Helping a child face a sibling’s death
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
“Siblings are the people we practice on, the people who teach us about fairness and cooperation and kindness and caring – quite often the hard way.”
The sibling relationship is private to the two involved. Whether it was a “normal sibling rivalry” or “closer than usual” or even “estranged”, the descriptive phrase can’t predict the depth of the loss when one of the two dies. The potential combinations of challenges for the surviving brother or sister are almost limitless.
When I did death notifications as a police crisis interventionist, I insisted that siblings be present before I would tell even the parents why I was there. Many parents automatically assume that children can’t cope with death, and so they want to “protect” them from discussions about it. But I really emphasize that experts advise bringing children into the discussions as quickly as possible, despite our own intense misgivings, so that their anxieties and questions can be addressed, too, and so that they will know that we honor the fact that their relationships are important to the adults in their lives, regardless of their age.
When a sibling dies, a minor child often immediately has many questions and anxieties, most of which center around “What is going to happen to me now?”
“Am I going to die next?”
If the language chosen to explain or interpret the death of a child is vague – “God took your sister to be an angel” — the younger child very possibly will develop anxieties about being taken away from the family, too, by some mysterious force. If they (before) believed or trusted in a God, (now) they have been given good reason to fear an all-powerful boogie man. “Your brother now sleeps in heaven,” may cause them to develop sleep disorders.
“Your sister died today, and we are all sad and sorry that it happened,” is the most obvious statement, to be followed by the most age-appropriate information for the child as to how or why it happened.
The point is to prevent potential distresses by being honest with the child now, about the current true situation, and by that act, to best help them face the understanding that their sibling is gone, and will not return during their lifetime. However, they are safe. And wanted, loved and supported in their loss and grief.
“It should have been me.”
This is a very, very common thought that a child may have, but may not verbalize to anyone else, which leaves them very much isolated with this new belief. After a sibling dies – unless the sibling lived a very publicly ill, disturbed or addicted life – accolades abound for the dead child: They were so good. They were so smart. They were so young and innocent. They were so accomplished. They were so beautiful. They were so loved. And then… then, there is the child left behind. Now they may literally be left behind again, forgotten as crowds of people collect, left to flitter in and out of the shadows.
They are not left behind because of neglect or lack of concern, but because there will be sensitive conversations and confusion and people to greet and hug, casseroles to put in the refrigerator, calls to be made. There will be distractions and duties and details. And sadly, there will be a forgotten child, or a momentarily misplaced child, perhaps, as everyone gathers to remember the other child.
Peripheral adults (the other child’s teacher, a work aquaintance, a neighbor) who normally greeted this child with a cheery “Hello” may now even avoid making eye contact with them because they don’t know what to say to a child in this situation. You understand, but your child may well interpret this as a further sign that the adult secretly thinks “It should have been you instead.”
And why not? If your surviving child already believes this, they are looking for validation of the belief. After all, they are the child who may have only yesterday punched or teased the beloved child. This is the child who may have left them alone, in danger. The child who may have survived a crash. The child who may have had nothing at all to do with the death in any way, but now is alone in the same way a parent is alone with their grief.
We really can’t get inside that grief and take it away from them. Nor can anyone else really and fully appreciate how deep the grief is. But we can honor that they are grieving, and be there for them as much as we possibly can.
They must be assured the death is not their fault, even if they do not openly say that they believe it is. And they need to know that in a family, there was no “best” child, even if the other child was older, more accomplished, or younger and more innocent. A child was not taken away because they were “bad” or left with the family because they were “good” — it is not a matter of right or wrong, but a matter of illness or accident.
“What if something happens to my parent(s) now?”
This is very closely tied to the “What happens to me, now?” question. It’s the “What could happen to me NEXT?” question. All children, by and large, live in an ego-centric world the first two decades. If a sibling’s death is a first experience with the death of relatives or friends, expect it to be especially traumatic, as it opens a young person’s eyes to (1) their parents’ mortality and (2) their own mortality. A child may become more clingy to a favorite grandmother or not want to lose sight of another sibling. They may regress in terms of maturity and need a lot of comfort and routine – at the very time neither are in very great supply. Whether two or 52, they may want to reconnect or to be surrounded by family in a meaningful way following a sibling’s death.
What can we do?
The hardest thing a parental guardian is asked to do after the loss of a child is to be present. It is the single most important thing you can do for surviving children.
We want to hide. We want to retreat. We may even want to die ourselves. But we must deal with the needs of the surviving child (or children) at the same time we are grieving the most and deepest for the lost child. We have to help them step out of the shadows and we want to surround them with the light and the warmth of our love – even when we don’t have the energy to do much beyond absorb our own shock. We have to be mindful to shine that light for them.
We also have to be diligent and mindful of what well-meaning people are saying to them. We have to be clear in our language, our message, our faith, our love – even when all of those things are being most tested and words like “dead” and “funeral” and “forever” almost gag us.
If we can’t do it ourselves, perhaps we can ask a best friend or another family member to become the sibling’s advocate; to be sure that, in their eyes, the child is not forgotten and gets what they need, while we tend to the other pressing details of the day.
The subject matter is too painful and too complicated to cover in one blog, so I’ll be adding posts as we meet again at The Watering Hole. I hope you’ll join me in offering your thoughts, experiences, and insights.