Camp Magic Campers

Supporting Bereaved Siblings

Siblings are an important part of a child’s world and the relationship between siblings is unique. Therefore, the way siblings grieve is unique too.

Facing the death of a sibling often presents a unique set of complex and emotional challenges. Siblings often experience a range of conflicting feelings for each other, and their relationship usually changes over time. They may sway between looking up to one another and caring for each other, and feelings of resentment, responsibility or jealousy for one another.

Past sibling dynamics can often affect the surviving child’s grief. Research findings indicate that the death of a sibling may have a potentially significant impact on the psychological and physical wellbeing of the remaining child (1).

Further research reveals that some potential consequences following the death of a sibling include increased depression, suicide attempts, physician visits, anxiety, illicit substance use, mortality risk and lower educational attainment (1,2,3,4).

Suicide incidence rates between 2017 – 2019 indicate that suicide was the leading cause of death among Australians aged 15-24 years (5). The high prevalence rate of death by suicide among young people indicates that many children grieve the loss of a sibling to suicide.

5 common grief responses

Guilt: Guilt can stem from a sibling questioning why they were spared because they feel no better than, or inferior to, the sibling who died. It is important to acknowledge that many siblings feel guilty and address their irrational thoughts by reassuring them that they are just as important and loved as the child who died. It is also important to provide them with honest and clear information to ensure they don’t draw wrong conclusions and blame themselves.

Regrets: Surviving siblings may express regrets or remorse about things they did or said to the sibling who died. They may reflect on fights and instances that they “wished” that their sibling would disappear or die and believe that their own thoughts and feelings caused the death.

Normalise your child’s feelings by reassuring them that all brothers and sisters fight or disagree at times, and this is a natural part of sibling relationships. It may be helpful to explain what caused the sibling’s death.

Explain that all children feel angry or have unkind thoughts about family members from time to time, but those feelings or wishes cannot cause a death to happen.

Lack of expressing feelings: It can be difficult to talk about your child who has died, especially if you feel that surviving children are too young to understand and should be protected.

Children may misinterpret the lack of open communication, that it is not okay to talk about their own feelings about the death. They might try to hide their own feelings, or even develop physical symptoms.

Open communication will help you to understand your child’s feelings, fears, and understanding around their sibling’s death. Although it can be difficult, it is important to give children honest, age-appropriate information so that they can feel comfortable coming to you with questions, concerns and feelings.

You can also look for and use opportunities to talk about their sibling who died by sharing stories and memories.

Confusion around changes: The death of a sibling often leads to changes in the structure of the family, and in the roles of the surviving siblings. These changes may give surviving siblings a sense of pride in their newfound responsibilities, or it may result in feelings of pressure or resentment.

Some children may feel that they are expected to replace or live up to the behaviour and goals of the sibling who died. They might respond by acting out or rejecting their new place in the family, or they might take on a caretaker role.

A family meeting or one-on-one talks with a goal of discussing different household jobs and responsibilities can be an effective way for everyone to share feelings and to create new family routines.

Sadness and isolation: Some children strive to be like their sibling, some are protective, and some feel challenged by them. Nonetheless there is often a strong sense of connection between siblings.

After the death of a sibling, the surviving sibling can be left in a place of confusing emotions. Surviving siblings may experience intense sadness and feelings of loneliness and isolation. They may also experience a loss of appetite, sleep difficulties, a decline in academic performance, and/or lack of interest in normal activities.

No matter how they react to the loss of a sibling, always be honest, provide clear information and ensure they receive consistent love and care.

Parent self-care

You may feel you need to always be available for the needs of your grieving child, but it is vitally important you also take time to look after yourself and your own grief. To best support yourself through this difficult time, make self-care a priority. We have created some parent self-care guides, found on our Grief Resource Hub

Feel the Magic exists to help grieving kids heal with free camps, strategies and resources to prepare them for living healthily with grief. All our programs are evidence-informed and created by psychologists. Feel the Magic is a place where families experiencing grief can belong. All our programs are completely free to families thanks to our generous donors and supporters.

Camp Magic activity

Returning to school following the death of a loved one

Returning to school following a significant loss can bring up a range of feelings and emotions for bereaved children.

The absence of security from loved ones is a common fear. On the other hand, some children may find that the return to school feels like respite from the intensity of family grief.

No matter how they are feeling or what they are experiencing, returning to school is an adjustment that you can navigate together.

Notify the school

It is important that the school is aware of the circumstances prior to your child’s return to school, so they can help support your child during this time.

