Explaining the death of a sibling to children can be very daunting for parents who are also dealing with their own grief at the loss of their child. It is common to feel unsure about what to say and how much to tell children and to want to protect them, especially when children are very young and may struggle to understand the concept of death.
We communicate with children about how we are feeling, even when we don’t intend to, by our body language and moods and behaviour. So, it is important for your children to be told about the death of their sibling as soon as possible, ideally by someone they are close to. Children have a greater capacity to understand than adults often expect and are more disturbed by vague explanations or feeling that information is being withheld. Individual children have their own personalities and will react differently just as adults do.
Some children may cry, others may carry on as if nothing has happened, but all will be affected at some level. If they are given an explanation as to what has happened, they can start to begin to make sense of it. Children, even at a very young age pick up on that something has happened and notice distress. When not given an explanation, they may feel anxious and insecure and alone in their worries.
It is best to begin with a simple explanation and then allow children to ask questions when they are ready. Ensure they know they can speak to you when they need to and provide opportunities for this. It is ok not to have all the answers, what is important is to listen to them so that they feel they are supported and included. They may need to repeat the same questions over and over as part of understanding what has happened. It is best to answer in a straightforward way, using simple, age appropriate language.
It is ok to cry in front of your child as this models healthy expression of emotion. Children will not be frightened by your tears if they know why you cry. It gives them permission to do the same.
We have a natural urge to want to protect children from hurtful things and this can lead us to saying things that children may actually find confusing or worrying instead of using the real words.
- “Gone to sleep” This can give children the fear that they too may not wake up, and they may be afraid to go to sleep, resulting in anxieties at bedtime.
- “We have lost your sister/ brother” This can leave a child searching in the hopes of finding them again, like looking for a lost toy or to fear that they too may be lost.
- “The doctor has taken him/her away” This can leave children fearful of visiting a doctor again and may cause the child to fear being abandoned.
If your family has a religious belief you may have your own way of explaining about what you believe happens after death. You may like to seek guidance from your community religious leader about supporting your children.
Suggesting that a child has ‘gone to heaven’ or ‘to live with God’ may be confusing for a young child, unless your family share a religious faith, which you all find comforting.
Keep the explanation a simple as possible and use the real words like ‘dead’ and ‘died’. It is good to agree with other adults in the family beforehand what you will say so that the explanation is consistent.
Young children will need some explanation of what being dead means:
‘When someone dies their body has stopped working; they don’t breathe and their heart stops beating. We are very sad because we are going to miss him very much’
You can offer reassurance too:
‘It is very, very unusual for this to happen but sadly it sometimes does.’
Some children especially older ones may ask more questions. It is alright to say “I don’t know”, if that is true.
Think about support for yourself when telling your child; either from a family member or friend or from The Lullaby Trust or other helplines.
There is a difference in how adults and children express grief; a child may jump in and out of grief and to an adult they may seem uncaring. For an adult it is more like being deep in a river, swept along with the current, finding it very difficult to get out.
There is some overlap between these stages and variation between children.
If your child’s reactions worry or puzzle you, do consider talking things over with a Helpline Adviser at The Lullaby Trust or having a chat with your GP, health visitor or child’s teacher.
