continued from above.....
If a child's brother or
sister is killed at a time when their relationship was troubled, as in sibling rivalry, the death may be more difficult to
If a child has emotional support from the parents or major caretaker following
the death & expression of feelings is encouraged, the child will probably adjust satisfactorily.
If you're a parent whose child has been killed, you may find that too many people need you. You may find yourself
comforting your mate, relatives, or friends because they can't come to grips with what has happened to your family. At some
point, their needs can overwhelm you & you must withdraw to survive.
surviving children are experiencing the trauma, you may be tempted to put them on a plane or bus & send them off to be
with someone else who loves them. You wish you could help them escape the pain & you feel guilty because you can't comfort
them. Simply "hanging on" yourself may be your top priority or the only task that you can handle.
It's best for families to grieve together. A young child shouldn't witness the total collapse of a parent, but
tears which overflow out of sadness for what has happened, are to be shared.
impossible to go through life without hurting. It would be wonderful if we could promise our children life without pain. We
can't. Grieving together will teach your child that ugly & unfair things happen & that we can survive them.
Young children don't just look to their parents as models. They usually believe, at least until
they reach adolescence, that parents are all powerful & all knowing. They'll trust you more than ever if you are honest
with your feelings & if you don't tell them half-truths about the killing of your child.
A child who watches a lot
of television or sees a lot of movies may have warped ideas about death. Honest communication can result in valuable lessons
for your child.
Like adults, children differ in the way they react to death. Their
age, their ethnic customs, their religious beliefs, the relationship they had with their brother or sister who was killed,
will all make a difference. The most important component is how you, the parent, relate to them in the aftermath of the killing.
Children are not miniature adults. Children have their own distinct way of understanding things,
depending on how old they are. Young children differ from adults in that they can endure strong feelings for only a short
period of time. As an adult, you may feel that your grief goes on & on.
A few years from now you
will look back & see that you are better than you were before, but now it may seem that the pain is constant. A child,
on the other hand, grieves deeply for awhile & then seems to be content & carefree. Maybe tomorrow, he will misbehave
or show a violent outburst of anger, while later that evening he will want to play games.
Children grieve on an intermittent
basis for years after the death of their brother or sister. As they move thru their developmental stages, they'll understand
death in a new way & grieve all over again according to their new understanding or level of maturity.
Developmental levels vary
greatly in children, as do their environments. Therefore, a child's specific age isn't always a clear indicator of how she
will grieve. The age ranges below should be interpreted very liberally.
Infants & Toddlers
Before the age of three months or so, a baby may be as content with their
caretakers as he is with his mother, unless the mother is nursing. He has little, if any, memory of family members when they
are out of sight. If a constant caretaker continues to nurture and care for him, he will have minimal reaction to a loss in
As the infant grows, he usually develops anxiety when around strangers, a sign that he is bonded to his mother
or major caretaker.
From that age on, a child who loses a parent will grieve.
He clearly knows the parent he depends on to feed, clothe, bathe, talk to, and play with him. His grieving the loss of a parent
may look like a diffused sense of distress with whimpering, loss of appetite, loss of speech if he has learned to talk, and
finally, quiet resignation. A toddler is not likely, however, to deeply grieve the loss of a brother or a sister unless the
sibling had assumed a major care-taking role.
A toddler will pick up on the feelings
expressed in the home. That is why calm nurturing is important. Explanations about death won't have meaning for him. What
the people who love him do is more important than what they say. Holding, cuddling and stroking are ways of assuring him that
he is cared for. They are more important than words.
Ages Four Thru Six
A child in this age range is still unable to understand what death
is or that it is permanent. It is likely, though, that he or she has discovered dead birds in the yard or has seen something
dead, which was simply picked up and discarded. A young child may respond to the death of a sibling, therefore, in a matter-of-fact
manner. He may speak of the death of his sibling almost as he would the death of a pet. He may be aware that something bad
has happened, but not that it is devastating. This can be terribly upsetting to parents who don't understand that for his
level of understanding, he is responding normally.
