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Helping Siblings with Grief

What can parents expect when a child grieves?

Children’s grief, like adult grief, is a process. Children feel and show a range of emotions when they grieve. Feelings may include sadness, anger, guilt, or denial.

Children who are grieving may:

  • Cry
  • Misbehave
  • Withdraw
  • Have trouble sleeping
  • Not have much of an appetite
  • Have physical symptoms like a stomachache
  • Not appear to be affected
  • Use play to take breaks from grief

Children often “self-regulate” information flow. They may ask a question, listen to the answer, then go back to play right away as they process what they just heard.

These feelings and behaviors are normal responses to grief.

Talking about death

Talking about a child’s death with other children can be one of the hardest things for parents to do. Parents must consider each child's ability to understand death and its permanence. How a child processes this information depends on several factors. These include age, stage of development, and life experiences.

These conversations are not easy. But parents can do some things to begin the discussions.    

  • 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. But this can sometimes make children more confused and uncertain.
  • Explain death as simply as possible in language your child can understand. Some children think death is not permanent. You might say, “When someone dies, it means their body does not work anymore. They cannot talk or walk or eat or sleep or play…”
  • Avoid using phrases such as “God took him to heaven” or “She is with Grandma now.” 
  • Repeat the same details several times in different ways. Check to see what children understand and what fears they may have. For example, you might say, “Which part are you thinking about the most?” or “I just said a lot of things. What did you hear?”
  • Think of the first conversations as only a beginning step. Offer only as much detail as the child asks for or seems ready for. Reassure children that it is OK to talk about death, and that it is OK to ask questions.
  • Give children space to process information. Be there 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

Talking about loss with children is often difficult for parents.

Help 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.

While dealing with their own new emotions, children must cope with seeing parents' 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. This can lessen their questions and worries.   

  • Help children process their emotions and discuss how to respond to others' emotions. Encourage constructive expression even when feelings are difficult to share. For example, “I see how hurt and angry you are. When you feel that way, it is OK to punch a pillow, but it is not OK to punch your friends.”
  • Let them know 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. 
  • Talk about fears and uncertainty but find ways to reconnect to family routines and traditions.

Common questions and emotions

After the death of a brother or sister, children may have concerns that lack easy answers. Parents can try to plan for questions their children might have.

Feeling guilt

Children often feel a sense of guilt when a sibling has died. It is important to let children know they are not to blame. They 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 

In most cases, the cause of cancer is unknown. But that does not 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 know. 
  • “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 talk about what this new place might be like. Some children find comfort in discussing who else might be there and what they are doing.

Families who do not believe in an afterlife might share something like, “When our bodies stop working, they go back to the earth and become a part of the world we share with the plants and animals.”

Learning what children think happens after someone dies can comfort parents as well. This discussion can also be a chance to clear up mistaken ideas. Storybooks that match family values and beliefs can also help parents talk to children 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 is not uncommon for a sibling to ask, “Will I see my brother or 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 is 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 will still be connected to their brother or sister.

Encourage children to share their ideas about things the family can do at special times to remember their sibling. You could say 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.”
  • “What special thing would you like to do to remember her?”

Moving forward 

Grieving children often ask, “What are we going to do?” It can be helpful to admit that it is difficult to go on. Reassure children that the family will be together. You can support one another by saying: “It is 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 are not alone and that their feelings are normal. It is important to allow children to express their raw emotions.

You may want to let your children know that you share the same feelings and that it is 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 crummy right now. How are you feeling?” 

Sometimes, parents do not know what to say. It is OK for parents to delay answering a question until they feel better prepared. The most important thing is to let children know 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 grieving children is to do something with them to honor and remember their brother or sister. Children might have ideas about what they would like to do. These ideas can be a source of great comfort.

These are some project ideas to help children grieve and remember:

  • Make a book of quotes, memorable stories, or photos.
  • Create a book about the child’s life or favorite memories together.
  • Write a poem or song.
  • Create a blog or journal about the child.
  • Say goodbye in a letter or speech that can be given to special people (or placed with the deceased prior to burial).
  • Plant a tree or flower in the child’s memory.
  • Write on the outside of a balloon, or put messages inside the balloon, and release the balloon into the sky.
  • Find a special item the child can take care of and keep close.

Key points about helping siblings with grief

  • Grieving is a process for both children and adults.
  • Children feel and show a range of emotions when they feel grief.
  • Parents should talk honestly with their children about death in a way that is right for their age and developmental level.
  • Completing a remembrance project to honor and remember their brother or sister is a way to support and comfort grieving children.

Reviewed: September 2023