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Much like adult grief, children’s grief is a process. Like adults, children feel and show a range of emotions when they experience grief. Feelings may include sadness, anger, guilt, or denial. Reactions may include crying, misbehaving, withdrawing, or other changes in behavior. Children may have trouble sleeping or not show much of an appetite. These feelings and behaviors are normal responses to grief.
Talking about a child’s death with their other children can be one of the hardest things for parents to do. In addition to meeting emotional needs, parents also have to consider each child's ability to understand death and its permanence. How a child processes this information depends on several factors including age, stage of development, and life experiences.
There is no way to make these conversations easy. But, there are some things that can help parents begin the conversations.
Knowing what to expect gives children a sense of security. For many children, the death of sibling is one of the first times that they have experienced real loss and grief. In addition to trying to cope with their own new emotions, children must cope with seeing parents' emotional responses. This can sometimes make children uncertain or afraid. Children also don't understand the practical concerns that families must deal with after death.
It is important for children to have a sense of what will happen in the short- and long-term. This can lessen a child’s wondering and worries.
After the death of a brother or sister, children often have a number of concerns during the grieving process. These concerns don't always have easy answers. But it can help parents to anticipate questions that children might have and possible ways to respond.
Children often feel a sense of guilt when a sibling has passed away. It’s important to let children know they are not to blame and should not feel guilty for what happened. Approaches to discussing this include:
For the vast majority of children, the causes of cancer remain unknown, but that doesn’t stop parents from asking why it happened. The same is true for children. A few ways of responding could be:
If families believe in an afterlife, parents might consider having conversations about what this new place might be like. Some children find comfort in discussing who else might be there and what they are doing. Learning what children think happens after someone dies can be comforting to parents as well. This discussion can also be an opportunity to clear up mistaken ideas. Storybooks that match family values and beliefs can also help parents have conversations about death. Parents might say something like:
It’s not uncommon for a sibling to ask, “Will I see my brother/sister again?” Depending on spiritual beliefs, parents might respond with something like:
It’s important to make sure children know that their brother or sister will always be a part of the family and will not be forgotten. Children might want to hear specific stories or memories. Sharing about dinners, holidays, birthdays or favorite activities can reassure siblings that they can still be connected to their brother or sister. Children may have ideas for things to do at special times to remember their sibling. This conversation can be started by saying something like:
Grieving children often ask, “What are we going to do?” It can be helpful to acknowledge the difficulty of pressing on. Reassure children that the family will be together and support one another by saying:
When parents express feelings, it can help children understand that they aren’t alone and that their feelings are normal. It is important to allow children to express their raw emotions. Parents can validate children's emotions by letting them know that they share the same feelings and that it’s normal. Possible ways of discussing this include:
Sometimes, parents don’t know what to say. It’s ok for parents to delay answering a question until they feel better prepared. The most important thing to communicate to children is that it is ok to ask questions. If children know that parents are also wrestling with answers, then they can be more honest about their own struggles. A simple response might be: “That is a tough question. I have been thinking about it, too.”
One way to support the grieving process is doing something with children to honor and remember their brother or sister. Children might have ideas about what they would like to do, and these ideas can be a source of great comfort. Examples include:
Reviewed: June 2018