The death of a brother or sister
is best explained to a young child in physical terms because his thinking is very concrete. "Your brother was in his car when
another car crashed into it. It hit so hard that his body got crushed inside the car. It was broken so badly that his heart
stopped working and no one could get it to start up again. So, your brother doesn't breathe anymore. He can't talk or move
anymore. He doesn't have feelings. He can't feel hot or cold, or wet or dry. He can't feel happy or sad. His body doesn't
feel anything anymore, so we will bury his body in the ground (or whatever your family's choice is for the final resting place
of the body)."
A child at this age will have difficulty understanding the concept
of soul or spirit. If you believe in a spiritual afterlife, it is still important to explain to your child that his brother
or sister's body will be buried or cremated. You might explain that the part that now lives in Heaven is the part that was
able to love and have feelings. If your child is told that his brother or sister has "gone to Heaven and is now happy with
God," but the family is extremely upset, and the child later learns that his sibling is at the funeral home or the cemetery,
he will not only be confused, but he will feel betrayed.
Your child aged 4 thru 6
has a sense of right & wrong, not so much because of an inner sense of morality, but because he's been praised for doing
for "good" things & punished for doing "bad" things. He still clings to many mystical beliefs based on fairy tales he
hears & television shows he watches. Therefore, it's quite easy for him to believe that his brother or sister was killed
because he did something bad. If he has wished his siblings would go away, as all brothers & sisters sometimes do, he
may be convinced his wishing made it so. Most children have death wishes. Your family has been invaded by death. Your child
may assume, therefore, that it's his fault.
It's extremely important for your child to know that the death
of his brother or sister was not his fault. Explaining death in concrete, physical terms will be helpful to him.
your child is still limited in vocabulary, especially when it comes to describing feelings, he is likely to try to master
his loss thru play. You can be very supportive to your child if you pay attention to his play whether it be re-enacting the
killing, playing funeral, or playing "house". Asking questions such as, "Why is little brother crying?" can help your child
begin to verbalize what he feels.
It wouldn't be unusual for your child at this age
to develop eating or sleeping problems. As a matter of fact, you can almost expect sleeping problems if your child has heard
that his brother or sister "died in their sleep" or that dying is just like "going to sleep." Bowel or bladder problems can
also return & are fairly common symptoms of emotional stress. If the problems are intense or last so long that you feel
they are interfering with your child's health, a doctor should be consulted.
Age Seven thru Eleven
Somewhere in this age range, your child will come to the understanding
that death is final and that everyone eventually dies. This awareness can be traumatic for the child because he is still so
dependent on his family that he can't imagine surviving without them. He may realize that he, too, will die. This new awareness
is frightening for any child. But when his brother or sister, who is likely near his own age, has been killed, he must face
death immediately. He also now realizes that it is not just old people who die.
For children this age, death is seen
as an attacker who intrudes and takes life. Your child may be very fearful that he, too, will be killed. It is a realistic
fear, based on what has happened. It would not be unusual for your child to develop fears or phobias about anything related
to death. He may complain of physical aliments, withdraw, and become excessively careful and cautious. Children in this age
range are more likely than other children to exhibit behavior problems following the death of a sibling. This may be especially
true if they are the only remaining child in the family.
If your child is in this
age range, he has had more years to experience sibling rivalry, more memories of fights with his brother or sister, and more
death wishes. Even more than when he was younger, he may feel that he was responsible for the killing of his brother or sister.
He is not intellectually mature enough to persuade himself of his innocence, so he will need help in correctly assessing blame.
The child in this age range now has an expansive vocabulary and can think abstractly enough to
openly express his pain, fears, anger and guilt. He is not only sensitive to his own feelings, but he can also enter into
the feelings of others. He is able to empathize. He not only needs comfort and support, he can be a source of comfort and
support to others. Doing so will make him feel better. He must never be led to believe, though, that he is responsible for
making the family feel better. He is not a parent. He is still a child.
that your child participate fully in the family's grieving. He should be told the truth. If he has never attended a funeral
before, he should be told ahead of time exactly what to expect. He should share in decisions about the funeral and in grieving
rituals during the months and years following. He should be encouraged to be open with his grieving. And you should not hide
your grieving from him.
A word of caution is called for regarding this age range.
Because your child can comprehend something of the depths of your despair, he may attempt, in some way, to replace his brother
or sister who has been killed as a means of helping you cope. You must tell him clearly that no one can replace your child
who has been killed. You must help your surviving child to understand that his place in your heart can be filled no other.
