Parenting The One That Is Still Here

parenting child who lost sibling.JPG

Parents of bereaved siblings face the monumental task of parenting living children while living with their own grief. Such parenting can seem impossible to grieving parents. In fact, Katherine Donnelly wrote that “Parents who are bleeding emotionally are often unable to help the surviving children during the first months and even years.” However, parents’ ability to overcome their own pain and care for their living children is critical to the well-being of surviving siblings. Child grief specialists have noted that bereaved siblings are at an increased risk of developing pathology if their parents do not effectively recover from their loss. This negative impact of parental grief on living siblings can last long after their sibling dies and can even be passed on to future generations. For this reason, bereaved parents must find a way to navigate their loss so that they can care for their children.

Jennifer Hubbard, whose daughter was killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, reflected on the difficult task of raising her living son when she wrote “Some days my heart hurts so intensely my only desire is to pull the covers high…” However, she then reminded bereaved parents of the incredible gift and responsibility that they have been given: “God placed children in my life with the instruction, ‘Train a boy in the way he should go,’ and promises, ‘even when he is old, he will not swerve from it.’” Each of us has been given the opportunity to overcome our own pain and to care for our children in ways that help them to become the people that God created them to be. To do this, we need to be aware of the ways in which our behaviors can impact our children’s development.

Krell and Rabkin suggested that there are three types of bereaved siblings: haunted children, bound children, and resurrected children. I would like to propose that there are two additional types of surviving siblings. I propose the first, neglected children, based on my understanding of the impact of parental depression on child development. I propose the second, fortified children, because I believe that the loss of a sibling does not have to be damaging to children and can, in fact, be an opportunity to grow. Each of the five “sibling types” are heavily influenced by parenting styles and communication patterns within the family. Thus, by being aware of our parenting tendencies and being careful about the ways in which we approach our living children, we can have a significant impact on their development.

The first type of bereaved sibling is the haunted child. According to Krell and Rabkin, haunted children are raised in families where there is very little communication about the loss, where parents are secretive about what happened and about their emotions, and where children feel unable to discuss and process their loss with trusted adults. Children who are raised in this environment can have trouble working through their grief and, therefore, are at risk of several psychological problems including depression, anxiety, and relationship difficulties. At times, these problems can ultimately impact surviving siblings’ own parenting styles and family communication patterns, which can lead to issues that are passed down from generation to generation. If you are curious about the intergenerational transmission of pathology, I would suggest that you read “Ghosts in the Nursery” by Selma Fraiberg, Edna Adelson, and Vivian Shapiro. “Ghosts in the Nursery” is an old but classic article about the intergenerational transmission of violence within the family and can be found at http://mhfamilypsychology.com/docs/Ghosts%20in%20the%20nursery%20paper%20copy.pdf. While not directly related to sibling loss, “Ghosts in the Nursery” offers a fascinating look at how our mental health shapes our children and our children’s children.

The second type of bereaved sibling is the bound child. According to Krell and Rabkin, bound children cannot reach their full potential because their parents are unable to overcome their fear of losing another child and, consequently, become too protective. However, I would also like to suggest that sometimes parents of bereaved siblings over-parent because focusing on their living children spares them from having to focus on their own pain. Whatever reason a parent may have for being too protective of their children, bound children are at risk of developing anxiety themselves and miss out on many of great things in life. I must admit, I constantly fight against doing things that could make my living daughter become a bound child because my instinct tends to be something like: “I lost one kid already, let’s just wrap this remaining one in bubble-wrap, keep her in the house, and feed her a research supported, perfectly balanced, and well pasteurized liquid diet for the rest of her life.” Needless to say, I depend heavily upon my husband, family and the parents of my daughter’s playmates around me to determine what are “reasonable risks” for my family.

