A child’s reaction to their sibling’s death can vary depending on age, developmental state, socialization, and the circumstances of death; including how they found out. The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children & Families has wonderful information on the developmental stages as it relates to the concept of death, grief response, and signs of distress. You can view these details here.
Here are some tips adapted from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) to help:
Acknowledge that many siblings feel guilty, but correct inaccurate thoughts and information.
Reassure the child that all children are different and unique, and that he or she is just as important and loved as the child who died. You should also pay attention to friends or family members’ comments comparing a surviving sibling to the child who died. You should comfort your child and help others understand that this can be hurtful.
Focus on comforting connections with the sibling who died, perhaps by talking with surviving children about happy memories or special life lessons they shared. At the same time, help surviving children to see and appreciate their own unique strengths and abilities and their special place within the family.
Although difficult, keeping open communication and providing your child with age-appropriate information about their deceased sibling so that they can feel comfortable coming to you with their questions, concerns, and feelings will help you to understand your surviving children’s feelings, fears, and help them understand their sibling’s death.
Consider the impact of where and how many of your deceased child’s things are kept visible in the home by trying to include siblings in some of the decision making in age appropriate ways. age. Physical reminders can be comforting for surviving children and let them know that the person who died was a valued member of the family. If you yourself find these reminders too upsetting, look for ways that the surviving children can keep some reminders.
Encourage children to return to their regular, life affirming activities. Playing and socializing with friends can increase children’s sense of accomplishment and give them vital social support.
If children show recurring feelings of responsibility and guilt, reassure them that the death was not their fault. Explain that things often look different when we look back and think about “what might have been,” but that there was nothing they could have done at the time. Let children know that you don’t blame them for their sibling’s death.
Acknowledge surviving children’s fears and talk about them without dismissing them. Reassure children about their safety, for example, by reviewing safety plans and establishing check-in times.
Nctsn.org. (2019). Sibling Loss Fact Sheet: Sibling Death and Childhood Traumatic Grief. [online] Available at: https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources//sibling_death_and_childhood_traumatic_grief_families.pdf [Accessed 13 Nov. 2019].
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.