Informing the school that your child has experienced a significant loss may be a difficult task to do as a parent, and you may want to ask a close friend or family member to contact the school for you or join you during the conversation as a support person.

Involve the class teacher

The class teacher will often play a crucial role in supporting a bereaved child’s transition back into the school environment. Acknowledging to the child that they are aware of the death is a simple, although very supportive gesture.

Letting the child know that they’re available to talk or listen at any time will also make them feel more comfortable adjusting back to school.

Other strategies for teachers:

  • Create an inclusive environment throughout the school year, but be particularly mindful on days such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Involve them in decision making, such as asking if they would like to participate in the craft activities and stalls related to these days, rather than assuming they would rather not attend.   Use language that is sensitive and appropriate to all students, such as “a parent or caregiver”, rather than “mum” or “dad”.
  • Make yourself available to have open and judgement free conversations.
  • Be flexible with schoolwork and homework, as grieving children might have difficulties with their  memory and concentration.
  • normal school routines and classroom structures, as consistency in the child’s environment is crucial to maintaining their sense of psychological safety at school.

Access support from the school

If support from the school is available for your child, such as wellbeing or psychological support, it may be beneficial tuse these services.

The return to school following a significant loss is a daunting and overwhelming experience for many children. IIt is important to facilitate support for your child to express their thoughts, worries, and feelings with a qualified mental health professional. The school may also be involved in working on a plan with you to ensure your child’s return to school is as smooth and comfortable as possible.

Involve your child in a back-to-school plan

Including your child in a back-to-school plan will allow them to feel more comfortable and at ease with the transition. Examples of ideas for the back-to-school plan include:

  • Taking some time out in a safe space when they are feeling overwhelmed, such as five minutes in the book corner or a drink of water.
  • Going outside for some fresh air when they are feeling sad or upset, with a dedicated area they are allowed to go agreed in advance.
  • Bringing a special toy or object to school or using a fidget item in the classroom.
  • Academic modifications, such as reduced homework load or extra time to complete assignments.

Strategies for parents

Some children may not want to return to school, which will present various challenges for you as a parent. Here are some examples of strategies you could implement:

  • Provide your child with something to look forward to at the end of each day. This is a simple and inexpensive way of praising them for being brave. Rewards may include playing their favourite game after school or a soothing back tickle before bed.
  • It may be helpful for bereaved children to take a familiar or soothing object to school to hold when they feel sad or anxious. This could be something that helps them feel connected to their loved one who died.
  • Use language that makes it clear you expect the child to go to school (e.g., ‘when you go to school today’ not ‘if you go to school today’).
  • Try and explore why the child doesn’t want to go to school. There could be many reasons, such as feeling embarrassed, feeling like their friends will treat them differently, worries that they will be bullied, or fear about leaving the remaining parent alone. Uncovering the ‘why’ behind the behaviour is the first step to helping children address these concerns in healthy ways that don’t involve avoiding school.

Whilst returning to school following a significant loss is a major transition for bereaved children, there are also many other changes that children navigate following the death of a loved one.

Click here for further support to help your child through the changes brought by death, or book a call with one of our team to talk about how our face-to-face programs may be able to help your child.

Bereavement due to a child’s death from cancer 

No parent or sibling is ever prepared for the death of a brother, sister or child. No matter how expected or unexpected a child’s death from cancer is, each person’s grieving process will be unique.

Grief is a natural response to losing someone and people express it differently.

Some commonly experienced emotions include sadness, numbness, disbelief, loneliness, guilt, anger, relief and acceptance. It is important to remember that however long a child lived for does not determine the size of one’s loss. Death changes every aspect of family life, often leaving an enormous emptiness 

How prevalent is childhood death from cancer? 

Approximately 750 children aged 0 – 14 are diagnosed with cancer each year in Australia. Almost half (48%) of childhood cancers are diagnosed before five years of age. Nearly 20% of pediatric patients with cancer will die from their disease. Tumors of the central nervous system account for the largest number of cancer deaths for children in Australia (39%).  

Siblings 

The death of a sibling is a tremendous loss for a child. They lose a family member, a confidant, and a life-long friend.

Throughout the time period that a child battles cancer, it is likely that a significant focus is put on the needs of the sick child, often leaving siblings feeling angry, rejected, sad and lonely.

Following the death, bereaved siblings may also misinterpret their parent’s grief as a message that they are not as valued as much as their sibling who died.  

