The Response of Fear

Your surviving children may develop fears related to the death of a sibling. If illness was a factor, the surviving child may fear illness. If your child died in a hospital setting, the surviving children may come to see hospitals as a place they would rather not go. This fear may even carry over to medical personnel. The surviving sibling may develop a fear of another imminent death, for example, that a parent might die or another sibling. With all of these fears, assurances and explanations are in order. Finally, a child may develop a fear of death itself and what lies beyond. This is a common fear, even for adults, and may require reexamination and discussion of your own beliefs.

The response of indifference

Many prefer a certain detachment from the family’s grief. It may be, especially if they are older children, that they are practiced in keeping their feelings inside. Although your example of openness may help children express themselves, the showing of grief cannot be forced. Besides, their relationship to the child who died was much different than yours. A peer support group may be helpful.

The response of misbehavior

Children may provoke parents to get the punishment they think they deserve (see above regarding guilt). Or they may simply be seeking attention from a withdrawn parent. Or they may be taking advantage of a parent’s more lenient attitude. Having lost a child, parents may change their approach to the surviving children, pampering them and tolerating misbehavior. The best approach is to show love and support but also firmness.

The response of depression

Children who are depressed show a definite shift from their usual behavior. They may be withdrawn, keeping to themselves in their room. Appetite may decrease. Concentration may be more difficult, and schoolwork may suffer. They may seem tired, even lazy, and sleep patterns may change. If depression is prolonged, professional counseling is to be encouraged.

The response of guilt

Anger directed toward oneself sometimes produces feelings of guilt. Such feelings in surviving children can be the most enduring, harmful reaction to a sibling’s death. The background is normal sibling rivalry. Relationships between brothers and sisters typically involve some competition, jealousy, or vying for position. Often there is hostility, even an “I wish he were dead” feeling. Younger children, especially those under 8 years of age, may think that such a thought killed their brother or sister.

Children who harbor guilt feelings are in a bind. They cannot let anyone know because they feel that will reinforce their guilt and lead to punishment. So they try to live with it and then develop other problems. They may think that they should have died instead of or in addition to their sibling. They may think they don’t deserve to enjoy anything. They may actually seek punishment. They may even think of suicide. Such feelings may continue for years, all because the imagined guilt has not been resolved. Parents can help to get guilt problems to the surface by gentle questioning. If there is reason to believe it persists, professional counseling is needed.

Occasionally there may be a problem of more rational guilt. Perhaps an older child didn’t watch over a younger child well enough, and there was a fatal accident. Parents may have the same problem. In these cases everyone needs to remember that:

  1. the death was in no way intentional,
  2. everyone is imperfect and inclined to make mistakes, and
  3. forgiving oneself is a goal to work toward.

Continually blaming ourselves will only keep us from working through our guilt and going on with our lives. In addition, blaming ourselves benefits no one and is, in fact, destructive to ourselves and our families. A sense of forgiveness by God is also important to many people, and these people should pursue that forgiveness.

The response of bodily distress and behavior problems

Emotions that are not being expressed or resolved often lead to physical symptoms. Children may have headaches, restlessness, and repeated illnesses. Or they may show unusual anger, hostility, and stubbornness. Parents can help these children find ways to express their feelings. Talking our feelings with a close family friend or relative may be easier than with a grieving parent. Physical activity also helps.

The response of anger and blame

Children may be angry at those who treated the deceased child, feeling they should have saved him or her. Or they may be angry at their parents for not having prevented the death. Or at the world in general for not caring. Often the anger will not be expressed, especially if it is toward the parents, because children want to stay on good terms with those close to them.

Unexpressed anger, however, is still anger, and it wants to come out. Often it will come out in strange ways, directed at people not involved in the death. Hostility in general may pop out without warning or provocation. The problem will continue until the true nature of the anger is revealed and discussed. Parents need to encourage its discussion and acceptable expression.

Anger at God is a special case of the same general problem. Both parent and child may feel that someone has to be blamed, and God is a good candidate. If God is good, benevolent, and caring, why did He permit the death? It’s an old question, a natural and normal one, which most religious counselors should be competent to discuss. If you don’t feel you have a good answer for yourself or your children, why not raise the question with your pastor, priest or rabbi? Expressing positive thoughts and feelings about faith in God could also encourage your child’s faith.

The response of anxiety

A family in grief is turned upside down, and some of the developments may be disturbing to children. Are Mom and Dad not getting along? Is the grief not out in the open? Are blame and guilt the main themes? For their own sakes as well as for their children, parents need to work through their grief.

The response of sadness

Like adults, children may feel intense sadness and loneliness. Unlike adults, the sadness may come and go in shorter periods and may not last as long. And their feelings may be harder for them to understand. Encourage children to do something with their feelings of sadness – talking, mounting photos, writing, or other projects in memory of the sibling. Sadness can turn gradually into healthy memories.

The response of denial

The sudden reality of a death is too much for parents to accept all at once. So it might be for a child. Refusing to accept the death is common, especially at first. This is a helpful, natural response that in time will lessen and fade.