share or a specific trigger may elicit their feelings.
- Confusion. They have never known life without their sibling. They may be confused about how their sibling died or how to behave when their parents and/or living siblings are experiencing their own grief.
- Relief. The sibling who died may have had numerous medical interventions or prolonged hospitalizations. Relief is a natural reaction after a long illness or traumatizing injury.
How can a parent or close adult support a bereaved sibling?
When a family member dies, the whole family grieves. Each member will grieve differently and will need support. A parent may initially be unable to support their child as they cope with their own sorrow and pain. Trusted family, friends or community members may need to step in.
Communicate with your child
Use simple language and direct statements, such as, “Your brother had a very bad illness”, “Your sister’s body could no longer fight the disease” or “The accident severely hurt his body.” Repeat the same information several times in different ways, in an age-appropriate manner. Check to see what the child or teenager may or may not understand.
Share your own feelings
Children will observe their parent’s response to the death of their sibling very closely. While they may not have the same language skills as an adult and may not be able to identify their own emotions, it is important to share your feelings. Tell the child or teenager that you feel confused, sad, angry, guilty or share any range of other feelings that you may be experiencing as a result of the death of your child.
Possible ways of sharing feelings may include, “Dad feels sad that the accident caused so much harm”, “Mom feels sad that the medicine did not make the disease stop”, or “Sometimes I feel sad, and it helps me to cry.”
Give children and teenagers the space to process information and feelings
The early conversations after their sibling’s death are only the beginning steps. Be available when children are ready to talk. Parents or caring adults may not know what to say. If a child or teenager knows that a parent or close adult is struggling to answer, it helps them to share their own feelings.
Reassure your child of their safety
Death can be shocking for everyone who cared about the sibling that died. It can be especially scary for children, as they begin to understand what death means. Help the child to feel safe. Explain that what happened to their sibling is unlikely to happen to them.
What projects or activities can children or teenagers do to express their grief and remember their sibling?
Encourage ways to help your child remember their brother or sister and to celebrate their life. It is helpful to offer a range of projects. The child or teenager may have their own activities that match their strengths or interests. Examples include:
- Assist in planning and/or participating in a memorial service, religious ceremony or celebration of life.
- Make a book or slideshow of their favorite stories, photos or quotes.
- Create a poem, song, memory board or prayer.
- Say goodbye in a letter or speech.
- Plant a tree or flower in their sibling’s memory.
How long will the bereaved sibling’s grief last?
It is common for a child’s grief to resurface a considerable time after the death. They may have questions about what happened many months or years later. Grief will diminish or be more pronounced as the bereaved sibling moves through their developmental milestones. Assure the bereaved sibling that it is normal and expected for grief to be a journey.
Could the death of a sibling lead to emotional growth?
Yes. Research demonstrates that many siblings felt they had matured due to the death of their brother or sister. They recognize their capacity to handle adversity. Parents described these children and teenagers as more empathetic, compassionate and attuned to the challenges of others.
What can I do if a child or teenager needs professional help?
It is helpful to begin by speaking with a school counselor or pediatrician. Call the CHOC Social Service Department at 714-509-8521 for steps to connect with a community therapist, grief counselor, or psychologist. CHOC’s Social Service Department can also provide information on CHOC’s Sibling Bereavement Group and other community support and camps for grieving siblings.
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The mental health team at CHOC curated the following resources on mental health topics common to kids and teens, such as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention and more.