A particular challenge of sibling grief is that it tends to be minimized in our society. Overall, more value is placed on the parent–child and romantic relationships than on the sibling bond. This is tragic, as the sibling bond is the longest attachment of life; the relationship with our parents is likely to end in our middle age, and relationships with spouse and subsequent children and grandchildren do not begin until adulthood. The sibling bond is our only relationship, excepting childhood friendship, that can conceivably span our entire lifetime.
When a sibling dies, the sudden reality of a death may be too much for families to accept all at once, and the needs of the siblings can be overshadowed by the needs of others in the family. This can leave grieving siblings lonely. Siblings may feel that they cannot share their feelings with an overburdened family. The failure of others to recognize the loss siblings experience may lead to feelings of frustration and abandonment.
Siblings have different needs in grief. Many times, siblings will experience a loss of identity, as their self-image is related to the person lost. They may be coping not only with the loss of a sibling, but also with the loss of functional parents.
When a young child has died, leaving young siblings, parents and other adult family members need to provide special care to surviving siblings.
- Accept your child(ren)'s feelings. Allow them to grieve in their own way and encourage the expression of feelings.
- Work on your own grief. Express any sadness, anger, and frustration. Parents and children may be drawn together by sharing each other's grief.
- Spend time regularly with each child. This will offer assurance that they are loved. Show them that they are as important as the lost sibling is.
- Help the surviving children find healthy ways to remember the deceased child. In age-appropriate ways, have the siblings write down memories in a journal, organize photos in a special album, and/or draw pictures of memories and shared activities.
- Give each child time to experience grief in his or her own way.
Take special care with changes in the deceased child’s room and with their possessions, involving siblings in discussion and decisions.
Caring Connections offers grief support groups focused on the loss of a family member or friend.