Don’t Send the Wrong Message to Surviving Children

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When our child leaves this earth, so many of our future hopes and dreams go with them. I don’t even need to start listing them; we all know all too well what those things are.

When my oldest daughter, Becca, first died, it was so hard to see past her death and the death of our future together as mother and daughter, that it seemed impossible to see what was still there. So, what was still there for me? For one thing, my four other children.

Why is that? Why is our loss so deep, that the loss of the one is all we can see, even if we have other children still with us? I am not saying these other children make up for the one who is no longer here; we know that can never happen! But why do we live in such darkness and isolation that our other children start to believe the wrong child died?

I was completely blindsided and shocked when my youngest daughter told me she thought I wished she had died instead of her sister!  How could she possibly think that? We had taken trips together with just the two of us (including going to Africa). We talked about life on a deeper level than I did with my other children.  How could she believe such a horrible thing?

Now that I am further along and can look back with a different set of eyes, I can see why, in her own place of brokenness and deep pain, she might have believed that lie.

First, like most of us, I was pretty non-functioning for quite some time. I was barely in survival mode, much less being able to meet the needs of my other children in their grief. Choosing so much isolation during that time gave the wrong message to my other children.

Secondly, I started to plaster pictures and mementos of Becca around the house. I later found out my daughter hated it, because she felt like I had turned our house into a shrine. It left my daughter feeling pushed out, as if I no longer wanted her in my life.

Third, I always talked about the wonderful things about Becca, memorializing her in a way that was not a true reflection of Becca’s personality. The truth is, Becca was a very loving and cheerful person. But she was also strong-willed, and if she wasn’t getting her way, she was pretty darn good at making the people around her pretty miserable at times. I didn’t talk about that “bad” side of her sister (which I have since found out is common in the initial loss). My youngest daughter felt like she couldn’t measure up to her now perfect older sister who was no longer here.

So, what are some specific things you can do, to help you avoid sending your children, without meaning to, the message that the wrong one died?

  1. Affection

I know we may not feel like it, but we need to find ways to show our children love in a way that is affectionate. Give them hugs. Rest your hand on his back when standing next to him. Buy her a little treat that you know she likes when at the store. Cuddle next to them when they go to bed or while watching a movie. You may feel very numb and like you are just going through the motions, but those small things that take so much effort on our part right now can make a huge difference for our children.

  1. Assuage – Dictionary.com defines this word as, “to make milder or less severe; relieve; ease; mitigate: to assuage one’s grief; to assuage one’s pain.” Some children feel guilty, like the death of their sibling was their fault. (Maybe they got into an argument and had the thought, or even said something like, “I wish you weren’t my brother!” and now believe that had something to do with their death.) Maybe they actually believe they should have been the one to die instead, for various reasons. You might have a child who feels guilty about the way they treated their sibling who is now gone.

Guilt makes us believe and do crazy things, and children can believe things that make no sense to us. Make sure you let them know you do not blame them, nor should they blame themselves for the death of their sibling. Let him or her know that you are not sad because of something that child did or didn’t do, but sad because of how much you miss their sibling.

  1. Affirmation – Let your child know how glad you are that they are still with you. If you give a toast to your missing child, also include or acknowledge how thankful you are for those who are still here. If you want to hang up extra pictures of your child who has died, maybe put up ones where the siblings are also in the pictures. In other words, make sure you are finding ways to balance out the memories of the child who is now gone, with the acknowledgment of loving and wanting the ones who are still with you.

Along with this, I would like to add that we all grieve differently. You may need to surround yourself with reminders of your child. Others may need to separate themselves from those things to process the death. There isn’t a right or a wrong way, just different ways that might not make sense to us in our way of grieving. So, if you need to have things around you, set them up in a closet, or a corner where most of the family doesn’t have to be forced to see it constantly, making them feel like the only way to get away from their dead sibling is to isolate themselves or stay away. As hard as it may be, a lot of grace is needed to be able to find ways so that your children are affirmed in your love for them and that you still desire to be their parent.

It is natural for us to only focus on the one who is missing. It is like the parable Jesus told that we read about in the Bible; how the Shepherd left the ninety-nine who were safe to go find the one that was lost. Everything in us needs to find the one child who is “lost.” But the difference is, they aren’t really lost. They are just gone from this earth. At some point, we will be changed and our spirits will join them, but they will not be putting their flesh back on and coming back to us.

What we do now will affect those we love the most for many years to come. I know it is hard. It may even feel impossible. But if you can just push through, taking a few minutes here and there to focus on those who are still here instead of the one who is missing, you will reap the benefit of it for years to come.

Don’t do what I did. Don’t unknowingly send your children the message that the wrong one died. You can do this. We believe in you.

Laura Diehl

More Articles Written by Laura

Laura Diehl, along with her husband, Dave, are the founders of GPS Hope: Grieving Parents Sharing Hope, which extends hope and healing to all grieving parents through a growing list of resources and a loving community to encourage one another in their unique, difficult journey. GPS Hope was started after the death of their oldest daughter, Becca, who left this earth on October 12, 2011. Becca died from heart damage caused by chemo drugs given to her at age three when she was diagnosed with cancer, at which time she also had her left leg amputated. (So the comparison of the death of a child being like an amputation is a very personal one for Laura.) On Becca’s 28th birthday, she had her second open heart surgery to insert a six pound pump which ran the right side of her heart, hoping to get Becca healthy enough to be put on the heart transplant list. Becca had a stroke shortly after receiving the pump, which was one of a dozen ambulance rides and the first of three emergency medical helicopter flights in her last eighteen months of life here on this earth. Photos and more details of Becca’s story are on the GPS Hope website (www.gpshope.org). Laura has written five books, including When Tragedy Strikes: Rebuilding Your Life With Hope and Healing After the Death of Your Child (Morgan James Publishing, New York, 2016) and My Grief Journey: Coloring Book and Journal for Grieving Parents. Dave and Laura live in Southern Wisconsin, and Laura loves to travel, which is good because she has traveled as an ordained minister for many years both nationally and internationally to well over a dozen nations. They are the parents of five children (including Becca who is already with the Lord) and a growing legacy of grandchildren. GPS Hope has a Facebook page to offer words of encouragement to bereaved parents at www.facebook.com/gpshope . Laura also puts out a short weekly video on YouTube, which can be subscribed to. Just search for her channel by name, Laura Diehl. One of the areas Laura is personally passionate about within the world of grieving parents is to walk with those whose faith in God has been shattered because of the death of one’s child. She is available as a speaker and/or minister, and can be contacted by email at laura@crownofgloryministries.org.

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  • Carol Aycoth says:

    Thank you Laura. We are going through a similar situation. We loss our almost 2 yr old grandson 1 year ago this week. How do we enjoy our other son’s 3 year old and 1 year old, has been difficult. We are just now starting to find joy with them. Life goes on and hopefully time will heal that hole in our hearts.

    • Laura Diehl says:

      Carol, I am so sorry you are going through this. I am sure your entire family is struggling with this issue. Unfortunately, it can be a very long process requiring much grace for each of you. Love, hugs and prayers.

  • Kathleen Higgins says:

    I do not know how I can get through this loss of my son. My other two children will not let me in to share their grief. I feel I am sinking

    • Laura Diehl says:

      Kathleen, I understand the feeling of sinking for sure! Sometimes our other children pull away, trying to figure out who they are now, since so much of our identity is wrapped up in the siblings. They also often don’t want to talk about the sibling and the grief because they don’t want to see us in so much pain. It is a long process, and requires much grace. Love, hugs and prayers.