Dismiss Modal

Helping the surviving children come to terms with the death of a sibling is one of the most difficult tasks that most parents encounter. Why is it so difficult? In part, it is because the feelings of the child may be different than the feelings of the parents. To the younger siblings in particular, the baby was a potential rival without whom they could have easily gotten along in life. Important to the child is the fact that the death has taken mommy and daddy away for a while or that they are sad or crying. It has preoccupied the life and thoughts of the parents. It is difficult to help children answer questions that may or may not come forth: “Can it happen to me and to you, Mommy?” “Was it my fault, Daddy?”

Allow Your Child to See You Grieve

Children react to death by responding to their own feelings or by reflecting the feelings of their parents and other adults around them. Include the children in your grief. Let them see your tears. Talk about your sadness and why you are sad. Your children learn from you that it is okay to grieve openly and to express a wide range of feelings. You can be a strong role model for giving your children permission to grieve.

Discuss What Happened with Your Child

To cope with the death of a sibling, children need the assurance of love. Children need to be told about the death in clear and simple terms. Let the child’s questions guide your explanations of the death. Using the words died, dead, and death diminishes their anxiety (and yours). Using euphemisms for these words such as expired, passed away, and went to sleep may increase their fear and anxiety. For example, when the siblings go to sleep, they may have great fears that they will not awaken. Telling the child that their brother or sister was too sick to come home carries the same ramifications. If they or you get sick or have to go to the hospital, they assume the same thing may happen to them.

Discuss Emotions of Blame and Guilt

Like adults, children may experience guilt and shame when a sibling dies. For example, if they secretly wished for a baby brother or sister to die and got their wish, they may assume the blame and feel guilty for the death themselves.

Help Your Child Determine Their Role in the Final Plans

After deciding how and what to tell a child about a sibling’s death, there are some guidelines that may help you in dealing with the question, “How much should my surviving children be involved in the funeral and in other family activities?”

To help foster feelings of love and acceptance, allow the child to participate in family activities as much as they would like. Try to explain what will occur at the funeral. Allow the child to decide whether or not to come to the funeral, and support that decision. If your child does decide to go to the funeral, ask him/her to choose a close adult friend to sit with him/her. Hopefully this person will be able to provide your child with support and reassurance at a time when you are preoccupied.

Give the sibling an opportunity to give the baby a gift such as a favorite toy, a drawing or a photograph. Allow your child to be a child. Remember that children need to grieve, too.