A Brother or Sister Dies

In losing a sibling the child loses a playmate, a companion, someone who is a buffer against the parents, someone who may love and comfort him, someone with whom he identifies and whom he admires. In short he loses someone dearly loved as well perhaps envied and rivalrously hated. These, and other contradictory emotions, may be acted out by a child over a relatively short period of time.

Expressing a wide range of emotions is healthy. It helps children become reoriented to the disruption and confusion death causes in their lives. It is healthy to be able to laugh as well as cry, to work through feelings of guilt as well as anger. Expression of emotions is the only means we have to sort through confusion. Many experience guilt over their siblings death. Thinking of all the fights they had, as siblings often do, or the harsh words spoken in anger. They may fall into a depressive withdrawal, show signs of self-hate due to their guilt, display accident- prone behaviors and/or express their feelings through violent behaviors whether to other family members or at school.

As with our own feelings, a child’s emotions must be respected; but not all at once nor every time. We may need to help children find limits to the extremes of their emotions. Tantrums need definite limits. However, it is far more important to help a child use emotions to process hurt and conflict than it is to try forcing the child to suppress their emotions. Children may become especially fearful of death, because they experienced evidence that children can die. Siblings fear that they too would die as their brother or sister had.

Be patient with children’s poor articulation and help them express exactly what bothers them. Be tolerant with answering their repeated questions. The child’s experience of the moment may be changing so rapidly that, though the same words are used, the child’s repeated questions are reflecting wholly new perspectives.

Here are some suggestions to keep in mind to help a grieving child.

  • There should be support for the surviving parent or parents to facilitate their own grief and mourning, so that they may have ego resources available to perceive and respond to their children’s needs. Sometimes support is provided by the parent’s extended family and social group. Other times it is not available, and professional assistance may be required. When parents were themselves very grief stricken, even though they were concerned for their children, they often seemed unable to perceive their distress and grief and respond to their needs to mourn.
  • There should be an opportunity for family members to share feelings and memories about the death and the deceased person. This frees feeling in the family system, so that there are opportunities for mutual and empathic comforting and consolation. This shows that the strong affects of grief will not destroy the family system. It conveys to the child the naturalness of feelings at this time and offers a model of their expression.
  • The child himself may need specific and individual support for the particular issues the bereavement brings for him. With older children and adolescents this may be provided in a non directive interview and counseling framework. With younger children, play and projective techniques are of value. Grief therapists suggest the value of a doll house, with the family from which the child can choose; some of the other usual paraphernalia of more aggressive play, such as cars and painting and drawing equipment. With a number of sessions in the period of the crisis, perhaps four to eight, the child develops enough trust to express much of his longing for the lost parent or sibling, talk or play through some of his anger at the loss, and express some of his quilt when this is a factor. Uncertainties about the death and what has happened to the deceased person are common in younger children, with guilt and personal fears appearing in those who are older. As well there may be conflicts or stresses dependent on the child’s development level and relationship with the lost person that can further complicate the bereavement.

Source: The Anatomy of Bereavement by: Beverley Raphael