Another word of caution has to do with putting the child who was killed on a pedestal. It is important
for you to remember your child who was killed as realistically as possible. Because of guilt concerning the bad times, it
is easy to push those times out of consciousness and recall your child as nearly perfect. This can be devastating for siblings.
To them, it appears that you love them less and that they can never measure up to what they witness you expressing about your
dead child. This can cause them to withdraw now or later on when they reach adolescence.
child in this age range may have difficulty in school. Grieving children are confused and have difficulty concentrating. If
the school problems continue for months, this may be a sign of deeper underlying stress which may need professional attention.
The developmental goal of adolescence is to "leave home"- to begin to leave emotionally, and eventually to leave
physically. In the process of preparing to separate, your child becomes less family oriented and more peer oriented. He finds
out who he is and what he believes by venturing out into unknown territory.
He is basically insecure and may be somewhat
self-centered in order to compensate. He is suffering a lot of losses as he moves through adolescence-the loss of security
of having mother and father making decisions for him, the loss of innocence, and the loss of protection by his family.
your adolescent is shaky and insecure, the sudden death of a brother or sister is something he definitely does not want to
face. He knows he must, but he may frantically try to escape it. He faces several dilemmas. He is mature enough to understand
life like an adult. On the other hand, he is more vulnerable than adults because he is experiencing so many other losses and
A teenager has the capacity for empathy, but because he is basically self-centered-as
he has to be in order to become "his own person"- he may feel that no one has ever felt the deep and powerful things that
he is now experiencing. Indeed, most adolescents have not experienced anything as devastating as the killing of a brother
or a sister. While a teen needs to lean on his parents for support, he may be reluctant to let those deep emotions show because
he is afraid he will seem child-like again.
The adolescent may be coping with the
same struggles as the younger child-guilt over sibling rivalry, especially if he recently had open conflict with the brother
or sister who was killed. He may feel he should take care of parents who are devastated, or even try to take the place of
the dead sibling. As a bereaved parent you may be inclined to turn to your surviving adolescent child for emotional support.
Such an expectation, if constant, can be overwhelming. The adolescent then will tend to pull away from his family and gravitate
to more intimacy with his peers, thus harming the growing up process.
source of stress for the surviving adolescent sibling is over-protectiveness on the part of the parent. It is almost impossible
for a parent whose child has been killed not to have great anxiety when another adolescent is out with friends on his own.
Such over-protectiveness can feel stifling and smothering to an adolescent.
the pressures coming together for the surviving adolescent can cause him to become self-destructive and engage in alcohol
or other drug abuse, running away from home, or taking risks such as playing "chicken" in an automobile. Flirting with death,
so to speak, can be a way of trying to gain control of it. It can also be an escape. Moving fast, keeping the music loud,
and forfeiting reality by using drugs are choices he can make to escape the pain.
parents of an adolescent who has lost a brother or sister, try to be honest and provide emotional support, but don't be surprised
if he needs to escape. Doing so, to some degree, is part of normal adolescent development. It becomes even more understandable
when the home is filled with so much pain and he is frightened by his own feelings.
adolescent may talk more to his friends about his brother or sister's death than he does to you. He may respond better to
another adult who is willing to listen because he does not have to worry about his pain hurting that person as much as it
hurts you. You should not be discouraged if he reaches out to someone other than you. That is normal for his stage of development.
Most people misunderstand how deeply adult siblings grieve. If your sibling
was older than you, you have shared life with him or her as long as you have had your parents. Even if your sibling was younger,
you may not remember life without him or her.
When your sibling was killed you not only lost a unique loved one, but
you lost that person's role within the family. If your sibling was the person who organized the family parties, someone else
must now take on that role. If your brother was the peacemaker during family quarrels, someone else must now take on that
responsibility. It is normal that you and other siblings will try to "fill in" some of these roles. Some changes may take
place quite naturally and easily while others may feel awkward and cause a great deal of conflict within the family.
of your role within the family may be related to birth order. If your oldest sibling was killed, you may have lost a caregiver
or someone you've always looked up to. If the "baby" of the family was killed, you may have lost the one you protected the
most. If the age difference was great enough between you and the brother or sister who was killed, you may feel almost as
though you have lost a parent or a child.
