The emotional turmoil of the death of a child will be felt by the whole family and our surviving children’s ability to understand what has happened will be governed by their age.
Babies have no concept of death but may react to the emotional turmoil of grief and their behaviour may mirror the sadness around them. There is now greater realisation that babies can suffer the long-term effects of grief, especially in multiple births where one dies.
Young children have a limited concept of death and no understanding of its permanence. They may not be able to verbalise their feelings but may still show distress. Small children have a short attention span, cannot sustain grief in the same way as adults and may ask the same questions repeatedly. Some bereaved children become fearful that they too may die or that their parents may suddenly disappear. It is important to answer their questions honestly and to avoid euphemisms.
Older children and teenagers will have a deeper understanding of death and may have their own beliefs. They may show an interest in the physical details and have questions around burials or cremations. Some may regress or become withdrawn. Often siblings feel at ease only with their closest friends even though these friends may themselves have little experience of bereavement.
Our surviving children’s place in the new family structure will be different; they may now be the oldest child or the youngest, possibly the only child. This could lead to new anxieties or responsibilities.
Children’s reactions can vary but they should be reassured that crying, trying to emulate their sibling, regressing, living in the past to keep memories alive, struggling to forgive themselves for being mean or fighting with their dead sibling, not wanting to go on living, feeling lonely and isolated, experiencing anger, guilt or frustration, not wanting to talk about their sibling, feeling fearful that something bad will happen to other loved ones or themselves, and wanting attention are all normal.
We need to be vigilant for signs that our surviving children may be reacting to their grief in ways that are unhealthy or destructive such as self harm, alcohol or substance abuse, hurting others, and harbouring thoughts of suicide (particularly if their sibling has taken their own life).
Leaving home can be especially difficult in the aftermath of bereavement. Parents may find it hard to let go and the surviving child may worry about their parents coping without them. We may be over protective or controlling of our remaining children.
Our surviving children may find it helpful to talk to other bereaved siblings and TCF’s quarterly newsletter Support in Bereavement for Brothers and Sisters (SIBBS) is written especially by and for people over 18 years old who have lost a brother or a sister. TCF’s leaflet A Sibling’s Grief for Young Adults may also be helpful.
TCF’s leaflet Our Surviving Children expands on all these points as well as exploring issues around attending funerals, social media, family memorial projects, and managing future family occasions without our child.
Each year thousands of parents suffer the loss of a son or a daughter. Please help us to support families in their time of greatest need.