In the event of the horrific, senseless violence that occurred today in the Connecticut Elementary school, I wanted to talk a little bit about how you help a young child deal with the loss of a sibling.
The relationship between siblings, is always a special unique bond, no matter how strained it may appear, when it comes down to it they are friends and allies. Often when a child dies suddenly in a family, the surviving child or children have to first deal with the loss of their sibling and then also they have to deal with their parents grieving for the lost child. During this grieving process the surviving child/children can be a little forgotten in the process, leaving them to fend for themselves somewhat. Children who experience a sudden traumatic death of a sibling, often feel an increased sense of vulnerability. They can be concerned about whether this could happen to them, or even ask if their siblings death was painful or scary. So it is important to respond in a meaningful way, helping to make your child feel safe, by answering the questions with love and support. A toddler without or with minimal laguage skills won’t relate to the concept of death. The toddler will feel the absence of the sibling, but may not understand the permanence of the situation. A toddler will understand the concept of all gone, but they will need help and support from the parents to understand death, but thier understanding will be limited.
When children reach the ages of six and eight, they begin to understand the concept more of cause and effect. They will understand that death is permanent and that death usually happens to people who are old or sick. Most children of this age do not have experience with the death of other children, so when a sibling dies, this can be scary. They are faced with the reality that death isn’t just for old people! These children are much more aware of what is right and wrong, and are capable of feeling guilt. Although they are more verbal and can easily express feelings of sadness, anger and happiness, they may lack the ability to accurately understand their role in a particular death. It is not uncommon for a child to fear that their brother or sister died because of their bad thoughts. Also, a child may wrongly feel that because of their bad behavior, they are being punished with the death of their sibling.
As hard and devastating as it can be for a parent to lose a child, it is even more important to keep focus on the surviving child/children. As the parent, just being there to listen to their feelings, and answering their questions, truthfully, but with as much detail as seems appropriate for their age is important. Sometimes too much information for a young child can become confusing and scary. but just enough information can help bring a little clarity, and sometimes comfort. Don’t say things like ” Your sister has gone to sleep” as this could be really scary and might make them think the same thing could happen to them. Talking about some of the good memories of the sibling can help, change the focus to a good time, trying to laugh at possible funny situations that have happened. Helping the other children know that thier sibling is in a special place now, can help them feel a little comforted. As a younger child will communicate more through behavior, the parents or caregivers should be there to hold, and touch and stroke the child to help them feel secure. With older children it’s helpful to encourage the children to express their feelings and thoughts. If they show they are sad, scared or angry acknowledge those feeling and spend some time talking about them. Just let them know its ok to have these feelings and that its even better to talk about them. Wen they do express themselves, be sure to touch your child and hug them for security. Remember that children will do whatever it takes to let their feelings out and may seem to behave a little inappropriately from time to time by laughing at things that aren’t funny. This is just their way of adapting to the changes that have been thrust upon them. When the child sees you cry, thats ok too, and maybe you can explain that it hurts you and everyone in the family, and it’s ok to hurt. You may want to write down some of the answer you give to your child about what as happened so you can remember your responses and you can reinforce them at a later date. It’s important for your child to attend the funeral, as this will help them confront the loss, and show that death is a reality. It also gives your child a chance to say good bye.
If you find your child is clinging to posessions of the dead sibling, this is ok, even if they want to take them to bed, it will give you the chance to talk more about their sibling.
It will take a long time for the whole family to come to terms with such a loss, so a lot of patience and support and understanding will be needed by all. I wish no parent ever had to deal with the loss of a child, but to those who are, you are in our thoughts and prayers.