Supporting child siblings with grief

Your other children will be trying to come to terms with the death of their brother or sister. They will handle their grief as individuals, much like adults do, but might have quite different ways of expressing it.

Supporting yourself

It is particularly hard to see your child struggling with the same kind of pain that you have. You might be feeling guilty that you aren’t able to give them your full emotional support while you’re coping with your own feelings.

Parents are often aware that the impact of the whole experience could have been difficult for siblings. Many brothers and sisters, although no one’s fault, can feel side-lined through treatment. You might feel that you have some work to do to reconnect with them.

To begin with, it can be difficult to find any emotional energy for anyone. It may seem impossible that you can find the strength in yourself to be a parent again. If you have family members or friends who are willing, you could ask them to help support and care for your children at times when you can’t.

Don’t feel that you have to put on a brave face all the time. Your other children may think they shouldn’t express their emotions either and this can lead to issues further down the line.

How children grieve

A child’s grief can appear very different from an adult’s grief. Often, their feelings will come out in their actions and behaviour, rather than through words. Initially, children may seem to be coping well. It could be months or years before they show signs of needing support. Their grief is likely to depend on their age and may change as they develop.

Young children might struggle with the finality of what’s happened and might talk about their sibling as if they are coming back. The may regress and start wetting the bed or sucking their thumb, or have physical symptoms like stomach aches.

Grief might also manifest itself in tantrums, denial or trying to make bargains to bring their brother or sister back. They might also blame themselves or feel as though they did something to cause it. Some children might laugh, or sob uncontrollably. Equally, they might ‘carry on as normal’ and appear quite robotic.

As a general rule, children are not able to focus on their grief for long periods of time. So, their sadness may come and go.

For instance, it is quite normal for them to want to go and play after an emotional conversation.These seemingly inappropriate behaviours come from shock and not being able to deal with the enormity of what’s happened so try not to be too alarmed.

Sometimes young people become ‘stuck’ in their grief. This is usually seen in behaviours which continue over a long period of time – becoming detached from others, prolonged feelings that their life has no meaning or an inability to accept what has happened.

If you are concerned about your children’s behaviour or feelings, talk to Cruse Bereavement Care on 0808 808 1677.

What you can do

Keep an eye on younger children and talk honestly about death and dying. As they grow, it might be something they need to revisit and their grief might change over time. Look for ‘teachable moments’ in films or books to help them understand what has happened. You could also use drawing or role play.

Talk to your child and make sure they know that they are not to blame. Your affection and attention will be reassuring and even if you are upset, this will help them to express their own feelings.

Routines and consistency are important in helping your child feel safe and secure so don’t be tempted to keep them out of school for too long. Try to keep your boundaries in place and encourage them to spend time doing ‘normal’ things like playing with friends and taking part in the hobbies they enjoy.

Encourage them to remember their brother or sister. When you feel ready, you could make a scrapbook or memory box together to celebrate their sibling’s life and show them how precious their relationship was.

How Young Lives vs Cancer can support your child

Your Young Lives vs Cancer Social Worker, or someone else from the hospital team, may be able to visit your children’s school or college to offer advice if you think it would be helpful. Schools and colleges can be a place of normality for children and young people at difficult times, but teachers may need information and advice about the best way to support your family.

There may also be local bereavement support groups for siblings your children could join. These groups can be an additional form of support and will give your children a chance to meet others who have also lost a sibling.

Further reading

Organisations that can help your child

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