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.
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.