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The Sibling Connection      
Experiencing the Death of a Sibling as a Child


          The death of a brother or sister at any age profoundly changes the lives of surviving siblings. Research shows that it adversely affects surviving children's health, behavior, schoolwork, self-esteem, and development.

           Surviving siblings may be troubled throughout life by a vulnerability to loss and painful upsurges of grief around the date when the sibling died. They may develop distorted beliefs about hospitals, doctors, and illness. Many bereaved siblings describe feeling sad, lonely, and different from their peers.

          The impact of loss will be felt most by the brother or sister who shared the most "lifespace" with the one who died. Siblings who shared a room, who played together, and spent their spare time together are likely to be those most profoundly affected.

          Many are troubled by guilt due to the ambivalent nature of the sibling relationship. Upon the death of the brother or sister, they remember forcibly all the fights and name-calling, seeing themselves in memory as the bad child and the dead sibling as the good one. This split in self-concept results in the feeling that they are not good enough.

           A child's experience of losing a sibling depends partly on their understanding of death, which is associated with age and developmental level. These age ranges are approximate, and you (as a child) or your child (if you are a parent reading this) may have a broader understanding than those described here.

          Infants suffer both from the absence of their loved sibling and from the grief of their caregivers. The grief stricken family members are not as attuned to the baby as they were prior to the loss. The household becomes less structured and their routines may change, routines that give young babies a feeling of safety and security.

          
Toddlers think of death as temporary and reversible. They say things like "Well if Susie is in heaven, we can send her letters, can't we?" They think in concrete terms (what they can see or touch) and may not comprehend why their beloved sibling is lying in a box, or why he or she isn't at home waiting for them when they come back from the funeral.

Toddlers grieving the loss of a sibling may regress to an earlier stage of development, for example, wetting the bed after they had already become toilet trained. Children in the younger age groups may have thought about an

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older sibling as a parent figure who took care of them, and wonder who will take care of them now that the brother or sister is gone.

          Children aged 6-8 know more about death--they have seen dead birds and bugs, seen people die on television, and heard it talked about. They think of death as a scary thing that they can hide from, by hiding under the bed, for example. They say things like "When your hair gets white, you die, right?"

In this age group, children associate death with ghosts and skeletons. They know what it is, but not that it is going to affect them personally. They may ask questions about the death over and over. It is as if they have to learn the lesson of death many times for it to sink in.

At these young ages, children engage in what is called "magical" thinking. They may believe, for example, that their anger can kill, and that they cause the events surrounding them. They are still the center of their own universe and may take the blame for the death. Adults bereaved in childhood have often suffered for years, believing that they were responsible for their sibling's death.

          Ages 9-11

Children change at sometime around nine years to a more realistic understanding of death. They know that it cannot be reversed, that it is permanent, and that everyone dies. Parents may mistakenly assume that their child understands more at this age than they actually do.

It is crucial for adults to learn HOW children grieve. Research shows that bereaved children at this age "act out" their feelings by misbehaving and trying to get attention. Parents and others might get mad at the child because they are behaving this way, but in reality, this IS the child's way of mourning! Many adults look back on the way they behaved when a loved one was dying, and suffer more from guilt about their misbehavior than they do from the loss itself.



          Ages 11-13 Like the younger group, these children do not always behave like adults when they lose a loved one-instead they may act out, or simply act as if nothing happened at all. They may fall asleep or want to go outside and play when everyone else is mourning. Again, they are mourning in their own way, a way that is associated with their age more than their level of caring for the deceased. Think about how difficult it is for you to accept, even with your adult resources. When a child first experiences a loss, they are just beginning to learn on a day-to-day basis, what exactly that loss feels like and what it means.

For further information about sibling loss and the seven categories of child survivor siblings, read my book on Sibling Grief.

Click below to order the book from Amazon.com.


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