- They will pick up on mood changes of their caregiver, even if very young
- They will often express feeling through their behaviour and may be different in their sleeping and feeding habits and be more ‘clingy’
- Older toddlers may be demanding of more attention
- Children of this age may behave similarly to the above
- They will not understand the permanence of death and may expect their brother or sister to come back
- They may have difficulty understanding the concept of not living
- They may regress in terms of toilet training, for example bed wetting
- They may find separation difficult even when left for short periods, like a parent going out of the room
- They may act out elements of the death in their play activities and may invent an imaginary friend with the baby’s name
- There will be an emerging sense of the meaning of death and some fear about themselves and people they care about dying and they may fear loss and abandonment
- There may still be some confusion around death, for example, is it catching and whether it is permanent
- May be fascinated by death, for example, what happens to a body
- They may be distressed or sad or show no outward signs
- They may blame themselves and if so, may behave badly to get the punishment they might think they deserve
- They may regress or may try to be more ‘grown up’
- There is more understanding that death is permanent
- They may appear outwardly unaffected by the death or show feelings of grief, anger, guilt
- Feelings may be ‘acted out’ or take the form of physical symptoms
- They may blame themselves or see the death as punishment for something they have done wrong
- They may worry about their parents or their own mortality
- Friends may be more curious about what has happened
- They may become more specific in their questions
- This is a time when children are naturally moving away from the family’s influence and becoming independent but a death still makes them more vulnerable
- Their feelings will be closer to an adult’s but at the same time, the need to not be different from their peers and to be ‘grown up’ and protect their parents, may lead them to hide their feelings
- This can lead to feelings of confusion, loneliness, anger, depression and guilt
- Feelings may show up as physical symptoms
- They may feel less engaged with school work and show behaviour problems at school
- Risk taking and anti-social behaviour can be common
What helps younger children is very much the foundation for older children too. Children learn how to grieve by copying the responses of the adults around them and rely on adults to provide them with what they need to support them in their grief.
Each child will have their own way of working through their grief and should be encouraged to express their individual feelings.
Children, like adults, can suffer a wide range of emotions, including sorrow, anger, disbelief, and even guilt.
- Maintain routines and familiarity as much as possible
- Provide love and reassurance
- Consider care giving from another familiar figure if the parents feel too distraught to respond
- Let other caregivers; for example nursery, child minders, know so they can be extra understanding of any differences in your child
- All of the points in 0-3 years
- They may need reassurance that the dead can’t feel anything and don’t feel pain
- Answer questions when the child asks avoiding using confusing terms (see things to avoid saying) and using clear terms
- Allow expression of feelings through play, reading books, drawing
- Tell teachers, family members and friends what explanation your child has been given so they can support you in this and not give your child confusing messages
- Accept that they may move on quickly from talking about the death or their sibling and go back to play
- The thoughts of children this age are very centred on themselves so they may need reassurance that nothing they did caused the death
- All of the points in 0-3 plus notifying Primary School about what has happened
- Give extra reassurance about separations, where you will be etc
- Listen and help them express thoughts and feelings
- Reassure that the death was not their fault
- Give them time to ask questions
All the points in 0-3 plus notifying teachers
- Encourage the expression of feelings and acknowledge any concerns they have about their own mortality, give reassurance
- Give reassurance that the death wasn’t their fault
- Give them time and affection
- They may need help thinking about how to answer questions from their friends
- Model appropriate expression of your own feelings ‘ It’s ok, I just feel sad today because I miss your baby brother’
- Reassure that it is still okay to have fun and laugh
- Maintain usual rules and boundaries
- Allow space for them to speak with you when they are ready and listen without judging or criticising
- Model appropriate expression of your own feelings and acknowledge that people express their grief in different ways
- Reassure and acknowledge that it is normal to question things like the meaning of life as a teenager and that having to confront mortality at a young age is challenging
- Let them have time alone and to grieve in their own way
- Accept they may find it easier to speak to someone outside the family and help them to identify who that could be
- Keep channels of communication open with School so that problems can be picked up quickly
- Reassure that it is still okay to have fun and laugh
It is helpful to explain to a child what a funeral is and why we have them. Rituals are a comforting part of life and can help build memories of the baby who has died and also help children understand the finality of death.
Try to include siblings in the events and ceremonies which follow the death, as excluding them is likely to leave them feeling anxious, bewildered and alone. Allowing them to see their sibling if they wish and say goodbye is usually helpful. If they don’t want to view the body or go to the funeral, they could make a card or drawing to go in the coffin or choose a poem to be read or a song to be played or pick some flowers. They could choose to attend the gathering afterwards instead of attending the funeral.
If they do want to go, it can be helpful to show them in advance where the funeral will take place so they have an idea of what to expect.
It can help to have a backup plan of someone to care for the child if they change their mind about going to the funeral.
Even a baby or very young child can attend a funeral and may appreciate the knowledge they were present when they are older.
Having a sense of a continued link with the person who dies is an important part of coping with grief. It is good to give children opportunities to remember their sibling especially on anniversaries and special times. It can be good to make a plan in advance about how special dates will be handled and marked.