When a brother or sister dies, you also experience a gap in birth order.
If the oldest sibling was killed, the second oldest is now the oldest. If there were just two of you, you are now an only
If the sibling killed was your twin or part of a multiple birth, you
probably feel that part of yourself died too. You will need to work hard at rational thinking to prevent you from concluding
that the wrong one died.
Many bereaved siblings find it difficult to answer social questions. When someone casually
asks, "How many brothers and sisters do you have?" or, "How many are their in your family?" you may feel unable to respond.
There is no "right" way to answer these questions and you may answer differently from time to time depending on how you feel
and the setting in which you find yourself. Assuming you had three brothers and one was killed, you may want to say, "I have
three brothers; two are living, one was killed." You may want to say, "I have three brothers," and leave it at that. Or, you
may want to say, "I have two brothers." You have the right to answer these questions in any way you feel comfortable.
some bereaved siblings, the fact that their sibling's death has altered their relationship with their parents is deeply painful.
Chances are, under the stress of coping with the death of their child, your parents will react to you in some ways as though
you were still a small child. They are struggling with the senselessness and the unnaturalness of being predeceased by one
of their children.
You may find your parents are trying to comfort you at the expense
of themselves, or are trying to protect you from the reality of death. They may be terrified that another family member may
be killed and go to great lengths to monitor your activities. If this behavior is creating a barrier within the family, you
may need to talk to your parents and offer them some concrete ways that they can be supportive of you. In turn, invite them
to tell you what you could do to comfort them the most. In times of crisis it is very easy to fall into old parent/child habits,
but it doesn't have to be that way. They will need to give a little, but so will you.
may find yourself falling into old patterns of behavior in effort to protect your parents. You may feel they hurt enough without
having to watch you grieve. You may go to great lengths to hide your pain from them. It may seem right for you to make decisions
for your parents or take on parental responsibilities in effort to care for them. You may end up "parenting your parents."
Usually, though, adult children & parents care for one
another because it gives them something to do with their grief. Ask if your parents feel you're over-protecting or smothering
them. Respect their response & accommodate as best you can.
In some ways you
may feel as though, in addition to the loss of your sibling, you've lost your parents. Your parents may always have been strong,
there for you in times of crisis. Even if you aren't very close to your parents, it can be incredibly painful to become aware
of their vulnerability & weakness. This may be the first time you've turned to your parents for support & they can't
solve the problem & make it better for you. You may need to grieve the loss of your parents who were always strong, always
in control, never vulnerable.
Ultimately, you will likely forge a new relationship with your parents. Talk with them
about what you observe & ask them to share with you how they see you differently. Tell them you want to use these new
understandings to build a new, more mature, relationship with them.
Like watching the broadening pattern a rock makes
when it is tossed into the lake, you may experience other losses connected with your sibling's death. If your brother or sister
had married, your family may lose contact with the husband or wife & children, if there were any. If you want to stay
close with them, you may have to be direct about your desires & take responsibility for staying in touch. Eventually most
widows & widowers remarry, which can be extremely painful to the family of the dead husband or wife.
Remember, if you can, that no one else will replace your brother
or sister & remarrying isn't an act of disloyalty. A new spouse will probably be very uncertain about his or her relationship
with your family & will welcome some clarification from you.
If your sibling
had children, they will likely be precious reminders of your brother or sister. Discovering traits & physical features
in nieces and nephews that are similar to those of your brother or sister is both joyous & painful.
Similarly, the special moments in their lives-graduations,
marriages, the births of their children-will be bittersweet as they will always highlight your sibling's absence from these
events. Children, especially those who were small when their parent was killed, will want to learn about that parent from
you & others. Maintaining a relationship with nieces & nephews is one way some bereaved siblings honor the memory
of their brother or sister.
If you're married, your own spouse may feel like one
of the forgotten victims. Your spouse may have had a very special relationship with your sister or brother yet doesn't have
the same official ties with your family. Don't forget to include your spouse & the spouses of other brothers & sisters
in family events following the death of your sibling. They've also lost the person you were before your brother or sister
was killed. While their grief may be different, it needs to be recognized & accepted just as is yours.
