Helping siblings grieve
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
The answer is so sad and yet so necessary to hear: You can only help them by honoring their grief and by loving them, by being present and letting them know that if they do choose to talk about their grief or their sibling, you are ready to listen or to help them find the listener of their choice (which might not be you). The hardest thing for a parent to fully embrace, though they do fully understand it when applied to themselves, is that grief belongs to the griever. You cannot assume that you understand your child’s coping mechanism or grief, nor can you direct it.
“Grief belongs to the griever” is an expression often used by death counselors. But when you are the parent, it’s natural to assume that directing your child’s grief response and expression falls to you. You made the funeral arrangements, possibly decided when and how to tell your other children of the tragedy, and you are giving cues to outside family and friends about how much “support” the family can tolerate day to day.
I know this because, of course, I too am a bereaved parent as well as a grief counselor, and I was faced with supporting my other children after Daniel’s death. When they could not, or would not, come to me for help, I was as dumbfounded as this mother about what to do and how to help.
What I did not do was give up. I made discreet calls to the school counselor and asked them to be very mindful of my children’s needs and to offer an ear should the child want it. I made a few extra opportunities for beloved adult friends to visit, when I would absent myself in case my kids preferred their ears or conversations.
Too, I tried to make the upcoming holidays a democracy, where children had a vote as to whether or not we had a Christmas tree the first year -- and we decided to put up a tree in October and put bats on it, then turkeys, to ease into a Christmas tree. They helped decide whether we even celebrated at all or went to a diner Christmas Eve. Would they want to cling to our traditions or chuck them? We made those incredibly hard decisions as a family, the questions asked as nonchalantly as possible, the answers allowed to be mulled over for awhile, not expected immediately.
We cannot fix what cannot be “fixed” for our children. Just as many parents are simultaneously struggling with an inability to have “saved” a child, it becomes obvious we also cannot spare our other children from experiencing the deepest sort of pain. When they were little and stubbed a toe, remember how they would kick a door or even you in response? This is called “coming out sideways.” Losing a sibling is so many infinities worse than suffering a broken toe. Often they don’t know where to drive all of that pain and so they park it with you. Or they push it aside and just seem to go on with their lives like nothing happened. It’s natural. You can bear it if you understand it may be the only way you can truly help them navigate their grief – by accepting it and continuing to stand as their fortress.
Above all, be steady in your love for the remaining children. There is a tendency to elevate a dead child over the living child – to suddenly put their picture all over the house, or to treat their belongings with a reverence your other children don’t understand and may resent. Some children will handle their grief by asking when they can have their sibling’s prized possessions, possibly very soon after the death. We have to suspend our expectations for how they “should” act and be steady in our love and support, even when we may understandably resent that our children may not grieve in the same way we do.
When nothing is normal and every minute of every day you feel like you are standing at the edge of a gaping hole, it’s exhausting to consider everyone else’s needs and still tend to your own. “The greatest of these is Love” however, and your love for your children, even when you are numb to fully experiencing or embracing that love yourself, will get you through this first day, this first week, this first month and year, and then into the next.
You can do this. We’re here to help you do this.