How children feel and react when a sibling dies
When a sibling dies, children can feel shocked, confused, sad, angry, bewildered or worried. They might worry that other family members will also die or that they’ll die too. Some children also worry about what the death will mean for the family – will things change or stay the same?
Children might react to the death of a sibling with behaviour like:
- crying a lot or having tantrums
- withdrawing from others
- acting as if the death didn’t happen or asking when their sibling is coming home
- losing skills – for example, a preschooler might talk like a baby again.
Or you might notice that children are:
- doing worse at school
- trying to do or be good at things their sibling did
- asking a lot of questions
- talking to strangers about the death.
And you might see children’s reactions in their physical and mental health. For example, they might:
- have physical pain like headaches and stomach aches
- have changes in their appetite
- show signs of generalised anxiety or separation anxiety
- have sleep problems including more nightmares.
Children’s feelings and reactions depend on how the death happened – for example, whether it was sudden or expected. After a sudden death, children might seem to be shocked rather than sad, because there was no time to prepare or say goodbye.
And some children might seem not to react to their sibling’s death at all. This is common and can happen when children don’t know how to process their loss.
Violent or traumatic deaths – for example, a car accident or drowning – or witnessing the death can deeply affect children and families. If this happens in your family, seek professional help for your child and yourself. Start by talking to your GP.
Talking with children about the death of a sibling
These tips might help:
- Choose a safe, private, comfortable and familiar place to talk.
- If you’re too distressed to talk, ask a trusted family member or friend to support you or do some of the talking for you.
- Explain what has happened simply, truthfully and in language your child can understand. It’s best to use words like ‘death’ and ‘died’. If you say that someone has ‘passed away’ or that they ‘went to sleep and didn’t wake up’, your child might be confused or frightened about going to sleep.
- Comfort your child and acknowledge their feelings. For example, ‘I can see you’re feeling very sad – so am I. We’re going to miss Luca so much. Can we have a hug?’
- Reassure your child that they’re safe and loved. And that the death wasn’t their fault and they didn’t cause their sibling to die.
- Expect the same questions over and over as your child tries to understand what has happened.
- If you don’t know how to answer your child’s questions, tell your child you’ll find out and come back to them when you know more.
These conversations will probably take time. Also, your child will probably have more questions as they grow and develop. These questions are likely to become more specific as your child starts to better understand death and grief.
If you have more than one child to talk to, it’s a good idea to tell them together. This way they get the information from you at the same time. Afterwards, you can talk to each child separately and give each the support they need.
How to tell children that a sibling has died: examples
- ‘Your sister’s heart stopped working. It couldn’t keep her body alive anymore and she died.’
- ‘Your brother was hurt in a car accident. Although everyone tried really hard to help his body get better, he died. This means that he can’t breathe, eat or feel anything anymore.’
- ‘Because their body stopped working, they can’t come back to life – even though we really want them to.’
Good mental health and wellbeing can help your child through this tough time. Positive relationships and a healthy lifestyle, including healthy eating and physical activity, are important to children’s mental health and wellbeing.
Helping children through a sibling’s funeral
- Let your child know what to expect over the coming days. For example, more people might be visiting your home than usual. Your child might not go to school for a while. And there’ll be a funeral, where friends and family can say goodbye to your child’s sibling.
- Tell your child’s teacher, the parents of your child’s close friends and other important people in your child’s life about the death and the funeral. If these people know what’s happening, they can support your child too.
- Let your child decide how they want to be involved in the funeral. For example, they could pick out photos or make a slideshow to display, choose songs to play that have a special meaning, draw on the coffin or pick an item to be buried or cremated with their sibling.
- Ask a trusted adult to support your child during the funeral. They can stay with your child to comfort them and answer questions. They can also go with your child if your child wants to take a break.
- Let your child know that they’ll see people upset and distressed at the funeral. Reassure your child that it’s OK if you and they feel this way too.
