The impact that a child’s death leaves on their sibling is immeasurable, yet there are ways to help. Acknowledging the sibling’s feelings, helping them express their emotions appropriately and navigating what individualized resources are available can positively impact how each child copes with death.
To properly support grieving families throughout the community, it’s helpful to have insight into some of the complex emotions they may feel.
Address feelings to ward off long-term impact
Bereaved siblings' experiences can range from witnessing long-term illness to a sudden, tragic event. The trauma that occurs during these losses, if not addressed, could have serious, long-term impacts on mental and physical health.
Regardless of the way their loved one died, siblings often feel responsible to carry the deep sorrow expressed by family, friends and the community. In some instances, the child who has died is idolized, leading to feelings of inferiority in surviving siblings. Sometimes, siblings may even perceive the need to fill the role of the deceased, to please others or to deflect their feelings of survivors’ guilt.
Like grieving adults, bereaved siblings may experience varying emotions simultaneously. For example, they may be excited about their upcoming birthday, yet sad they won’t have their sibling celebrating with them. These conflicting emotions are normal while still being one of the more challenging aspects of grief to process. Allow siblings to explore their emotions in a way that feels comfortable to them. Grief is a complicated and unique process for everyone, and feelings are often amplified for bereaved siblings.
Common concerns and recommendations for support
Here are some common concerns recognized by grieving families and brief recommendations for how you can provide support.
How many siblings do you have?
This question can be difficult to answer and often catches both parents and siblings off guard. There is no right answer to this question. For some, responses easily roll off their tongue, “I used to have two sisters, but one died, so now I just have one” or “I have two, one who is 15 and the other who is forever 11.” Others may choose a direct answer, without elaborating or acknowledging their deceased sibling. These responses can change and be situationally based. The most important consideration is for bereaved siblings to be encouraged to share at their comfort level.
We used to share a room, now what?
Often, items and places throughout the house become sacred spaces for grievers, an important aspect of maintaining connection with a deceased loved one. Have open conversations with the child about what items and spaces are important to them. Sometimes, siblings may have difficulty sleeping if they shared a room with their deceased sibling. Explore ideas with them that may provide comfort or improve sleep behavior; for example, sleeping with a blanket or stuffed animal that was their sibling’s.
Milestones within the family will be emotionally challenging for everyone, so it can be helpful to ask your child how they would like to honor their sibling for those occasions. For twins, much like their unique relationship to the deceased, milestones will bring a distinct and amplified perspective, and it will be important to be attentive to that. Be mindful that feelings about how to honor and recognize their sibling may change over time, and ongoing discussion may be helpful for your family.
Accidentally calling the sibling the deceased child’s name
This happens at home, school and within the community. If you catch your mistake, apologize and make sure to use their name directly after. If you catch someone else make the mistake (and the sibling doesn’t correct them), address it with the person right then and there. Speaking up on behalf of the sibling will make them feel loved and supported.
Bereaved siblings should have a balance of things that bring them joy, without feeling the need to fill someone else’s place. Sometimes they specifically pick activities and hobbies that were once their sibling's favorite things. Remind them that it’s important for them to find and participate in things they enjoy and not feel the need to please others. It is also OK (and encouraged) to participate in activities while grieving; finding joy in moments of grief improves resilience.
Parents need grace, too
As a caregiver, helping a child navigate this new world without their sibling is incredibly challenging. Be patient with yourself and allow yourself grace to not have all the answers.
While the above guidance is sibling focused, similar emotions may be experienced by children in the loss of any close relationship. CHOP also has additional, generalized guidance on supporting grieving children and on bereavement.