When a sibling dies

rear view of a boy sitting on grassland
It has been said that “death ends a life, it does not end a relationship.

This statement is perhaps especially true when a sibling dies in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood.  An untimely death whose ripple effects may continue long after the farewell at the funeral or graveside.

Sibling relationships have attributes in common with all interpersonal relationships.  They also have specific unique features that reflect a special bond.

It has been suggested that siblings are likely to spend more of their lifespans with each other than with any other family member.

Siblings may use each other as significant influences, ‘benchmarks’ in the development of self- identity and understanding of the world.  Siblings play a crucial role in the development of identity.  Their relationships help define one another.

Consequently when a sibling dies, the surviving child or adolescent loses many things…a playmate, a confidante, a role model, and a friend…even someone to argue with and someone with whom they can  ‘gang up’ against parents.

Perhaps someone to grow old with, look after aging parents together.  They lose a shared history and future, a feeling of connectedness and shared activities.

The identity of siblings is frequently so intricately connected with the death of a sibling it may feel like the death of a part of themselves.  The grief of young people may at times be minimised, overlooked or misinterpreted.

The familiar pattern of their lives as for adults is forever changed.  They may feel inexpressively lonely and lost.  They may also feel regret and guilt, as adults sometimes do, wishing they had done things differently.

Life views may be challenged, e.g. that only old people die, that adults can always make things better and keep everyone safe.  It can be very unsettling for young folk and they, like adults, need time and help to relearn their new world.

How each child or adolescent responds to the death of a sibling will be influenced by a range of factors, including their age, their gender, previous experience of loss, the reactions of adults around them, individual personality, the nature of the death and the nature of the relationship they experienced with the child who has died.

It is difficult, in the early months, to feel connected to someone who is no longer physically present.  There may be for older children and adolescents, an expressed fear of ‘forgetting’.  The permanence of a ‘heart connection’ seems less than a physical presence, a person that can be touched and loved, played with and kissed.  Children and adolescents, like adults, may like to surround themselves with photos or mementos to trigger and reinforce the strength of memories.

“Eventually and gradually, there is a growing knowledge that those who have died are, always have been, and always will be a part of who we are, that no-one can take from us what we carry within.” (Dianne McKissock)

In years past, it was thought that we need to ‘leave things/people behind’, and ‘get on with our lives’.  Nothing could be further from the natural inclinations of most bereaved people, for whom ‘leaving behind’ is a most painful concept.

Current understandings about grief and the task of readjusting to a world forever changed, place more emphasis on the natural human tendency to want to stay connected in some way, to take those who have died with us into our tomorrows, albeit in a different way.

It is now more widely accepted that maintaining an ongoing connection and relationship with the person who is died is often an integral part of a healthy and successful readjustment.

For years following the death, many siblings may report that they continue to actively miss their deceased brother or sister and often experience renewed and intense grief on occasions that would be considered significant in their lives together (e.g. graduation, births, weddings, retirement, special birthdays).  Surviving siblings continually renegotiate their ‘relationship’ with their deceased sibling as they navigate successive developmental and life stages.

The whole family is heartbroken and disrupted by the death of a child.  The family, as individuals and as a unit, must restructure and readjust.  How parents model managing their grief will influence how surviving children manage.

Open communication, a sense of togetherness and parental support is crucial as is the help received from extended family and friends.

The impact of a child’s death is pervasive.  As with adults, not all children and adolescents react in the same way.

Some points to consider:

  • Children are less likely to be able to describe their emotions and/or reactions.  They show their hurt in other ways, e.g. crying, withdrawing, seeking attention, misbehaving, complaining of aches and pains, picking fights, arguing, having nightmares.
  • Age and development significantly influence a young person’s ability to understand death.  Adults with all their life experience and complete development will frequently feel overwhelmed by the enormity and finality of death.  It, therefore, can become puzzling and confusing for children.
  • A sense of normalcy is lost.  Bereaved children may feel very different from their peers:  the family may feel different.
  • At times children may feel that the child who has died was the preferred or favourite child, mainly as they observe parents become preoccupied or all consumed by their grief.
  • Sometimes the child who dies is idealised, their admirable qualities emphasised and surviving siblings may feel inadequate in comparison.
  • Often the rest of the world asks how the parents are doing, not recognising or validating the grief of surviving children.  Siblings work through their pain in bits and pieces.  Play, school and continuing normal activities are powerful tools that help children and adolescents manage by moderating their grief, allowing them a chance ‘to be normal’.
  • Children and adolescents will reprocess the death and its impact over time as they mature and develop.
  • Some siblings are not verbal in expressing their thoughts and feelings.  They may choose not to talk much about their sibling who has died.  Sometimes, protectively, they may choose not to talk to parents and may turn to others instead.
  • Life for adults, ‘sibling’ memories may be triggered by places, objects and songs.  It is important to prepare siblings for these experiences and let them know this is normal.  It may even be useful to share your own parental triggers.
  • Many children report thinking about their sibling at special family times.  It may be helpful to anticipate this beforehand and talk about these important life events and the absence everyone feels.
  • Children may be encouraged to carry their sibling’s photograph or other small link that brings a touch of comfort.
  • Many children continue to talk to their sibling quietly internally.
  • Some prefer to start journals.

