Siblings are sometimes called the "forgotten grievers" because attention is typically focused on the parents. Children and teens hesitate to express their own strong feelings in an attempt to prevent causing their parents additional distress. Indeed, adult family members and friends may advise the brothers and sisters to "be strong" for their parents or to "help your parents by being good." These requests place a terribly unfair burden on children who have already endured months or years of stress and family disruption. Siblings need continual reinforcement that each of them is an irreplaceable member of the family and that the entire family has suffered a loss. They have a right to mourn openly and in their own way.
The family requires such reorganization after a child's death, and there is nowhere to look for an example. Each person in the family constellation has different feelings and different ways of grieving; there is just no way to reconcile all of this when the supposed leaders of the group are totally out of it. Not to mention the fact that both my husband and I wanted more understanding and compassion from each other than we were possibly able to give.
Children express grief in many ways, including physically (changes in eating habits, toileting, sleeping, stomach aches); emotionally (regression to earlier behaviors, risk taking); through fear (of the dark, of being away from parents); through guilt (said "I wish you would die" to sibling, and sibling died); and with emotional changes (tantrums, crying, sadness, anxiety, withdrawal, depression). Older children and teens may appear nonchalant, angry, or withdrawn or take risks involving alcohol and drugs.
Parents need to engage siblings of different ages at their appropriate developmental levels. Sometimes private times together or individual outings with the parent can be very helpful for siblings.
Many families pull apart because it is too painful to share their deep, but different feelings of grief. Some parents worry that if they start talking, they will "break down" in front of the children. But children who are excluded from the family's mourning may begin to feel alienated from the family. Here are suggestions from families to help pull together while mourning:
• Let the siblings go to the funeral. They have suffered a loss; they need to say good-bye; they need support for their grief just as much as adults.
I grew up going to my relatives' funerals. Having those positive experiences really helped me deal with the loss of my son. There is nothing more natural than to take a child to the funeral, where they are part of families loving each other, crying together, and laughing at some of the memories. Too many people try to protect kids from death, and it does them a great disservice.
• Children and teens experience the same feelings as adults. By sharing your own feelings, it can encourage them to identify their own. (For example, "I'm really feeling sad today. How do you feel?")
• Some families establish a regular meeting time to talk about their feelings. Both tears and laughter erupt when family members talk about funny or touching memories of the departed child.
• Jointly discuss how holidays and anniversaries should be observed. Some families set a place at the table every year for the departed child, while others merely mention her name during the blessing. Each family devises different ways to handle the child's birthday and the anniversary of her death.
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