In many parents, grief over the death of their child causes them to pull away or become emotionally absent from their surviving children. In rare circumstances it can be intentional, but for most of us, it is because the overwhelming pain and confusion keeps us from being able to function.
This can cause the surviving siblings to:
• Feel guilty for being happy, or for needing their parents’ help for anything
• Take on adult responsibilities and feel a need to take care of their parents
• Feel they need to be perfect to avoid upsetting them further
• Be worried about who would care for them if something happened to their parents
• Fear that their parents will never recover from the loss
• Believe their parents blame them for the sibling’s death
As I said in the first of these three blogs (click to read Part 1 or Part 2), I was shocked when my daughter came to me and said she thought I wished it was her who died instead of her sister. I cannot tell you how many siblings I have heard from now who have thought the same thing.
This article was not written to lay a guilt trip on anyone. But it is important to realize that how we handle our grief will affect the bereavement process for our children, and that we need to know how to help them, especially when it causes them to believe things that aren’t true.
Outward symptoms of grief for children or teens of any age is that they may sleep or cry more than usual. They may regress and return to earlier behaviors, or they may develop new fears or problems in school. They may complain about aches and pains. They may be angry and irritable, or they may become withdrawn and isolate themselves from family and friends.
Let’s talk about some of the things that can be going on behind the scenes that we might not realize and what we can do to help them.
Survivor’s guilt about being alive. It is common that many siblings feel guilty. That feeling can be acknowledged, but correct inaccurate thoughts and information. Reassure your child that all children are different and unique, and that he or she is just as important and loved as the child who died. Pay attention to friends or family members’ comments comparing a surviving sibling to the child who died. Comfort your child and help others understand that this can be hurtful.
Regrets and guilt about previous “bad” behavior. For example, they may think that they should have been nicer to or more patient with the sibling while he or she was still alive. Surviving children who fought with the deceased sibling or at times “wished” that he or she would disappear or die, may believe that their own thoughts and feelings caused the death. Reassure them that all brothers and sisters fight or disagree at times—that this is a natural part of sibling relationships.
Explain that all children feel angry or have unkind thoughts about family members from time to time, but that feelings or wishes cannot cause a death to happen. It may be helpful to explain what actually caused the sibling’s death.
Ongoing connections with the deceased sibling in an unhealthy way such as idealizing the deceased sibling, feeling inadequate when they compare themselves to the deceased sibling, or trying to “replace” the sibling by being just like him or her. Help these surviving children to see and appreciate their own unique strengths and abilities and their special place within the family.
Feeling helpless, hopeless, vulnerable, afraid, victimized. The death of a sibling can change children’s perceptions of themselves and of the world. They become aware of their own mortality and the mortality of the people they love, which can lead to their being overly cautious and overly protective of other siblings and of their parents, because they fear that something will happen to them. They will need help letting go of that fear, in a gentle and loving way. Be aware it is a process that may take quite a while.
Being adrift and obviously lonely or isolating themselves. They may give up, not enjoy life or, in extreme cases, feel they want to join the sibling and think about their own death. Acknowledge surviving children’s fear, sadness (or whatever emotion they are displaying) and talk about them without dismissing them, validating it as an understandable response. Encourage children to return to their regular, life affirming activities. Playing and socializing with friends can increase children’s sense of accomplishment and give them vital social support
Be especially alert if children become extremely withdrawn or isolated and seek professional help immediately if they express thoughts about suicide.
Wanting to change the past: preoccupied with thoughts that they could have or should have prevented the death of their sibling. Reassure them that the death was not their fault. (If your child was involved in any way, they need to know that it was an accident, which means it was unplanned and nothing could have stopped it.) Explain that things often look different when we look back and think about “what might have been,” but that there was nothing they could have done at the time. Let children know that you don’t blame them for their sibling’s death (and make sure that is the truth).
Overly worried about physical symptoms. If the sibling’s death was related to a particular illness or to physical pain and suffering, symptoms related to those conditions can take on new meaning for surviving siblings. For example, if a sibling’s death was due to a brain tumor, they may feel frightened or panicked when they have a headache.
Children can also develop physical symptoms due to anxiety. For example, children who refuse to go to school or frequently get sick at school may be fearful of parents or other siblings dying. If surviving children express concerns about physical symptoms, avoid talking about your own fears but don’t ignore their complaints. Show concern and, if need be, make an appointment with a trusted doctor who can objectively assess the situation.
They can also experience a more intense reaction known as childhood traumatic grief. In childhood traumatic grief, children develop symptoms associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which most of us have experienced ourselves with the death of our child.
Children may be more likely to experience traumatic grief if the death was sudden or traumatic, if it occurred under terrifying circumstances, or if the child witnessed or learned of horrific details surrounding the death.
Some of the symptoms of PTSD will sound very familiar. They are having nightmares about the death, he or she can’t stop thinking about how it happened, they keep imagining their sibling suffering, constantly irritable or angry, jumpy, poor concentration, developing new fears, etc.
How do you know if you need to seek help or counseling for your child or teen?
1. If grief reactions seem to continue without any relief
2. If they appear for the first time after an initial period of relative calm
3. If the issues continue to get worse
4. If they consistently interfere with your child’s being with friends, going to school, or enjoying activities
If you are fearful, causing you to smother your children trying to protect them (many of us now have to fight the constant fear of losing another child), it will definitely affect them. I highly recommend you release them from bearing that burden. First (based on their age), explain to them why you have been behaving this way. Apologize to them. And then allow God to remove that fear. Fear brings torment and is not from God. Ask Him to give you a deep revelation of His love for you (which seems to contradict the loss of your child).
It is important to have an active support network as well as safe places to express your grief. When you manage your own grief effectively:
• it eases the burden felt by the surviving children
• it offers them a positive role model for coping
• it creates a more supportive environment for them to express their own grief
I also feel it is very important to remind you to pray for your children! I cannot stress that enough, even if you feel your prayers for the child who died were not answered. Pray for your relationship with your children. Pray for them to be set free from the harmful effects of grief. Pray they will know the truth and it will set them free. Ask God to show you how to pray, and then pray those things, remembering that often children cannot put into words what they are thinking and feeling.
Just like bereaved parents, bereaved siblings may not always look like they’re grieving, but the wounds within them run deep. Most of them eventually learn how to find or create a “new normal” for themselves.
And just like us, they don’t forget, or move on and have closure, but rather they honor, remember, and incorporate deceased siblings into their lives in new ways and continue those bonds.
Would you like to know some proactive ways to help your child with grief? We can send you a PDF with some ideas, along with a list of ways siblings have been known to experience positive growth within their loss.
GPS Hope exists to walk with grieving parents through the suffocating darkness of child-loss to a place of hope, light and purpose.
We also support families, friends and coworkers who want to know how to support these parents both short and long-term.
- If you are a bereaved parent, we encourage you to connect with us on Facebook.
- If you are not a bereaved parent but want to support those who are, or want to follow us as we give hope to these precious parents, please connect with us at Friends of GPS Hope on Facebook.
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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.