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SUDC Insights is the official blog of the SUDC Foundation which shares and discusses issues important to the understanding and the ultimate prevention of SUDC. If you have questions or issues you would like to see addressed in SUDC Insights, please let us know at sudcinsights@sudc.org.

When Your Sister or Brother Dies- Sibling Bereavement Support Suggestions Part I- Immediate Care

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Losing a child is one of the most horrible situations a parent has to face, but that does not lessen the significant effect the loss has on their surviving siblings. It is not only the parents that grieve. A living brother or sister also loses a part of themselves. They lose the laughter echoing in the family room or sharing the mashed potatoes at the kitchen table. They lose a partner in their video games or a sneaky little shadow following them around the playground. A sibling’s grief is real, emotionally significant and worthy of attention.

A child may not grieve the same way an adult does. Children may also feel vulnerable or frightened. There may be guilt, not only for surviving but also if there was sibling rivalry, teasing, or complaining about their sibling in any way. As adults we know these things did not cause the child’s death, but children’s thought processes are not mature and not always rational. Remember to follow up with your primary care provider and discuss screenings, coping mechanisms, their support system, and other mental health factors and needs.

The best way to address the grieving process with the sibling of a child who has died is to assure them that they are not to blame, approach them with compassion and support, remind them that they are loved and protected, and allow them to express any feelings they need to share. Never compare or try to replace their sibling with any words, actions or activities. Allow the surviving children to shine with their own individuality and autonomy. 

Spend time with them playing things that their sibling loved, such as going to a favorite park together or coloring a picture of their sibling’s favorite cartoon. Include the siblings in memorial celebrations or remembrance events, such as planning an upcoming birthday or tribute walk.Encourage them to talk about positive memories and create a memory box, scrapbook or shadow box with some small, favorite items they can pick out themselves, such as a matchbox car, refrigerator art, bracelet or a pacifier.

It is okay to talk about death. Be honest that death happens, even to children. Invite them to share their feelings and emotions, even if you cannot answer the how’s and why’s.

In a sudden unexplained death of a sibling, finding answers can be as hard for the parent as it is for the kids, but knowing that you respect their questions and address them as well as you can, will ensure trust and understanding when it’s needed most and will help them feel more secure in the storm of confusion and uncertainty that they’re facing.

The SUDC Foundation offers support to help in the bereavement journey of children who have lost a sibling.  

We provide books, articles, resource guides, and an annual retreat to bond with others. 

Our current Family Retreat will be October 11-13 in Phoenix Arizona

To find more information on the retreat and sibling support, visit our website.  

We also have several links on this page to help communicate the needs of surviving children to educators: 

Sample letter for your child's school

When a Student Loses a Sibling: A Toolkit for Schools

Families registered with the SUDC Foundation can access more information on children and grief in the private access area for registered families section of our website.

 

by: Jill Diana Chasse, DrPH, PhD Director of Education & Grants     jill.chasse@sudc.org

References: 

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee for the Study of Health Consequences of the Stress of Bereavement; Osterweis M, Solomon F, Green M, editors. Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1984. CHAPTER 4, Reactions to Particular Types of Bereavement.

School Psychology Quarterly. 2018 Sep;33(3):363-371.  Grief and growth in bereaved siblings: Interactions between different sources of social support. Howard Sharp KM, Russell C, Keim M, Barrera M, Gilmer MJ, Foster Akard T, Compas BE, Fairclough DL, Davies B, Hogan N, Young-Saleme T, Vannatta K, Gerhardt CA.


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