“I think you wish I had died instead of Becca!” What a shocking statement made to me by my daughter, several months after her sister’s death. Others of you have similar stories of how deeply your children are struggling, and how hard it is on the family.
I have had several requests to write about helping our children who are grieving the loss of their sibling. So, the next two or three articles will be devoted to this subject. What I will be sharing with you is based on:
1. What I have learned through personal experience with my own four children after the death of their sister
2. Talking to others (especially bereaved siblings)
3. What I have studied, starting about three years into my own journey
I am not a counselor, nor do I have all the answers. I think you can agree that this is a huge subject to tackle, and my prayer is that you will find a few things that are helpful with some of the concerns you may be facing with your children.
Siblings are called the forgotten mourners. If they are younger, they may be told something like, “Be good for your mom. She’s really hurting right now.” If he or she is older, they are probably asked, “How is your mom doing? This must be really hard on her!” People seem to be oblivious to the fact that the siblings are in deep grief themselves.
It is said, “When you lose a parent you lose your past. When you lose a child, you lose your future. When you lose a sibling, you lose both.”
Siblings play a big role and are meant to be the longest relationship in your life. When a sibling dies, the ones left behind lose one of the only people who shared a complete history with them. If they just had the one sibling, they lost the only person who shares the same history, and have even more layers of grief to work through.
Just some of the things these siblings are grieving are:
• the loss of future plans together
• the opportunity to grow old with someone who knew them at every stage in life
• watching their own children grow up together as cousins
• burying their parents together
• many lose a best friend (no matter the age)
I have to say that my heart goes out to my daughter every time I see something that is for sisters (like a picture frame). It is painful to see reminders that she was robbed of that relationship, knowing how often she deeply misses her big sister.
Bereaved siblings find they are constantly in the shadow of the sibling who passed, and it can put a lot of pressure on them. You, the parents, are grieving, the rest of your family is grieving, and siblings can feel pressure (imagined or not) to keep everyone together.
Sibling loss changes a person in so many ways. Just like us as parents, they will never be the same. And just like us, they continue to think about their sibling, particularly during anniversary dates, such as graduations, weddings, birthdays, holidays and other milestones in their own personal lives, painfully aware that their brother or sister is not by their side, sharing the special occasion.
And also, just like us, each child grieves in different ways, for different lengths of time. They are each on their own unique journey, because they had their own unique relationship with the lost sibling.
My oldest three were adults when their oldest sister died. My eldest son constantly affirmed his love for me, and would give me flowers, trying to help ease my loss. I also remember him throwing himself across our bed and just sobbing at how much he missed his sister. My daughter totally walked out on the family, replacing us with another family for about four years. (She is back with us now.) My middle son was newly married (two months) and was focused on his new wife and starting a family. My youngest son was sixteen when he lost his sister, and it really messed with him. He almost didn’t graduate, and is still struggling, angry that he never got to know his sister as an adult like his three siblings did.
Another issue we deal with, both as bereaved parents and siblings, are the innocent questions that can be painful to answer, such as, “How many brothers or sisters do you have?” If your child is young, you may need to help them figure out how to answer that, without insisting they always include their deceased sibling. They may find it most comfortable to answer it differently at times, based on the circumstance, which is okay. It can also change as they grow older, which is okay as well. Don’t take the way they need to answer that question as denial, lack of love or forgetting. Losing a sibling is different than losing a child, and their identity will be shifting with their loss. They need to figure this out based on their own needs, not ours.
The loss of a sibling leads to changes in the family structure in a major way. For one thing, it usually wreaks havoc with the birth order. Our daughter was the oldest, and it completely changed everything for her siblings in their established sibling “roles.” (It has also been very unnerving and sobering for each one as they become older than their oldest sister, who is forever twenty-nine.) Your child might have suddenly become the only daughter, or the only son. He or she may have just become an only child, which totally changes the dynamics and has a whole other set of huge issues for them to have to work through in their deep grief.
Up to this point, I have mostly been sharing why the death of our child affects our other children so deeply. (So often we are so consumed by our own grief, we can’t see why or how those closest to us are also deeply affected.)
In the next article, we will start looking at some of the things we can do to help them process their grief, even within our own darkness.
If you would like a free PDF version of the book From Ring Bearer to Pallbearer: Giving a Voice to Bereaved Siblings and Grandparents (exclusively from GPS Hope) just click here to be taken to our free membership library where you can sign up to become a member and access the book and many other helpful resources.
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Expressions of Hope is written by author and speaker Laura Diehl. Laura is a national keynote speaker and also a workshop speaker for both The Compassionate Friends and Bereaved Parents USA national conferences. Laura has also been a guest on Open to Hope several times, and has hosted her own conferences, a virtual conference and many webinars. If you would like more information about Laura as a speaker for your next event, click here.