Summary of Suggestions
Be careful about explaining death in half-truths
to younger children who need honest, concrete explanations of what has happened. If the child hears, "Your sister has gone
away for a very long time," he may feel that his sister has deserted him. He may then go on to interpret the desertion as
punishment & have strong feelings of guilt. "Your brother has gone to heaven," is in itself impossible for a young child
to understand, especially when he learns that the body is buried in a cemetery. "To die is to go to sleep," can be understood
by the child as a very real reason for a child refusing to go to sleep. "Your sister went to the hospital & died," can
cause a young child to conclude that hospitals make people die. "Your brother died because he got sick," may cause a child
to become extremely fearful of any kind of illness.
Spend time in play with the younger child who may not have adequate
communication skills to talk about his feelings.
Help your child express his feelings by being willing to express yours,
& asking your child questions. If he is reluctant, phrase questions as if they were someone else's, "What would you say
to Jimmy if he asked you what happened to your brother?"
Remember that most children grieve intermittently rather than
chronically. Therefore, don't be upset because your child has periods when the death of his brother or sister seems unimportant.
may find it easier than parents to discard personal possessions of the deceased. They may also find it easier to "put their
grief aside" & find normalcy in school or play. Remember that your deceased child's friends may be pleased to be given
something that belonged to your child.
Protect young children from witnessing an emotional collapse, but otherwise
share as much as the grieving as possible.
During the early days of grieving it is
helpful for grieving children to have a personal "ally" to provide stability & understanding. This person calms the anxious
child & relieves the parents of total responsibility.
Siblings aged 6 or 7 or older should be given all the facts
about their brother's or sister's death as they become known. Not being told the truth only enhances a growing sense of being
unimportant to the family.
If you see another child who reminds you of your child
who's been killed, point this out to the siblings & explain the grief spasm it has caused. Mysterious behavior on the
part of the parent only enhances the sibling's fear of being left out or of not being loved as much as the deceased child.
your grief with your surviving children, but don't depend on them to take care of you in your grieving. Understand that adolescent
children may not want to grieve with you.
Talk with your surviving brothers &
sisters both about pleasant memories of the child who was killed as well as unpleasant memories. This will help them to understand
that the child who died wasn't perfect. Placing the dead child on a pedestal can cause great insecurity for surviving siblings.
Don't ask surviving sibling's to "be strong" for you or for anyone else. That's too great a burden
Try not to feel threatened if adolescent siblings seek out other adults
or peers for support. That is normal for their developmental level.
As an adult sibling,
spend some time focusing on the role of your brother or sister in the family & how you can enable a meaningful transition
to the surviving family. Be gentle with yourself & with your parents.
Lord, Janice Harris. No Time for Goodbyes, Pathfinders Publishing, 458 Dorothy Ave. Ventura, CA 9411
Experiencing the Death of a Sibling
as an Adolescent
Farewell to Childhood
Adolescence has been described
as the "farewell to childhood", as the teenager lets go of his or her childhood, grieves its loss & begins to move into
adulthood. Loss of a sibling during this period intensifies the issues related to the normal tasks of adolescence.
Adolescents are capable of an adult understanding of death,
but the way in which they grieve is related to both children & adults. Since they have the capacity to think like adults,
adolescents may suffer more from the effects of loss than children, who are protected somewhat by their concrete or magical
way of thinking.
The main difference between the grief of adults and children's grief is the amount of power
or autonomy the individual holds. Powerless children who can't survive
without an adult may not be able to seek sympathy, comfort & understanding from those around them. Autonomous adults can
reach out for the help they need thru counseling, church, or support groups.
Like hermit crabs, that seek a larger shell because their old
shell has become too small, adolescents leave their childhood identity and seek an adult identity.
Adolescents, however, are
midway between the two domains. On the one hand they have a strong drive towards autonomy & independence & they may
resent being over-protected by parents.
On the other hand, the loss
of a sibling is so intense that they may wish to regress like a child & seek support. This conflict is critical to understanding the unique experience of grieving teenagers who've lost a sibling.
