This information explains how you can help your child cope with the death of their sibling. We hope it is helpful to you and your family.
Understanding Your Child’s Grief
A family is forever changed by the death of a child. As a parent, you have been forced to experience the greatest pain imaginable. Your child or children feel this pain too. Like adults, children may need help understanding and adjusting to life after loss.
Children express grief in different ways. All children, regardless of age, may have short and intense bursts of emotion following the death of their sibling. They may also have physical reactions, like pain and aches in their body or changes in their sleep schedule. Some children may express their grief through changes in their behavior. They may have a hard time following through with routine tasks or behave in ways they never have before. Other children may not show any signs of sadness or grief. How your child grieves will depend on their age, understanding of death, and the examples set by those around them.
While younger children may not fully understand death, school-aged children will have a more mature understanding. They may feel guilty that they didn’t die instead of their sibling. They may also become worried about themselves or even you dying. Some children may feel that their identity within the family has changed and may take on adult responsibilities.
It will take time for your child to grieve and adjust to the death of their sibling. Not all children will have an immediate reaction to learning their sibling has died. Remember that everybody grieves differently. The best way to understand your child’s pain is to be mindful of the way they choose to express it. Listen to what they say and how they say it.Back to top
Supporting Your Child
Helping your child may be challenging for you as you cope with your own grief. It’s okay if you aren’t ready to take on this challenge. You may find it helpful to ask someone that you and your child can depend on for support. Together, you can help your child feel loved, secure, and included as you all work together to find a “new normal.”
Here are some ways you can help your child cope with their loss.
Your child may have questions about how their sibling died and what that means. It’s important to let them know that they can ask these questions. Do your best to answer them honestly. It’s okay to tell them if you don’t know the answer.
As children grow older and more mature, they may have different types of questions. Respond to these questions as they come. Approach each one as an opportunity to continue the conversation about their loss.
Try to keep your child’s normal routine as best you can but prepare them for any changes they should expect. Explain to them how things may be different and what they may need to do in the coming weeks. This can help reduce their feelings of uncertainty about the future.
If your child is in school, let their teachers know about their loss. This can help them feel supported there too. A teacher or counselor may be able to provide a space for your child to express their feelings throughout the day. You may also want to talk to other members of social groups that your child is a part of, such as coaches, instructors, or religious figures. Adjusting to life without their sibling will be difficult but building a network of support may be helpful to your child.
Grief can make your child feel sad and alone. Try to spend some of each day with them so that they feel safe and supported. You can make time to connect with them through art, play, or another activity of their choice.
When you’re ready, you can help your child honor the memory of their sibling by coming up with a new ritual or revisiting an old one. Some families plant a garden to honor someone. You can also help your child make a memory box filled with objects belonging to or representing their sibling. Rituals like these can help you connect with your child and help your child express their feelings and questions.
Let your child know that their feelings matter to you. Try to support honest conversations when they’re ready to talk. Everyone has different reactions to death at different times.
You may not always relate to how your child is coping. They may have changes in their behavior, such as becoming picky eaters or having angry outbursts. Remember that your child’s behavior can be a sign that they are struggling with challenging feelings. While it may be difficult to do so, try to welcome your child’s emotions with love and acceptance. This will help them feel more comfortable sharing their feelings with you.
Your child may not react to grief until weeks, months, or even years have passed. When this happens, let them know you are there for them to listen and answer any questions. Remember that you can always involve a trusted friend or counselor to help.
The best thing you can do for your child is to take care of yourself. You have experienced an unimaginable loss. Identify someone you feel comfortable talking to, even if you’re not sure what to say. Let family and friends help you with your daily tasks. Creating a support system for you and your family is important. Remember that people are there for you just as you are there for your child.
Resources for You and Your Family
No matter where you are in the world, there is support available to you and your family. Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) offers a range of resources for grieving families and friends. You can learn more about these resources at www.mskcc.org/experience/caregivers-support/support-grieving-family-friends
Towards Tomorrow Program
The Department of Pediatrics’ Towards Tomorrow Program offers support and resources to bereaved families, including:
Our in-person parent bereavement support group is led by a social worker and nurse. We invite all parents who have lost a child to cancer at MSK to join.
Parent-to-Parent Outreach is a program that can connect you with parents across the country that have also experienced the loss of a child to cancer.
MSK Counseling Center
Some bereaved families find counseling helpful. Our psychiatrists and psychologists lead a bereavement clinic that provides counseling and support to individuals, couples, and families who are grieving, as well as medications to help if you feel depressed.
Our chaplains are available to listen, help support family members, pray, contact community clergy or faith groups, or to simply be a comforting person and a spiritual presence. Anyone can request spiritual support, regardless of formal religious affiliation.
There are books, educational resources, and community support programs available to parents and siblings. For more information about these programs, or to talk about your loss, call your social worker.Back to top