Supporting grieving siblings can often be challenging for families, for many reasons. Immediately after the death of their brother or sister, siblings may feel excluded or forgotten due to the number of arrangements that need to be made. Children can face complex stresses following the death of their sibling, and this can be further complicated if their brother or sister faced a prolonged illness. Children often form their own image of death of their sibling, which may or may not be correct. For this reason, it is important to provide basic, accurate information about their sibling’s death, as research indicates that in many cases those imaginary visualisations can be far worse than the truth.
For example, if they argued before the death of their brother or sister, the sibling may feel that they are to blame for the child’s death. While we know that this is untrue, a child can build this up in their imagination to point where they completely believe this as a fact. This is why it is important to keep siblings updated with age-appropriate, factual information.
It is important to use language that is simple and honest. Saying he or she is ‘dead’ or ‘died’ is more helpful than saying that they are ‘sleeping’. This can be confusing for younger children, who can be very literal and need to understand that being ‘asleep’ is not the same as ‘dead’.
The experience of bereaved siblings differ from child to child, and also depend on age and developmental stage. Younger children will need constant reminders that their brother or sister has died. They do not understand that death is permanent. We hear quite regularly of siblings who ask their parents if they can go to hospital to visit their brother or sister, despite being told that their sibling has died.