- Let your child know that they don’t need to talk to people at the funeral if they don’t want to and they can leave at any time. Choose a signal for your child to use if they want to leave, like a special word or gesture. Prepare a safe place for your child to go with a trusted adult.
- Encourage your child to keep an object with them for comfort – for example, a special toy or blanket.
Supporting children in the months and years after the death of a sibling
Your child will need support for a long time, and their support needs will probably change over time. These ideas might help:
- If your child wants to talk, stop what you’re doing and give them your full attention. Always give your child reassurance and comfort – for example, by hugging or sitting with them.
- Give your child plenty of opportunities to spend time with friends or trusted adults away from the family home. This can give your child a break from grieving at home, where there might be many reminders of their sibling. It can also help them reconnect with regular life.
- Help your child recognise, name and express their emotions. Exploring how your child feels through play can help – for example, drawing, painting, playing with puppets, singing or dancing.
- Read books about grief with your child. You could try The invisible string by Patrice Karst, In my heart: A book of feelings by Jo Witek and The memory tree by Britta Teckentrup.
- Tell your child that you love them. If you think your child feels pressure to replace their sibling, reassure them that they don’t need to because you love them for who they are.
- Think of and suggest rituals that are meaningful to you and your child. For example, you could ask your child if they’d like to help you plant a tree in memory of their sibling, set up a special place with a photo of their sibling, or create a memory box with mementos.
You might be focused on your child’s wellbeing, but you’re grieving too. It’s important to take time to cope with your own grief. If you look after yourself, you’ll be in better shape to support your child.
Changes to family life after the death of a sibling: helping children cope
The death of a sibling might lead to big changes in your family’s life. For example, there might be relationship changes among family members and with extended family and friends.
Routines can help you and your child cope with the stress, uncertainty and confusion that these changes can bring. Routines keep everyday life familiar and predictable and can help your child feel safe and secure.
Routines can include predictable mealtimes and bedtimes and other activities like sports and hobbies.
It’s a good idea to ask others to help you with these routines. For example, a trusted friend could pick up your child from school or take them to soccer practice on the weekend. Or family and friends could bring you meals. It’s best to tell your child ahead of time who’ll be helping.
Try to stick to familiar routines as much as you can. But it’s OK if you need to create new routines to adapt to your family’s changes after the death.
After a child’s death, your family might be eligible for some financial support from Services Australia.
Professional support for children’s grief after the death of a sibling
It’s a good idea to get professional support for your child after the death of a sibling, especially if you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour or wellbeing.
Your GP is a good place to start. They can guide you to the most appropriate services for your child – for example, bereavement counselling services. They can also refer your child to a mental health professional like a psychologist or social worker.
Here are more ways to get support for your child:
- Call Griefline on 1300 845 745.
- Encourage your child to speak to their school counsellor.
- If your child is 5 years or older, suggest they call Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800, or use the Kids Helpline email counselling service or Kids Helpline webchat counselling service.
- Contact local mental health services.
Children’s grief over time
Your child’s grief will probably change over time, as your child grows and develops. And throughout the years, there might be times when grief can feel more intense or overwhelming.
Your child might feel upset at times like their sibling’s birthday or death anniversary, special occasions or milestones, and during conversations about family – for example, when talking about family trees in class. Leading up to and during these events, your child might talk and ask more about their sibling.
Planning for these times with your child can give you both a sense of control and reduce your anxiety. For example, it’s good to make time to talk with your child about how they’re feeling leading up to the event. You can give them extra comfort and reassurance and encourage them to talk to trusted family and friends too.
At these times, it can help your child to have ways to remember their sibling and express their grief. For example, on the sibling’s birthday, your child might like to light a candle, play a special song or read from their sibling’s favourite book.
You and your child will have good days and bad days. Try to show compassion for yourself and encourage self-compassion in your child while your family finds its own ways of coping with this very challenging experience.