Research findings revealed that anxiety, depression and illicit substance use increased during the year following a sibling’s death. Whilst this is alarming, it is not surprising given the close bond that siblings commonly share. Another finding revealed that both children and adolescents bereaved by a sibling’s death due to cancer experienced greater behavioural problems than a normative sample.  

Children and adolescents understand loss in different ways, depending on their age and maturity level. Younger children (4 – 7 years) may think death is temporary or that cancer is contagious and they will die too.

Children between the ages of around 7 – 12 years understand death is permanent and are better able to articulate their feelings. Adolescents (12 – 18 years) usually understand the facts of death and may even struggle with their own mortality.  

How to help bereaved siblings:  

  • Ensure they understand that they are not responsible for their sibling’s death
  • Ensure they know that they don’t need to “fill in” for their sibling 
  • Try not to be either overprotective or overly permissive  
  • Make sure either a parent or close family member spends extra time with them, including talking about their sibling. 

Parents 

The death of a child is an unimaginably painful occurrence for a parent. Many parents spend months or even years caring for a child with cancer, and even if the child’s death was expected, common grief reactions include intense shock, confusion, disbelief and denial.

Bereaved parents may also experience overwhelming sadness and feelings of despair. Sometimes facing daily tasks or even getting out of bed can seem impossible. 

Bereaved parents commonly grieve for the hopes and dreams that they had for their child, their potential that will never be realised and the experiences that will never be shared. Research findings revealed that bereaved parents due to a child’s death from cancer, are a population with increased risks of long-term psychosocial morbidities. These include anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, prolonged grief, poor quality of life, and poor social functioning. Their morbidities may persist for many years following the death of their child. 

A child’s death from cancer can often leave parents experiencing the following grief reactions: 

  • Extreme guilt that they have failed as the protector of their child 
  • Intense anger and bitterness  
  • Lack of purpose now that their job as a caregiver has ended abruptly
  • Fear and overprotecting surviving children 
  • Resentment toward parents with healthy children 
  • Feeling that life has no meaning 
  • Losing faith or spiritual beliefs 
  • Intense loneliness and isolation  

Support Organisations  

The death of a child from cancer is an enormous tragedy and aftercare for bereaved siblings and their families is essential.

Redkite is an Australian organisation that provides a lifeline for families facing childhood cancer. Redkite’s services extend to supporting families with grief and bereavement by offering counselling and group support, financial assistance and bereavement support packs.

Feel the Magic is an Australian organisation that supports children aged 7 to 17 and their families after the death of a sibling or parent. Feel the Magic offer free camps, programs, resources and a community. The evidence-informed programs are delivered with the aim of empowering and supporting kids to develop practical coping strategies to grieve in a healthy way. The organisation aims to reduce the mental health challenges associated with childhood grief.  

Bereaved siblings and parents may feel that an important step in their grief journey is to create a legacy for their lost loved one. A meaningful way to honour a child that died from cancer is to volunteer or fundraise for an organisation that has a relevant cause, such as Redkite or Feel the Magic.  

child bereaved by suicide

Supporting children and teens bereaved by suicide

The CEO of Feel the Magic, Adam Blatch, was recently interviewed on radio station 2BS 95.1 FM. Adam talked about supporting children and teens bereaved by suicide.

Developmental stages and ages

During the radio interview, Adam addressed the importance of considering developmental stages and ages when providing support to bereaved children. Grief is not the same for every child, nor is the support they require, following the death of a loved one.

Listen to the interview here.

As Adam outlined, the Let’s Talk Suicide programs are supported by the NSW Ministry of Health. The programs help children navigate their grief, as well as the narrative around a death by suicide.

The virtual Let’s Talk Suicide program helps children understand mental health, suicide and grief. The program includes a pre-session workshop for parents and an information pack with various tools.

A sense of community and comfort

One of the greatest benefits is that the program allows children to connect with others of similar ages in similar circumstances, providing a sense of community and comfort.

The Let’s Talk Suicide Family Day Camp aims to bring the community closer together to support one another, with activities for the whole family.

Age-appropriate programs

Programs offered by Feel the Magic are divided into three age groups for children aged 7 to 17 years of age due to differing developmental stages of growth. As Adam explained, “We help children grasp suicidal death in different ways at different ages. We ensure that they are supported as they learn and as they grow”.

First of its kind program

Feel the Magic exists to meet the complex needs of young people who are grieving the death of a loved one. The Let’s Talk Suicide program is the first of its kind in Australia, giving children the tools and strategies to help manage their grief. Feel the Magic offers tailored programs to support suicide-bereaved children and their families and to foster a supportive community.

