By Howard Winokuer, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, FT, and Heidi Horsley, Psy.D, LMSW, MS

“What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” — Helen Keller

The death of a child is traumatic.  It often turns one’s life upside down and puts everything we ever believed into question.  Regardless of the way a child dies, we are never prepared to lose them.  As parents we do not expect to outlive our children, and as siblings, we just assume we will travel through life together and grow old together.  Not only are parents dealing with their own grief after a loss, but they worry about their surviving children and want to make sure that they are doing what’s best for them.

Talking about death with adults is difficult, but talking to your children about death may be even harder.  Although it may not always look like your children are grieving, it is critical to understand that they also grieve.  They experience their grief differently, but nonetheless, they do grieve.

As parents, you may be asking yourself questions such as:  What will we say?  What will we do?  How do we best help our child after the death of his or her sibling?  Where do we learn the answer to these questions?

What can be said?  What can be done?  First and foremost, children need to be made aware that they still live in a safe and predictable world after a sibling death.  Being reassuring, and behaving in ways that communicate to your child that you are there for them and that you will be able to take care of them even though you are grieving is key.  Further, it is very comforting for children to know that they are not alone in their grief and that as a family you will all get through this difficult time together.

Even though parents often have the best intentions in mind, what we do or say may not always be helpful and can sometimes even be harmful.  It is important to be aware that children oftentimes take things very literally.  When you tell a child that someone died because they were sick, you might have a child that will be afraid every time he or she gets a cold.  Kids often have difficulty differentiating between being sick with a cold or the flu versus being sick from cancer or some other terminal illness.

Do not tell a child that someone just went away, because every time there is a departure, the child will perceive that as “going away”.  Kids in that situation will worry that, when you leave to go to work or even go to the grocery store, you might not ever be coming back.  Also, guard against saying that someone just went to sleep or that death is just like sleep.  Once again, remember that kids take things literally, and they may develop sleep difficulties because of fears that if they fall asleep, they will not wake up again.

There are helpful things that can be said and done that will help a child explore their grief and express their feelings.

* Allow Expressions Of Feelings – There are a wide range of feelings that are associated with the grief process.  Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are.  Reassuring your child that it’s normal to experience feelings such as anger, sadness, anxiety etc. will let your child know that what they are going through is normal and accepted.

*Create an Open and Supportive Environment – Provide honest answers and age appropriate information.  Some children may be more comfortable drawing, writing stories, or acting out their emotions in their play, rather than talking.

* Communicate Through Touch – Touch can often express thoughts and feelings that words cannot.  For example, putting an arm around the child, sitting close to them, holding them on your lap or even holding their hand lets them know that you are there and they are not alone.

* Talk About Worries and Concerns – Children often express a lot of worries after loss.  They may begin to act younger and become clingy and whiney.  Regression is a common reaction and often doesn’t last too long.  Be supportive and don’t criticize regressive behavior.  You may need to spend extra time with your child during transitions, for example when dropping them off at daycare.  Your child may also need to sleep with a nightlight, stuffed toy, and/or favorite blanket.

* Encourage Your Child to Ask Questions – Don’t be afraid to answer your child’s questions openly and honestly in an age appropriate way.  The truth is always easier for a child to deal with rather than the often frightening fantasy that they might create in their mind, if not given information.

Other tips that you might find very helpful include:

* Be gentle but truthful in telling your child about the death.

* Have as many pictures and reminders around your home of your surviving child as you have of your deceased child.

*Let your surviving child know that although you are devastated over the loss, life is still worth living and remind them how grateful you are to have them in your life.

* Recognize normal child reactions to grief.

* Give your child your assurance of love and support.

* Assure your child that nothing they did or thought caused the death.

* Encourage your child to talk about how he/she feels.

* Encourage your child to cry, but don’t put too much pressure on them.

* Cry or grieve with your child in a way that is not scary and conveys to them that although you are upset, you will still be able to care for them.

Talking to your child about death can be one of the most significant life events that you will participate in.  Children are very resilient and although a sibling loss may define your child’s life, it will in no way destroy your child’s life.  Your child will forever miss their sibling, but in time will find new ways to incorporate them into their life, through continuing bonds.  It is important to honor the grief that your child experiences and validate that grief through your care and presence.  By doing this, you can make a significant difference in the life of your child.  Remember your openness may help decrease your child’s fear.  And being there for your child is the most important thing that you can do.

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Howard Winokuer

Dr. Howard R. Winokuer, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, brings a special sensitivity and total commitment to his work. Dr. Winokuer was the co-founder of TO LIFE, a not-for-profit educational and counseling organization that specialized in issues dealing with grief and loss. During his twenty-year career, he has worked with thousands of people suffering from these issues. He has conducted workshops and seminars throughout the United States, as well as in seven foreign countries. Dr. Winokuer has written numerous articles on topics such as coping with grief, relationships, aging, parents and teen suicide. He has recently completed a book entitled A Simple Guide to a Peaceful Life. Dr. Winokuer has a private practice specializing in grief and loss and is the incoming president of the Association of Death Education and Counseling (ADEC).

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