There are no right or wrong, “set’ ways to foster a sense of connectedness.  Rather an atmosphere of tolerance, encouragement and open communication are most likely to enable bereaved siblings to find personal and special ways to stay connected to their brother or sisters.

It is important to note that as this is a process that changes and evolves over a lifetime as do the needs of the grieving child.

A child who dies remains an integral part of an individual’s and a family’s past and present.  The bond in future will of course be different with change and the challenge for survivors is how to be and act in a world without those we love by our side in the physical.

grayscale photo of baby feet with father and mother hands in heart signs
Thanks to my good friend and colleague Vera Russell.

Supporting Grieving Adolescents

fantastic-wallpaper-with-butterflieMany bereaved families may have surviving adolescent children who are mourning the loss of their brother or sister.

This is often new territory both for the teenager and also for the parents trying to work out our best to care for them especially when they are feeling so emotionally depleted.

Some things to think about:

1. Grief is not always visible

Grief is not just the outward display of emotion. It is also the thoughts and behaviours that we experience in response to the death of someone we love.
As adolescents are in the process of becoming more independent of their parents and other important adults, they may at times feel reluctant to show feelings or talk about their thoughts as it can reinforce a sense of dependence and vulnerability. They may also choose to inhibit some of their thoughts and feelings out of a desire to protect their families. They may also prefer to share their experiences with their peer group.

Strategy: Be available

It is when we are listened to and heard is when we feel most understood. Create a home environment where open communication is encouraged. Convey to them that it is okay to have the thoughts and feelings that they may have and that you will be available should they decide to let you know what is going on with them.
As with adults, at the beginning of grief, it is sometimes very difficult to communicate what we are thinking and feeling…it is no less difficult for adolescents who have less life experience than adults and who, when they are feeling vulnerable may find it difficult to put things into words.

2. Don’t try to “fix” the pain associated with grief

It is difficult and uncomfortable for parents to witness the pain of their children. They usually want life to be okay for their children and are pained by what they see and uncomfortable about the helplessness it can create in them. This means that we may want to take away or fix the pain of those we love. This may take the form of avoiding conversation about the person who has died or distracting them from thinking or feeling their pain. While this may be momentarily effective, it can result in the adolescent hiding their grief or withdrawing or expressing their grief in destructive ways.

Strategy: Talk about the loss

Invite the adolescent to talk about the person who died. Encourage questions. Should the teenager not want to talk, respect this. Offer others that they may speak with about their feelings.
Always answer questions honestly and clearly. If you do not know the answer to something, say so. Share your memories, thoughts, beliefs and don’t expect that your teenager will always see things as you do.

3) Understand that grief does not proceed in orderly predictable stages.

Young people grieve in doses. Like with adults, their grief is more likely to go in waves. Sometimes adolescents may have outbursts of grief after a period when they have seemed perfectly okay. Know that this is normal. Their grief like yours, may at times seem unpredictable. They are no better at grieving or making sense of the world than adults. The difference is that they may seem unaffected for periods of time and a burst of emotion can catch parents unawares.

Strategy: Allow for adjustment

Because grief does not proceed in an orderly fashion, teenagers need to be allowed leeway as they adjust to a life forever changed. Providing a secure, consistent environment with predictable routines is important. This helps to generate a renewed feeling of safety and security. Be aware of any danger signs such as violence, drug and alcohol abuse, risk-taking behaviour or dramatic changes in personality. Seek help when necessary.

4) Model Healthy Grief

Like all of us, adolescents learn from those around them. They will pick up implicit and explicit messages from those around them on how to grieve. This is how they think they should behave or are expected to behave. They take their cues from important grown-ups in their lives (even if they do not look like they are paying attention).

Strategy: Mourn together

Be aware of the messages that they may be receiving from those around them about how to grieve and offer alternatives when appropriate.
The more adolescents observe healthy communication and the appropriate expression of the many feelings associated with loss, the more likely they may understand, accept and manage the breadth of emotions and thoughts they may have.

Try as much as possible to consider what things might look like from their perspective. Give thought to the closeness of the relationship your teenager shared with their brother or sister. Acknowledge the deep loss it is for them too.

When you can, in the midst of your grief, set aside time, attention and availability for the adolescent. That does not necessarily mean talking about the death but maybe just time spent together doing something that is fun and thereby communicating that they matter and they too are important.

Finally, remember that this is new for all of you and that there will be some trial and error as families become better able to take care of each other.