Find out more about Feel the Magic, the various bereavement programs we offer, or register your interest here. You can also book a call with one of the team if you’d like to find out more.

7 Things to Consider While Helping Children Deal with Loss 

From telling a child about the death of a person close to them, to dealing with their grief reactions, and finally helping them access support, there are so many things to consider while helping children deal with the death of a loved one. Whilst there are several considerations, they may vary depending on your child’s developmental age. You can find age specific advice on various topics in our Grief Resource Hub.  

  1. Remember that every child reacts differently 

How children cope with loss depends on various factors, including their developmental age, personality, the support they receive, and the relationship to their lost loved one. Whether a child cries, asks questions or doesn’t react at all, it is important to make sure they are listened to and comforted.  

It may be worthwhile to consider the benefits of a bereavement program for your child to normalise their grief reactions, help them grieve in a healthy way, and for them to feel comforted by a community. It is also important to also give your child time to heal from the loss. Grief is a process that happens over time, and each grief journey is different.  

  1. Children might need help to express their feelings 

Children can have big feelings when a loved one dies, but they don’t always have the words to express these feelings, often manifesting into feelings of frustration and confusion. It may be a good idea to start by helping them identify how they are feeling and letting them know that their feelings are normal. By labelling some of your own feelings it may make it easier for your child to share theirs.  

Children might not always feel like talking about their feelings when a loved one dies, and they may express their feelings through play. For example, drawing, music and puppet play can help children express strong feelings like sadness. Furthermore, Feel the Magic’s bereavement programs offer grieving children the opportunity to learn skills and tools to express their feelings about a death in a healthy way. 

  1. Try to keep to a routine, whilst maintaining expectations.  

Maintaining normal routines and boundaries is a way that might help a grieving child feel secure and have a sense of safety. Children find great comfort in routines, and when a child’s world is turned upside down through loss, it is important to provide consistency wherever possible. Try to keep things as familiar as possible, such as school, extracurricular activities, pets and household possessions. 

Whilst it is important to try and be consistent with rules and routines, it is important to make sure there is some flexibility in managing expectations. Bereaved children experience significant changes in their lives, so it is important to make sure they feel prepared for these changes. Expectations provide children with a great deal of comfort. It may be helpful to manage your child’s expectations for the memorial/funeral, changes to the family unit and any other adjustments to their daily lives. 

  1. Consider how grief affects children in various domains 
  • Cognitive Domain – They may have trouble concentrating and/or making decisions. They might experience nightmares, a lack of motivation, or a decline in school performance. 
  • Emotional Domain – Bereaved children tend to go in and out of the grief process. They might express elevated anxiety about the safety of others. 
  • Physical Domain – Bereaved children may feel sick more often, experience headaches, stomach aches, tiredness, lack of energy or hyperactivity. There might also be changes in their eating habits and sleeping patterns. 
  • Spiritual Domain – Grieving children may be curious about death and dying and may ask a lot of questions. They might start to question why this happened and where their loved one is now. 
  • Social Domain – Children that are grieving may become more dependent or clingy, or they might withdraw. They might also attempt to take on the role of their loved one who has died. 
  • Behavioural Domain – Bereaved children might show more challenging or demanding behaviours as well as regressions in their behaviours (such as bed wetting).  
     
  1. Don’t use euphemisms  

Children tend to be very literal and the use of euphemisms may leave a child feeling anxious, confused or scared. It may even lead them to believe the deceased will come back and that death is not permanent. It is important to avoid phrases such as “passed away”, “gone away”, “gone to sleep” and “lost”. Check out our blog post for more information on how to teach children about death. 

  1.   Help your child remember their lost loved one 

In the days, weeks, months and even years ahead, encourage your child to find ways that will help them remember their loved one that died. Remembering is part of grieving and part of healing. This can be as simple as sharing memories of the person who died or bringing up the name of the person who died so your child knows it is not taboo to talk about and remember that person. Children may also want to draw pictures, write down stories, create a memory box, write poems, or create their own memorial.  

  1. There is support available 

Giving your child a sense of comfort, reassurance, safety, love and care is extremely important. No matter what grief your child is facing, outside resources and additional support are highly recommended. Whilst you cannot protect your child from the pain of loss, you can help make sure they build healthy coping skills. Consider the benefit of support groups, bereavement programs and counselling to support grieving children.  

Child grief support

Supporting your child through the changes brought by death

Each year in Australia, around 1 in 20 children will experience the death of a parent or sibling prior to the age of 18*. Despite being so common, too many bereaved children are not accessing the vital child support that they need to grow into adulthood empowered with choice, opportunity, and personal resources.

