Help your child cope with the devastating tragedy of a brother's or sister's death.

girl looking out window
Credit: Fancy Photography/Veer

Losing a child is a traumatic experience for parents, but it can be just as tough for siblings. The bond between sisters and brothers is strong, so when a sibling dies, the remaining child feels insecure and confused. These expert tips will help you to help your child handle the loss of a sister or brother.

Be Honest

As painful as it is to share the news of a sibling's death, it's best to be truthful. "Children don't benefit from 'not thinking about it' or 'putting it out of their minds,'" says Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., clinical director of Westchester Group Works, in Harrison, New York. "To talk about the tragedy and to directly address their questions helps empower children, especially if it is an unexpected sudden death, which they may feel was completely out of anyone's control," she says. Explain the tragedy in age-appropriate terms. For instance, "Honey, I have sad news. Your brother died this morning at the hospital. His heart stopped working." Avoid saying the child "went to sleep" or "went away," or that your family "lost" him. Kids can take these phrases literally. Your child might question why the family can't "find" him, or she might experience anxiety around bedtime or express fear anytime a loved one is out of sight.

Follow Your Child's Pace

Every person grieves differently. "It's important to let your child guide you through his own grieving process," says Emilio Parga, the executive director of The Solace Tree, a Reno, Nevada, grief support program for children and teens. Some children willingly talk about the sibling's death and their own feelings; others choose not to talk. "Don't force your child to talk about it if he doesn't want to," Parga says. Whether or not your child chooses to discuss his brother and the death, let him know you're available whenever he has questions or wants to talk. Some books that might help him handle his feelings are Always My Brother by Jean Reagan, Someone I Love Died by Christine Harder Tangvald and We Were Gonna Have a Baby, But We Had an Angel Instead by Pat Schwiebert.

It's also important to be honest and open about your own feelings. Your reaction will influence how your child behaves. Although you may think it's best to hide your emotions or cry when your child isn't around, openly grieving tells your child it's normal and okay for her to express grief.

Expect Strong Emotions

Every child experiences grief differently, so one of your kids might cry on a daily basis while the other seemingly has no reaction. Children who have suffered a loss might show the following symptoms: sadness, refusal to believe the sibling died, anger, fear, or lashing out at you or the doctors because they feel someone could have prevented the death. Physical symptoms, including headaches, stomachaches, sleeplessness, or excessive sleeping, might also be present. Another common occurrence after sibling loss is guilt. It's very important to let your child know that arguments, envy, and "I hate you" declarations are normal parts of sibling interaction, says Renee Dominguez, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and interim program director at the Chicago Child Trauma Center at La Rabida Children's Hospital. Reassure your child that the way he's feeling is normal. Allow him to talk through it or suggest he write a letter to his deceased brother or sister.

Don't be surprised if the child that was in bed sobbing one day goes outside to play kickball with his friends the next. Children's moods might fluctuate because they have a shorter grief span, which means they tolerate bits and pieces of sadness at different times, Dr. Dominguez says. Allow your child to grieve in his own way and help him deal with his feelings as they come.

Encourage Memories

If your child is ready, help her come up with ways to remember and celebrate the life of her deceased sibling. You can help her light a candle or make a scrapbook, and the family can tell stories about the deceased sibling. Your family can also talk about him often, fix his favorite meal, or watch his favorite shows on his birthday or on the anniversary of his death.

Ask for Help

To help your child through the grieving process, you have to take care of yourself. Make sure you eat properly, get enough sleep, and have someone to talk to when you need to express your feelings. If your grief is so overwhelming that you're unable to care for your child or can't offer her support, ask for help from family, friends, or a professional.

Your child might need professional assistance through the grieving process. Dr. Maidenberg suggests that you get help if, after six months, your child appears depressed, shows little interest in daily activities, has difficulty with sleeping and eating, socially isolates, repeatedly wishes to join the deceased loved one, or has an extreme drop in grades at school or refuses to attend school.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.