Parents: Helping Siblings Come to Terms with Grief

Honesty is the Best Policy

Especially in the case of very young children, our initial instinct may be to “protect” or “shelter” our offspring from a tragedy with which we, as adults, are barely able to cope.

We tell ourselves that they are “too young to understand.” We may leave them out of the discussions and rituals associated with the death. This can be a serious mistake. Whether we talk about it or not, our children will certainly become aware of our own feelings of sadness.

Failure on our part to be open and honest about those feelings leaves our children feeling anxious, bewildered, and alone. They will be left on their own to look for answers to their questions at a time when they most need the help and reassurance of those around them, and may end up coming to the conclusion that they are personally responsible for Mommy and Daddy’s tears.

Sharing grief as a family can be a meaningful experience for everyone involved and an important opportunity for growth.

Talking to Children About Death

You should try to inform the other children of the baby’s death as soon as possible after it happens. It is important that you do this yourself and that you let your children know right away that nothing is so scary or painful that you cannot talk about it together.

Use simple, straightforward language, and try to avoid euphemisms such as “passed away”, “asleep”, “lost”, or “gone”. If your children are too young to know what the word “dead” means, help them to understand by using images drawn from the world they are familiar with – fading flowers, a dead animal seen in the road or yard, the death of a family pet.

Remind them that being alive means breathing, talking, walking, eating, etc., and tell them that being dead means that all of these things stop. Do not compare death to sleeping, since this may lead to sleep disturbances.

It is also best to avoid linking death too closely with illness. Doing so may cause children to panic the next time a family member catches a cold. Reassure children that they are well and be aware that the first time they are sick following the death may be especially stressful for them.

Children may not conceive of death or express their feelings about it in the same way that adults do, but this does not mean that they are incapable of understanding it on their own level and coping with it. Death has to do with change and with loss.

Children are familiar with change. With each passing month their entire universe undergoes enormous changes – they outgrow their wardrobes, see the world from higher and higher vantage points, develop new cognitive and emotional capabilities before our eyes.

Children also know about loss. The disappearance of a favorite toy, leaving behind an old neighborhood and friends to move to a new home, the arrival of a living brother or sister, the end of a vacation or even the end of a movie may provoke emotions comparable in their intensity to the mourning which follows a real death.

Answering Children’s Questions

Children need to know that their questions are valid and welcome. The questions may not necessarily come all at once. Instead they will reflect a child’s individual progress in understanding and assimilating a powerful experience.

Encouraging your children to ask questions can do much to reduce their anxiety. Many children will ask what will happen to the body of the infant. In simple terms, explain the necessity of burial, cremation, etc., because of decomposition.

If you are planning a funeral, let children know what to expect and include them in deciding how they will participate.

Being left out of the family rituals surrounding death is not helpful to children and may, in fact, leave them feeling even more confused by the death. Under no circumstances should they be forced to attend or to do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing.

Children will also want to know why the death occurred. Again, simple, honest statements will be the most helpful. If the reasons are unclear, it is all right to say you don’t know. If you believe in a hereafter, you will of course want to share this belief with your children.

It is best, however, to be cautious about using statements such as “God took the baby to heaven” or “God loved the baby more than we did.” Explanations of this type tend to identify God as the agent of death, which can be a particular problem for children between the ages of 6 and 9, since they often think of death as a person anyway.

Such statements can also cause resentment against God or a conflict in children’s minds about what it means to be “loved by God.”

It is important to stress that no family member could have caused or prevented the death by their actions or thoughts. This is especially crucial if the pregnancy was unplanned, or if any family member had doubts about wanting the baby.

Young children believe that wishes are powerful, and may decide that the baby was harmed by their own thoughts or by those of another family member.

Recognizing Children’s Responses to Grief

The reaction of your children to the death of a sibling depends to some extent on their age. Even within the same age group, a wide range of responses is normal.

One child may talk incessantly about what has happened while another behaves as if he or she has not been affected at all.

Preschoolers tend to view death as temporary because the concept of permanency is beyond their level of sophistication.

For children of this age, it is sufficient to gently indicate that no, the baby will not come back – understanding will come naturally as the child grows older. Preschoolers and younger school-age children may develop fears which grow out of fantasies about their own or their parents’ death.

Because dealing openly with strong emotions is difficult for this age group, they may deal with them piecemeal over a long time in their questions, in dreams, and in their play. Play is in fact the primary mode of expression for children up to the age of 12.

When watching children play, it is important to understand the themes that underlie the play. Having an adult participate in the play in a way which leaves them in control but shows that you understand the events they are creating and provides them with a way to express what is happening in words can be extremely helpful to them as they work through the grief process.

Regression to an earlier stage of development is also common for children in this age group. For example, thumb-sucking or bed-wetting may reappear (or appear for the first time), and a child who has been toilet-trained may need to go back into diapers.

Parents should remain tolerant and supportive, keeping in mind that these regressions are only temporary. It is important to let your child express a wide range of feelings while mourning. Limits must be set, of course, when children are at risk of harming themselves or others or of destroying property.

If your child needs to be physically restrained from continuing to throw or break objects or from hitting others, be sure to acknowledge the child’s pain while holding him or her, and let the child know that he or she needs to find another outlet for his or her feelings.

Preteens and teenagers will have a somewhat more adult view of death and will grieve much the way you will. They understand the permanency of death, but they may need to deal with the issues of why and of fault. Because of their stage of psychological development, adolescent girls may have an especially difficult time dealing with the death of an infant.

They may feel a considerable amount of anxiety and/or anger about this happening. Children of all ages will grieve and must be allowed to do so to relieve the feelings generated by the loss of a family member.

On the other hand, grieving should not be a requirement. Children should be given room to feel what they feel and to work through their feelings at their own pace.

Experts say that 6 months after a significant death in a child’s life, normal routine should be resuming. If the child’s reaction seems to be prolonged, seeking professional advice from those who are familiar with the child (teachers, pediatricians, clergy, etc.) may be helpful.

On the other hand, it should come as no surprise if children need to rethink the event months or even years afterwards and begin asking more questions.

Ways to Help
  • As soon as possible after the death, explain what has happened in a simple and direct manner.
  • Listen to the child and try to understand both what is being said and what is not said.
  • Encourage questions. Keep answers brief, straightforward, and to the point.
  • Let children know that death is an open subject and that it is okay to feel sadness and to try to talk about it.
  • Maintain normal routines as much as possible. Children crave and are reassured by regularity and structure.
  • Show affection.
  • Reassure children about the cause of death.
  • Be tolerant of regression and other behavior changes.
  • Let your child attend the funeral or memorial service.