Whether young or old, all siblings carry significant grief and heartache when a brother or sister dies and are at risk of their own challenges.
It can be difficult, if not impossible, to support surviving children during such a devastating time. Many well-intentioned people may say, “Kids are resilient.” But know that sibling grief and suffering are significant and often overlooked. It is important to learn how to cope and manage intense feelings. Knowing when and how best to react is critical.
What to expect and watch for
Your surviving children want to protect you from more pain. Regardless of age, your children may hide their grief in an attempt to protect you from further suffering.
Siblings often believe that they are responsible for a sibling’s death or the subsequent family stresses that follow. This is common for siblings of all ages, but especially young children. Since your surviving children want to protect you from further pain, they are reluctant and may not share their deep feelings of guilt. Survivor’s guilt can also manifest among children who are born after your deceased child. Even though these children did not know their brother or sister, they too can carry severe guilt.
Some may even begin to suffer from survivor’s guilt, wishing they had died rather than their sibling. Survivor’s guilt can be exaggerated when families overly dote on the child who has died, making the surviving children feel less wanted and loved.
Sometimes the distress can manifest itself physically as well as emotionally. Watch for changes in sleep, behavior and health. For example, an older child may begin to wet the bed again. It is a sign of grief and stress.
How to support surviving children
Acknowledge and express your love for surviving children frequently. Parents tend to focus and dote on the child who died, but this can make siblings feel as if they are not as valued as their deceased brother or sister.
Pay close attention to your children’s care and health during this difficult time. Stress for any individual, regardless of age, can bring about more frequent health complications or illness.
Know that school performance, for younger children, may be difficult. While returning to a “normal” schedule, siblings may return to school quickly following a death. Continuity and normalcy can bring grief relief, but re-emerging into social circles or situations can cause additional stress. In the early days, siblings may only be able to attend school for a few hours or part of a day.
Recognize that you will be overprotective. It is common to feel great anxiety and feel compelled to prevent accidents and threats to your surviving children. This will evolve over time. Try to be patient with yourself and your surviving children, recognizing that life has irrevocably changed. Set your boundaries appropriately, but try not to be too stringent on surviving children.
Ask others for help. Simple activities such as going to the park or communicating with schools can be managed by friends, families and neighbors. People want to help you. It is okay to ask.
Seek supportive resources. Search for resources that focus on sibling bereavement. There are many children’s books and camps, for example. Evermore has created a list of locally- and nationally-based resources for siblings.
While you are thunderstruck, surviving children – of all ages – need to know that you still value them.