Although adolescents know
& understand mentally the reality of death, what makes grieving particularly troublesome at this age is the conflict in their feelings. They're just at the point when they're moving away
from their families emotionally in the normal separation / individuation process we all go thru to form a unique identity.
They often appear to know everything & feel that nothing bad can happen to them.
Faced with the death of
a brother or sister, the awareness of the reality of death & subsequent sense of vulnerability shakes the very foundation
of their still fragile identity. Not only have they lost a loved one, but they're faced with the reality that they too will
die someday. So, they desperately want to regress to get the needed support.
The importance of peers
At best, this conflict in
an adolescent's feelings is resolved by going to their peers for support. They can get support from their peers without having to regress to what seems to them as a childlike state when they get support from parents. However, many surviving siblings have told me that they couldn't go to their peers because they felt so different
At the worst, their grief is pushed underground & may result in disorders of conduct, such as the use of drugs & alcohol, poor school performance,
loneliness, a tendency to withdraw from relationships, low self-esteem, depression & difficulty in making long-term commitments.
There has been a great deal
of research on sibling loss as an adolescent. Based on research findings, the experience of losing a sibling results in adolescents
feeling different from peers, being more mature than his or her peers & being angry & insecure in relationships. Often
teenagers become protective of their parents or other siblings & they feel guilty about feelings they have had towards
the deceased brother or sister.
Depression as adults
The question of whether the
death of a sibling during childhood or adolescence leads to depression as an adult isn't known. However, it's clear that what
happens after the loss is significant in contributing to or preventing adult depression. According to current theories of
attachment between family members, children & even adolescents, can't always tell the difference between themselves &
their siblings. When the sibling dies, it may feel as if part of the self is lost too.
What contributes to a healthy
resolution of grief depends on a number of factors. First is the nature of the relationship with the sibling prior to death & the relationship
with the parents. When the family is secure & the children feel their home offers a comfortable place for them to retreat
to when they are hurt, they will probably fare better after the loss of a family member. Being given timely & accurate
information about the sibling's illness or circumstances surrounding the accident is crucial.
Some siblings have spent years
in wondering what actually happened to their brother or sister because the parents didn't want to talk about it. Others have
suffered needlessly because parents tried to hide the facts surrounding the death. Young people need to ask questions &
have an adult answer & explain whatever they need to know.
They should be given the opportunity
to attend or even participate in the funeral. They need to be reassured about the continuing security within the family, although
one of their members has died. Unfortunately, in many families, these healthy activities do not take place & the grief remains unresolved for a life time.
Statistics of trauma
If you were a teenager at
the time of a sibling's death, it's statistically very likely that your sibling died in an accident. A sudden, unexpected
death like this (car accidents, for example) is surrounded by trauma for the survivors. Psychic trauma follows a sudden & unexpected event which exceeds the capacity of the individual's
coping skills & psychological defenses, so that they become temporarily helpless.
This may result in distorted
memories, lack of trust, a pessimistic attitude towards life & low self-esteem. The trauma itself gets in the way of the successful resolution of the grief. People may want you to "talk about" your grief at a time when you're still reeling from the shock of the accident. Such
cases may result in complicated grief which, over time, leads to an anxiety disorder or depression.
Depending on the nature of
the trauma, the person may develop post-traumatic stress disorder & become over-vulnerable to stressful situations. Often, the bereaved
individual isn't allowed to talk about what happened, in order to protect the feelings of others & therefore, has no way
to work thru the trauma.
The other side of the story
All of the results aren't
so negative, however & many adolescents find that their experience with death has taught them a great deal about life.
Site visitors have written to me & complained about this statement, saying that "Nothing good can come from the death
of a sibling."
I understand the feelings that are being expressed in this statement, but I believe they're being expressed by someone who hasn't
yet integrated the loss. Humans have the capacity to learn from their experiences, whether they're positive or negative. In
spite of the unfairness & devastation associated with the loss of a brother or sister during adolescence, the pain &
guilt leave wisdom & love in their wake.
They appreciate life & relationships more, feel closer to God & are able to listen to & be with others who are grieving. Many bereaved adolescents go on to become adults who work in the area of counseling, research on sibling loss, ministry
& social work. Finding ways to make sense of this loss motivates some adolescents to make significant contributions in
the realm of emotional healing.