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Sibling Grief

Each sibling will have their own unique relationship to the child who has died. Therefore their grief will be unique to them as well.

Children and young people often grieve differently than older people which can feel uncomfortable for some adults. Children and young people can sometimes experience intense distress and sadness one minute and then be focused on playing or laughing the next. They may find it difficult to be separated from their family members and they may want to talk about their feelings at unpredictable times such as bedtime.

Supporting grieving siblings can sometimes 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 may face a range of differing feelings and thoughts following the death of a sibling. This can be further complicated if their brother or sister faced a prolonged illness. It also needs to be recognised that when a sibling dies, children are adjusting to this significant loss but also the impact that the death has had on their parents as well.

A brother or sister’s grief is influenced by their age, their developmental stage, personality and the family, cultural and religious influences in their lives. Understandably you may have concerns about how your other children will manage their grief.

Some common worries that children have following a death of a sibling are:

  • Did I cause the death?
  • Will I or other loved ones die?
  • Who will care for me?

Speaking in an honest and age appropriate way with children can help them adjust more easily to their loss. Encouraging siblings to be involved in the funeral service can help children feel included and validates their unique relationship with their sibling and feelings of grief.

Remember that grief is not always visible but it doesn’t mean that your child is not grieving.

Siblings Viewing Their Brother/ Sister After a Death

You may be feeling uncertain about whether you should allow your child to view their brother/sister after their death. You may hear others suggest to you that this would be too upsetting. Siblings who are old enough to tell you their thoughts should be given the choice as to whether they wish to see their brother or sister. Experience tells us that if a sibling wishes to view their brother/sister that it is important to try and help them do this as this benefits their understanding of the finality of death. It is also an opportunity to spend some extra time with someone that they love and it can help reduce any fear about death, as many families report how peaceful their child looks.

Siblings and Funerals

It can be very helpful for siblings to attend the funeral of their brother/sister. It is important that children and young people are given a choice as to whether they wish to attend, as some may not.

Funerals can help children participate in the family ritual of honouring the person who has died and to gain support from your community. It is however important to explain to children what will happen at the funeral, what takes place in a burial or a cremation, what songs will be played and who will speak. If you are not sure how to have this conversation with children please speak to the Palliative Care Team as they may be able to offer some guidance and resources.

If your other children are attending the funeral, it may be helpful to have another trusted adult allocated to look after them. It can be hard to feel connected to your child’s funeral whilst also having to support their sibling during the ceremony. Another trusted adult can ensure that if a child wants to leave the ceremony, possibly because they are finding it too hard or are feeling restless, that they can.

If siblings are not in the room when their brother/sister dies, it is important to prepare them for what they may see and feel when they visit. Siblings may wish to help you bath your child or help choose what toy should go with their brother/sister to the funeral directors. If you have any concerns or questions about your child viewing their sibling after they have died, it is important to speak to a member of your palliative care team.

Common Grief Responses in Children

Children under 5 years may:

  • Be affected by the emotions of those around them
  • Grieve in doses, alternating between displaying grief and playing as if nothing has happened
  • Ask confronting questions about death
  • Seek attention or show signs of insecurity
  • Feel guilty or responsible for their sibling’s death
  • Act in ways that are younger than they are e.g. bed wetting
  • Act out their feelings

Children of a primary school age may:

  • See death as reversible or become more anxious about the possibility of others dying
  • Be curious about death and burial rituals and ask detailed questions
  • Take time to absorb the reality of what has happened and may not appear immediately affected by the death
  • Be quick to blame themselves for their sibling’s death
  • Worry about their parents who are grieving and feel a sense of responsibility for making them happy again
  • Act out feelings rather than talk about them
  • Be concerned about what their peers think and have a sense of isolation or separation

Helping Children with their Grief

  • Listen and talk with them. Children need time and feel safe in order to express how they are feeling. Be patient, honest and consistent with your response.
  • Include children in decision making when appropriate, such as funeral plans or which day of the week to return to school or an activity
  • Provide safety and security. Try to maintain routines and firm but fair boundaries as much as possible
  • Provide creative opportunities for expression, such as drawing, craft activities or storytelling

It can be difficult to support your grieving child when you are grieving too. Grief can also make you doubt yourself and parenting decisions.  You won’t be in a position to provide support to your other children if you don’t take care of yourself, both physically and emotionally (See also sections on Understanding Grief and Bereavement Support).

Common Grief Responses in Teenagers and Young Adults

Teenagers and young adults may:

  • Grieve in doses, breaking their grief into bearable amounts, but this can sometimes result in intense outbursts
  • Experience a multitude of emotions and thoughts that come and go, but can feel confusing and at times overwhelming
  • Feel guilty that they were unable to save their sibling
  • Not want to talk about their grief
  • Have problems sleeping or oversleeping
  • Feel isolated or separated from their peers

Helping Teenagers and Young Adults with their Grief

  • Be available- provide them with an accepting, open environment in which to grieve
  • Convey to them it is okay to feel the emotions they feel and to have the thoughts they have, and that you will be there if they want to talk
  • Invite teenagers to talk about their loss and their sibling, however if they do not want to talk at that time, you also need to respect this
  • Teenagers often look to their peers for support when times are tough. Encourage them to connect with their friends in a safe environment
  • Like all of us, teenagers learn from the behaviour they sense and observe. The more they observe healthy communication and the natural expression of feelings when grieving, the more likely they are to understand and accept the emotions they may be feeling. Remember that even for adults, talking about such feelings is difficult especially at the beginning of grief
  • Reassure them that it is okay to have a different grieving style than yourself

When to Seek Help

With good information and support, children and young people can learn to understand and adapt to their grief. However, if you are concerned by their behaviour or feel they need more assistance than you can provide please contact the Paediatric Bereavement Coordinator at your local Children’s Hospital.