The death of a sibling is a tremendous loss for a child. Children may face a range of feelings and thoughts following the death of a sibling. These feelings can be further complicated if their sibling faced a prolonged illness or terminal diagnosis.
Grief can happen while expecting a loss
Although grief is often understood to happen after a loss occurs, grief can occur for those expecting a loss as well – this is called “anticipatory grief”.
Siblings of children facing a terminal illness may experience anticipatory grief in the months, weeks and days before the death.
Anticipatory grief can carry many of the symptoms of regular grief, including sadness, guilt, anger and isolation.
Older children and teenagers that are aware of the impending death might experience an overwhelming sense of anxiety in the lead-up to their sibling’s passing. They might also grieve the loss of their sibling’s abilities and independence, their loss of cognition, loss of hope, loss of future dreams, loss of security, and a loss of identity.
Anticipatory grief may also result in feelings of relief when the death eventually occurs, and guilt that can come with that relief. These feelings are common and normal.
5 ways to cope with anticipatory grief
- Find someone to talk to about your feelings. This may be a close family member, school teacher, social worker, or professional counsellor or psychologist.
- Keep a journal to record and work through your feelings.
- Try to maintain a healthy, balanced diet, and find adequate time to exercise and engage in self-care.
- Try meditation or relaxation exercises to soothe the body’s physiological stress responses.
- Consider creative outlets to express your feelings.
When a sibling is terminally ill, children adjust to this significant loss, and the impact on their parents.
Parents are often overwhelmed with their own grief and may need help addressing the needs of grieving siblings.
A surviving child may feel the need to “fill in” for the terminally ill child or the child who has died or may worry that the parents would have preferred if he or she had died rather than the sibling. It is important for parents to recognise the grief of surviving siblings and support them.
Common Grief Responses in Children of Different Ages
Following the death of a sibling, every child copes differently and there is no right way to work through feelings of grief. Below are the common grief responses in children of different ages.
Children under the age of 5 may:
- Be affected by the emotions of those around them.
- Grieve in doses, alternating between displaying grief and playing as if nothing has happened.
- Ask confronting questions about death.
- Seek attention or show signs of insecurity.
- Feel guilty or responsible for their sibling’s death.
- Digress developmentally e.g. bed wetting.
- Act out their feelings or use play and toys.
Children of primary school age may:
- See death as reversible or become more anxious about the possibility of other close loved ones dying.
- Be curious about death, and burial rituals and ask detailed questions.
- Take time to absorb the reality of what happened and may not appear immediately affected by the death.
- Be quick to blame themselves for their sibling’s death.
- Worry about their parents who are grieving and feel a sense of responsibility for making them happy again.
- Act out feelings rather than talk about them.
- Be concerned about what their peers think and have a sense of isolation or separation.
- Grieve in doses, breaking their grief into bearable amounts, but this can sometimes result in intense outbursts.
- Experience many emotions and thoughts that come and go, which can feel confusing, and at times overwhelming.
- Feel guilty that they were unable to save their sibling.
- Not want to talk about their grief.
- Have problems sleeping or oversleeping.
- Feel isolated or separated from their peers.
How to support children bereaved by the death of a sibling
- Encourage them to share their grief with other family members. This may help them work through the pain and sadness they are experiencing.
- Find support outside the family. Whilst it can be helpful to seek support from family members, it can also be hard for some family members to provide consolation while coping with their own grief. Consider the support of a teacher, psychologist or counsellor. An organisation such as Feel the Magic is also a great setting to receive support.
- Help them find ways to remember their sibling. Finding ways to memorialise their lost loved one can help keep his or her memory alive and maintain a feeling of connection. They might decide to make a family memory book with pictures or stories.
- Consider volunteering with a related charity or one that was important to the bereaved sibling.
- Ensure their mental health is taken care of too. Feeling extremely sad or numb are normal reactions to the loss of a sibling. Although sometimes these and other symptoms do not lessen over time, feelings of hopelessness, anxiety or anger can begin to affect their daily life. If grief is becoming too difficult to manage alone,
seek adequate professional support if needed. We have curated a list of other grief support organisations here.
Information and support are available
For more information to help you through a range of challenges, see our Grief Resource Hub. It is full of parenting resources, segmented into age-appropriate sections, to guide you through all stages of the grieving process. It covers everything from parenting through a terminal illness, to coping with anniversaries, how to speak to a child after an immediate loss to getting through the first 12 months and beyond. Additional grief support services can be found here.