- Share memories of their brother or sister by looking at photographs and remembering events. A Lullaby Trust online memorial can be personalised with photos and videos
- You might like to put together a memory book or box. Children may like to contribute a drawing or write something to go in the box
- They might like to keep something that belonged to the baby like an item of clothing or a toy
- Some families like to light a candle on the anniversary of a baby’s birthday or make a cake.
- Attending Lullaby Trust Family Days can be a way of remembering your child who died and helping children connect with other families and children who have experienced a similar bereavement:
- Some families like to get involved in charity events as a way of honouring their child who died click here for ways to get involved with The Lullaby Trust
Grief may need to be revisited at different points in your other children’s lives; this is normal. At special family events you may all wonder what it would have been like had your child and their sibling lived and could be there too.
It can help to tell teachers at school, each new school year, about their deceased sibling so when topics such as ‘My family’ are covered so that the teacher knows and acts appropriately.
An adult bereaved as a child may wish their sibling was around as an adult, perhaps to be an aunt or uncle to their children.
Subsequent children born after the child died may have particular needs. They may have a sense of loss even though they didn’t meet their sibling. It can be good to talk about the deceased sibling from the beginning so that they grow up knowing the family story. They may need reassurance that while you miss their sibling you are very glad to have them. They may need some help to not idealise the dead sibling, that their missing sibling would still have been squabbles with them, good times and bad times.
There may be particular concerns when a bereaved sibling grows up and has their own children. You may like to see the support available in this situation:
Emma a bereaved sibling talks about her experience
Being only 5 when my sister died, my parents decided that my brother and I wouldn’t attend the funeral, we didn’t get the chance to say goodbye. If I am honest I’m not sure that I have ever really gotten over this fact. My sister’s funeral was a week after her passing, my brother and I were sent to school as a normal day. Annually, on my sister’s birthday our parents took us to the crematorium to see our sisters memorial stone and see her name in the book of remembrance. We have always talked about our sister and we have photographs up of her around the house. Both of my children know about their Auntie who died.
When I found out I was pregnant I felt nervous that history would repeat itself. When I mentioned this to the midwife, she was not the friendliest with her reply and subsequent support! It was particularly important for me to find out what gender my child would be, partly to foreworn my parents – my dad especially, as even now he struggles with babies – even just on the TV. We paid for a private gender scan to ensure that we could find out the gender, as the NHS scans are not always possible for it to be determined and the purpose of those scans are to check on the progress of the baby’s growth.
When we did find out that the baby was a girl, I did feel that it would affect my relationship and my ability to bond during the pregnancy in case the same thing happened. I spoke with the support team at The Lullaby Trust and I was given the CONI scheme details – however I chose not to become part of the scheme. When my older brother and his partner were expecting they did become part of the scheme.
When I fell pregnant the second time, again, we found out the gender – this time we would be expecting a boy, I found it easier to bond with the baby during the pregnancy.
Both of my kids have been brought up knowing about their other aunt who died, we also attend family days for them to understand the work that the Lullaby Trust undertakes and how there are other families like us out there. It also helps them to realise that talking about things is good.
It is natural for survivors of multiple births whose sibling has died to feel a keen sense of someone missing from their life or to wonder what it would have been like to grow up with a twin or multiple. It is thought to be helpful for them to know from very early on about their circumstances.
You may like to contact other charities for further information and support about this topic. There may also be local organisations who can help. The Support Team at the Lullaby Trust can help to put you in touch.
Winston’s Wish, a charity which therapeutic support to offers bereaved children and young people by phone, email and face to face plus online resources Helpline 08088 020 021
The Child Bereavement UK website has further detailed information and support around talking to children. Helpline 0800 02 888 40.
The Twins Trust Bereavement Support Group exists to support all parents and carers of multiples who have experienced loss whether it was during pregnancy, at birth or at any point afterwards.
Bodie Hodges Foundation free grief resources to help children grieve for their brother or sister and to understand how they are feeling. They support families to remember and grieve together.
Grief Encounter Free support for bereaved children and their families