Child support after death in Australia should enable bereaved children to live a life in which they realise their full potential, rather than feeling helpless, stigmatised, and isolated. The death of a loved one will alter their daily lives, however there are various ways to offer children and teens support after death to help them through these changes.

Supporting a child immediately after death

The initial step in supporting a bereaved child immediately after death is to create a safe space.

When talking to your child about the death of a loved one, it is important to be prompt, honest and straight forward. Use care and be direct, but also give your child a moment to take in your words. Be sure to provide your child with accurate, age-appropriate information, and avoid using vague messages as these will easily confuse a child when explaining death (such as “gone to sleep” or “gone away).

Your child may need you to explain what death means in simple terms. You may not have all the answers and that is okay. The key is to establish and open the lines of communication. It is crucial that you encourage your child to express their thoughts and feelings in the days, weeks, and months following the loss and beyond. If your child needs you to explain death, talk in terms of the body not working anymore. It is also important that they know that death is permanent and happens to everyone at some point. You might say, “Dead means the person’s body stops working. When someone is dead it can’t be fixed, and they can’t come back.”

No matter how your child reacts to the death of a loved one, comfort them, offer them hugs, and keep them close. Some children will cry, some will ask questions, and others will seem to not react at all. Reassure them that the death of their loved one is not their fault. Reinforce that they are cared for and loved, and they are safe, and you are safe.

The death of a loved one will likely mean that your child must cope with changes in their routine. Let your child know what will happen next and be clear about any new arrangements that have been made. Visual schedules can also help younger children adjust to new routines. Discuss any mourning rituals, such as the memorial service and the funeral with your child. Explain ahead of time what will happen at these ceremonies and offer your child a role (such as reading a poem or sharing a memory). It is important to allow your child to decide whether they would like to take part in these rituals.

Adapting to life after the death of a loved one

Bereaved people, including children, often find it difficult to manage the changes in their lives following the death of a loved one. When the funeral and/or memorial service is done, and people go back to work and school, it can be a difficult time for children because understandably everything feels different. It is important to support your child to move forward and create a safe environment for them to engage in a healthy grieving process.

Create a safe space for your child to ask questions, discuss their feelings, and open up about their concerns after the death of their loved one. Maintaining continuity and your child’s normal routines at home, at school, in sports and in the community will be helpful. Engaging with daily responsibilities and pastimes is important for your child’s health and enables them to move forward in their grieving process. Creating opportunities to remember the deceased person through rituals, remembrance activities, or even making a memory box may help them process their emotions.

Supporting a child through anniversaries and holidays

Certain dates, such as the anniversary of the loss, birthdays, and holidays, may heighten children’s grief as they are reminders of their loss. It is important to normalise the fact that such dates may evoke powerful memories and feelings surrounding a loved one’s death. Even though it is difficult to anticipate how your child will feel on these dates, it is best to prepare them in case they need extra support and care.

Together with your child, they may benefit from scheduling social activities and making plans for these days as a family. Making plans is a good way to remind a bereaved child that they are not alone in their grief. Another way to support your child through difficult times is to encourage reflection, remembrance, and reminiscing. You may also want to mark this day with a new tradition, such as cooking a meal that the deceased person enjoyed, lighting a candle, or giving to a cause. Lastly, offer your child time to discuss what they are feeling and what they need from you on these significant, and often difficult dates.

Seeking support for yourself and your child

In Australia, there are a range of resources and support available for both you and your child.

  • Feel the Magic provide grief education programs and camps for children aged 7 to 17 who have experienced the death of a parent, guardian, or sibling.
  • Click here to access Feel the Magic’s Grief Resource Hub which contains information to help you through a range of challenges.
  • When someone dies, it can be hard to know who you’re supposed to tell. Click here to be directed to Services Australia.
  • Read about how to cope financially after losing your partner. If you need financial support, click here to be directed to Services Australia.
  • Talk with your doctor or local community health centre if you or your child require professional support or counselling services.
  • Kids Helpline is Australia’s only free, confidential 24/7 online and phone counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25.
  • Beyond Blue provides confidential counselling services.
  • Griefline provides telephone and online counselling services.
  • Headspace supports young people (12 to 25 years) who are going through a difficult time.
  • Lifeline is a 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention service.
  • Solace provides grief support for those grieving the death of their partner.
  • Postvention Australia and StandBy support people bereaved by suicide.

* 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, Sep 2010, Parental Divorce or Death During Childhood