Helping siblings grieve

Losing a sibling can be a huge loss for a child. It may also be their first experience with death. How a child reacts to their sibling dying will depend on their age and understanding, their personality and their family situation. Children may also experience periods of sadness for a long time after their sibling’s death, just as parents do.

Siblings need to have support as they grieve. If your own grief is too much to be able to support your other children, it is important to find other adults to support them. Ask a close friend or family member to spend extra time with your other children.

Be open with them and let them know that it is OK to cry and show grief. But know that some children do not openly show their grief and sadness. They may continue with their activities, hanging out with friends and playing, and seem unaffected. This does not mean they are not grieving.

Your child may have many fears and worries along with grieving. They may be afraid of getting sick or dying themselves or they may worry that someone else in the family will die. Your child may be confused about what this all means for your family. When a sibling dies, another sibling may take on a new role, such as becoming the oldest child or an only child. A surviving child may feel they need to make up for the sibling that is gone. This can add extra stress to their grief. Siblings may feel guilty about things they said or did or they may regret not being as close to their brother or sister as they would have liked to be. Siblings may also experience survivor guilt and wonder why it wasn’t them instead of their brother or sister. They may also worry that their parents would have preferred it if they had died rather than their sibling.

It is also normal for siblings to grieve in spurts as they approach new stages of development and maturity. For example, a 15-year-old might grieve again and in a different way 3 or 5 or 10 years after their sister or brother has died.

Siblings may feel relieved. It is natural to feel relieved when something that has been very difficult and stressful ends, but your child may judge themselves for this. Make sure your child understands that feeling relieved doesn’t mean that they didn’t love their brother or sister.

Some tips for helping your child cope with the death of a sibling include:

Talk about feelings. Encourage your child to talk about their grief and feelings. Let them know that everyone grieves differently and that talking about grief and sharing feelings can help the whole family cope. It can also be helpful for your child to talk about how they feel with someone outside of the family. They may feel comfortable talking with a close friend, spiritual care worker or a counsellor. Joining a support group of other siblings who have experienced the same loss may also be helpful. There may be online support groups or in-person support groups available. There may also be camps in your area for children whose sibling has died.

Answer questions honestly. Try to answer any questions that your child has as honestly as you can. Find support from your healthcare team, social workers, grief workers, palliative care team or clergy to help answer your child’s questions. Encourage them to share any questions or any fears that they may have. You may have some of the same fears. Assure them that you can deal with things together as a family.

Involve your child. If your child is old enough and interested, find ways to help them be involved with planning the funeral, celebration of life or other memorial event. Talk to funeral home staff about ways to include siblings, such as helping to choose the headstone or speaking during the funeral. Siblings may want to leave a special toy, stuffed animal or letter to their sibling in the casket.

Help your child to forgive themselves. Reassure your child that it is normal for siblings to compete, argue and challenge each other. Help your child to forgive themselves for things they said or did or things they wish they had said or done. Let them know that all relationships are different and that even if they feel they weren’t close to their sibling, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t love their brother or sister. Reassure your child that their sibling knew how much they loved them.

Let them be a child. Always remember that they are children and they are young. Let them be the age they are. They may not respond to grief the way you expect them to. Try not to tell them that they need to grow up or take on extra responsibilities. Spend lots of time together doing what they like to do.

Let them be themselves. Never compare siblings to your child who has died. Let them know that you don’t expect them to replace the sibling who has died in any way. Give them time and be flexible. Some children may not want to go back to school right away. Others may look forward to returning to school.

Help your child to remember their sibling. As time passes, your child may worry that they are starting to forget about their sibling. Help them to find ways to remember their sibling and feel connected to them. One idea may be creating a family memory book together with pictures and stories.

Expert review and references

  • American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Grieving the Loss of a Sibling. Alexandria, VA.: American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO); 2015.
  • CureSearch. Remembering siblings. Bethesda, MD: National Childhood Cancer Foundation & Children's Oncology Group;
  • Fochtman D . Palliative care. Baggott C, Fochtman D, Foley GV, Patterson K (eds.). Nursing Care of Children and Adolescents with Cancer and Blood Disorders. 4th ed. APHON; 2011: 13: 468-509.
  • Care of the Dying Child and the Family. Tomlinson, D. & Kline, N. E. (Eds.). Pediatric Oncology Nursing: Advanced Clinical Handbook. Germany: Springer; 2005: 30: pp. 431-442.

Medical disclaimer

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