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Helping Siblings with Grief

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 Death

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.    

  • Speak honestly and directly. Use simple words such as “died” instead of “passed on” or “passed away.” Parents often want to soften what they say. However, this can sometimes make children more confused and uncertain.
  • Give clear explanations in age-appropriate language. Some children think death is not permanent. Avoid using phrases such as “God took him to heaven” or “She is with Grandma now.” 
  • Repeat the same information several times in different ways. Check to see what children understand. 
  • Think of the first conversations as only a beginning step. Offer only as much detail as asked or that the child seems ready for. Reassure children that it is ok to talk about, and that it is ok to ask questions.
  • Give children space to process information, and be available when children are ready to talk. Some children will raise the subject themselves or give small hints that they want to talk. Others might need several tries before they are ready to share what they are thinking and feeling.  
  • Talk about feelings. Children often follow parents' lead in bringing up a subject. If parents share their feelings, children are more likely to talk about their own thoughts and feelings.
Butterfly rests on a flower

One of the hardest things to do for parents who have lost a child is to talk about the child's death with their other children.

Helping Children Know What to Expect

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.   

  • Help children process their emotions and discuss how to respond to others' emotions. Reassure them that their feelings are normal and that everyone deals with grief differently.
  • As much as possible, let children know what will happen ahead of time. Reassure them that they will be taken care of.
  • Give children choices in what to do. Help them return to routines and familiar activities. 
  • As a family, talk about fears and uncertainty but find ways to reconnect to family routines and traditions.

Responding to Common Questions and Emotions

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.

Feeling guilt

 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: 

  • “Nothing you or anyone else did, thought, or said made this happen.”
  • “You have done a great job doing what was asked of you, even when it was hard.”
  • “It is not anyone’s fault.”

Wondering why their brother or sister died 

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:

  • “We do not know for sure. What do you think?” This can help parents learn what children are thinking and what they already. 
  • “It sounds like you want to talk about what happened. Do you?” Showing interest can help children feel comfortable expressing feelings.
  • “Sometimes when a person’s body is sick, no matter how hard everyone tries, they cannot make it better. Is this something you have thought about?” This response leaves an opening for children to ask more questions.

Asking what happens after death 

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: 

  • “The love we share will never go away. It will stay with us and always be a part of our lives.”
  • “There is love in every single memory we had together, and that will stay right here with us.”

Seeing the child again 

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:

  • “You will not be able to see your brother again because he is not here on earth with us anymore.” 
  • “You cannot see or touch her, but you can remember her in your heart and mind.”

Remembering their brother or sister

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:

  • “On your sister’s birthday next year, let’s pick out a balloon, go to a special place, and let it fly high in the air while we think about her.”
  • “On the first day of each month, let’s eat one of your brother’s favorite meals.”

Moving forward 

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:

  • “It is so hard to imagine not being all together. We will find ways to remember your sister and include her in our family. She will always be your sister.”

Be Honest About Feelings

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: 

  • “Mom feels sad that the medicine could not make the cancer stop growing.” 
  • “Sometimes I feel sad, and crying is one way to help get my feelings out.”
  • “Daddy is feeling really crummy right now. How are you feeling?” 

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.”

Projects to Help Children Grieve and Remember

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:

  • Making a book of quotes, memorable stories, or photos
  • Creating a book about the child’s life or favorite memories together
  • Writing a poem or song
  • Creating a blog or journal about the child
  • Saying goodbye in a letter or speech that can be given to special people 
  • Planting a tree or flower in the child’s memory
  • Writing on the outside of a balloon, or putting messages inside the balloon, and releasing the balloon into the sky
  • Finding a special item the child can take care of and keep close

Reviewed: June 2018