Sibling relationships are complicated. Conflicting feelings, sibling rivalry, birth order challenges and competition for parental affection are a few of the issues that siblings must work through repeatedly. All of these are normal developmental challenges that are worked out in families over time, usually with little awareness of the parents. Even the most sophisticated parents would have difficulty recognizing all these underlying forces at work!
It is the depth of the emotional connections and the naturally conflicting feelings and thoughts that make a sibling relationship among the most rewarding of our lives. Because of this, when a child of any age loses a sibling to death, the impact can be devastating.
There are many factors that impact how people experience a loss. Deaths that are sudden, with no preparation for the loss, are often the most difficult. The death of a child, particularly a sibling, is possibly the most difficult. Death forces us to face our own mortality. For children, the reality that a brother/sister could die implies that they, too, are susceptible to dying – a possibility none of us are prepared to face at a tender young age.
The Grief of a Child
Grief is difficult at any age. Children grieve differently at different ages based on their cognitive development. Regardless of age, children and teens usually experience the same stages of grief as adults.
Primarily, children and teens fluctuate between feelings of anger and sadness. They may subconsciously feel angry toward their parents or others who did not prevent the loss of their sibling.
Since children do not hide their feelings well at a young age, the raw expression of anger and sadness may be quite noticeable, if out of character. Children who are generally easygoing might begin to have tantrums, throw their toys or become easily frustrated. These feelings may continue to varying degrees for months.
Children and teens (and adults) often don’t recognize that these behaviors are related to a death that happened so long ago, unless the outburst occurs while consciously thinking or talking about something related to the loss (trigger). Triggers, anniversary dates of the death, holidays, birthdays and occasions when the sibling would generally be present may be very difficult for many years. It is the unconscious nature of these emotional reminders makes grief especially hard for children.
Behavioral Manifestations of Grief
Similar to adults who are sad, children may sleep more or have difficulty sleeping, they may wake during the night for no reason, or because of bad dreams. Their eating patterns may be also be disrupted, which could result in a loss of appetite or eating to soothe their unconscious emotions.
Some children and teens may be withdrawn and spend more time alone, choosing solitary play rather than group play. They may have tummy aches, or simply say they don’t feel well. The change in energy level, loss of interest in things they usually enjoy and change in countenance could go on for many weeks. Teachers may report that the child is ‘zoning out’ or acting out during school, and grades may slip.
With normal grief, these symptoms begin to lift within a few weeks. Perhaps the child will begin to have some hours during the day when s/he behaves normally after a week or so – a reprieve. Eventually, there will be days when the child seems normal again, even if the ‘good days’ are followed by a day or two of sadness or anger. With time, your child will have more good days than bad, and eventually the sadness and anger will be fleeting except during holidays, anniversaries, etc..
Sometimes children are traumatized by the death or a sibling, particularly if the death was sudden, an accident that the surviving child witnessed or other frightening circumstances. In these cases, the child may develop symptoms that are similar to PTSD. In traumatic grief, the surviving child may show any of the following signs or symptoms:
- Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
- Wanting to change the past.
- Feeling vulnerable and afraid.
- Worrying about physical symptoms.
- Avoiding reminders of the deceased sibling.
Citation: Sibling Death and Childhood Traumatic Grief
We all learn to either internalize or externalize our feelings. A child who internalizes feelings, meaning s/he does not express emotions directly (or indirectly through play), may develop anxiety, phobias, depression or other challenges. If you notice any of these symptoms, or lingering depression and anger, contact a counselor for an assessment. It is possible that your child could benefit from counseling with a professional to help him/her express these feelings and learn healthy ways of coping.
How to Help
- Celebrate positive memories and help your child remember the good times.
- Give your child time and space to grieve, but also opportunities to talk without pressing.
- Realize that everyone grieves differently – watch for signs and symptoms listed above.
- Try to model healthy coping skills, if possible.
- Spouses and/or partners should try not to shut each other out, but recognize that both of you will need other sources of support. Talk about how to ensure the surviving child(ren) are taken care of physically and emotionally. Work together to make this happen.
- Talk about your own feelings if you can do so without overwhelming the surviving child with your emotions. If this is not possible, help the child understand that you are going to make sure s/he is taken care of and that everything is going to be okay. Kids need to know that the adults are in control, even if that means Grandma, aunts, neighbors, etc. take a more direct role in their day-to-day care for a while.
- Find support in the community – groups are great for parents and children who are grieving.
- Try to avoid over-protecting the surviving child(ren) - they need normalcy.
- Get help for any anxiety you may have about losing the surviving child.
- Seek professional counseling for anyone in the family and/or the family as a unit if needed.
You don’t have to do it alone. Ask for and allow others to help you. Understand that as long as your surviving child is safe and being cared for physically and emotionally, you are doing your job. Even if others are taking an active role in the child’s daily care, as long as your communicate with your child and provide as much stability as possible, you will all get through it in time. At times like this, it truly takes a village.
Learn about the benefits of resilient children here.
"Sibling Death and Childhood Traumatic Grief." National Child Traumatic Stress Network. National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Web. 5 Sep 2013. <www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/assets/pdfs/Sibling_Loss_Final.pdf>.
Lyles, Mary. "Children's Grief Responses." Child Grief Education Association. Child Grief Education Association, n.d. Web. 5 Sep 2013. <http://childgrief.org/howtohelp.htm>.