The third type of bereaved sibling is the resurrected child. As nice as the name “resurrected child” sounds, the life of resurrected children is anything but nice. The parents of resurrected children consciously or unconsciously view them as replacements for the baby that died or wish that they would be replacements for the baby. It is easy to see how parents could view siblings who are born after the death of an infant as replacements; however, it is a little harder to understand how parents can expect older siblings to replace infants. In this case, the wish for a replacement child is often communicated to surviving siblings more subtly through comments like, “the baby was so laid back” or “she was perfect” which the siblings interpret as being in contrast with themselves. In this way, parents may, without realizing it, challenge surviving siblings to compete with their dead siblings over traits that they have attributed to their lost child. This can breed resentment, stress and feelings of inferiority in surviving siblings.

The fourth type of bereaved sibling is the neglected child. Neglected children have parents who are so overwhelmed by their own grief that they withdraw from their living children and are unable to adequately care for them. Their parents’ grief is so lasting and intense that it crosses the line into depression. Depressed parents may be physically or emotionally unavailable to their living children and this can have a lasting impact on children. For example, children of depressed parents are more likely to have behavior problems, difficulty managing their emotions, anxiety, depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and learning challenges.

The fifth type of bereaved sibling is the fortified child. Fortified children have parents who can overcome their own responses to loss and who help their children to grow through the loss of their sibling. These children become emotionally stronger, more sensitive to the needs of others, and reflect the image of God through their grief. Parents of fortified children encourage open and honest communication about the baby’s death and about their own losses. They rely on God to keep their children safe and allow their children the freedom to become the people that God created them to be. They cherish and value the unique way that God designed their children and they cope with their own pain in a way that frees them to be responsive parents. Parents of fortified children put themselves second and their children first. This is difficult because their children need them to simultaneously take care of themselves and to remain healthy, which means that parents may need to receive emotional support elsewhere; however, they recognize that they cannot receive this emotional support from their children. Instead, these parents chose to help their children to heal, even when the way that their children heal causes them pain. For example, bereaved children often incorporate themes of death into their imaginative play. This is healthy for them because it helps them to understand their loss and to gain a sense of mastery over it. Parents of fortified children can find it painful and emotionally draining to be repeatedly engaged in games that involve the death of a baby or child; however, they recognize that their children’s play is important “work” and they are able to put their own feelings aside so that they can walk with their children through their pain. My husband and I encountered another example at Halloween when our daughter knocked on our neighbor’s door, smiled adorably and declared “Trick or Treat! My baby died. Can I take two?” While our first response was to tell our daughter not to talk about the baby’s death with strangers, we realized that doing so would alleviate our own discomfort, but would also impair her growing ability to talk about her loss. Instead, we helped her to think about how confusing it would be for someone to be greeted with “Trick or Treat! My baby died,” and how they might feel a little bit manipulated into giving her two candies because they felt badly for her. As a result of this conversation, our daughter has not horrified countless strangers, but has instead started many unexpected and meaningful conversations with other people who have come into our lives. In short, the parents of fortified children must learn to be pelican parents – parents who will pierce their own breasts with their beaks to feed their young.

I do not think that there is really any question about which type of sibling you want your children to be, but how can you be a pelican parent in the midst of your own earth shaking grief? Only by entrusting yourself to your own pelican parent: Jesus. You must feast your heart on reminders of His sacrifice for you, rely on Him for the strength to be the parent He has created you to be, and let Him heal your pain and provide you with sustaining grace. You will have to turn your pain over to Him and ask Him to give you the wisdom to know when you need to seek additional help for yourself. You will also have to trust that God will grow your children to be the people that He has created them to be, because the truth is that you will never be a perfect parent for them, but He will be. With the realization of your own Father’s love for you and with the knowledge that He is ultimately guiding your living children, you can embrace the challenge that is before you and train your children in the way they should go.

 

References

Canadian Pediatric Society. “Maternal Depression and Child Development,” Pediatric & Child Health, vol. 9, issue. 8, Oct. 2004.

Donnelly, K.F. Recovering From the Loss of a Sibling. Dodd, Mead & Company, NY, 1988.

Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E., & Shapiro, V. “Ghosts in the Nursery,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 14, issue 3, p. 387-421, Summer 1975.

Hubbard, J. “The Presentation of the Lord.” Magnificat, NY, vol. 18, number 12, Feb. 2017.

Rosen, H. Unspoken Grief – Coping With Childhood Sibling Loss. Lexington Books, MA, 1987.

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Helping Children to Heal Through Rituals FAQ

rituals

Whether your family has encountered death before, or not, the death of an infant offers many unique opportunities for celebrating a brief but beloved life. It also raises numerous questions about how to involve older siblings in the rituals that surround death so that they are healed and not hurt. For parents, these questions about how to involve your children in the traditions of death begin the moment the baby dies and continue long after the funeral is over. It is my hope that the information, suggestions, and personal experiences that I provide here may assist you as you determine the ways in which your living children should honor their baby brother or sister.

  1. Should my living children see the baby’s body?

This is a very personal decision that is based on the situation. While some children find it helpful to see and spend time with their little sibling’s body, many parents choose not to involve their children in this way. I would encourage parents who face this question to consider several things including the development of the living siblings, the siblings’ ability to communicate effectively, the physical condition of the baby and how the siblings will likely respond to it, the setting of the death or delivery, your emotional state as parents during the brief time you have with your baby’s body, and whether or not the death was expected so that you could prepare the siblings for what the baby would look like.

Our family decided not to have our daughter “meet” her sister. We determined that by the time our daughter would be able to arrive at the hospital and we would be emotionally composed enough to focus on our living daughter, our baby’s body would be very discolored and we did not want our daughter to carry that image of her sister in her memory. However, we took lots of pictures and had some pictures taken of the baby. We then made a black-and-white album with the pictures that are not visibly discolored and do not show our incredible sadness. We are planning to make another album with the remaining pictures that our daughter can chose to see when she is much older.

  1. How should I talk with my children about the baby’s death?

As much as we would like to shield our children from death, it is important to be open and honest with them about what happened to their little sibling. Your openness with your children can help them to communicate their thoughts and feelings with you, now and throughout their lives. This is very important because it fosters a close relationship with you. It also allows your children to process the loss of their sibling and to integrate that loss into their understanding of their personal histories. On the flip side, if children are not able to talk about their grief, then they can have difficulty accepting the reality of their loss and this can cause ongoing challenges. It can also impact their ability to communicate freely with you about future events in their lives. Sadly, a study of adults who lost siblings during their childhood years has found that 76% felt that they were not able to talk about their feelings when their sibling died. No one wants their children to suffer alone, so it is critical that a pattern of open communication is established soon after the baby’s death.

In order to establish easy communication with your children, you will need to be proactive about discussing the death with them. It is important that you use age appropriate and direct language because children can easily misunderstand some of the euphemisms and metaphors we use about death. For example, try to avoid saying that you “lost” the baby or that the baby is “gone.” As harsh as it may seem to you, your children will comprehend the death better if you use the words “dead,” “death” and “died” openly. It is also important to constantly wonder “How are they hearing this?” so that you can avoid some of the misunderstandings that children frequently have. For example, some children who were told that “God just needed another angel and took the baby to Heaven,” have reported that they began acting badly so that God would not take them to be an angel, too. Others have stated that they were afraid to leave their mother’s side because she might “lose” them, too.

Most importantly, as Christians, we need to make sure that the messages that our children are hearing about their sibling’s death help them to understand the realities of life, death, sin and Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation. We need to cling to the hope of that salvation and allow it to be conveyed to our children through our grief. One way to do this is to emphasize the idea that Jesus is more powerful than death by reading about Christ’s Passion and the stories of Jairus’ Daughter and Lazarus. You can also use picture books about death and the stories of the Saints to help your children to understand about Heaven and God’s eternal plan for His people. I have found that it is important to preview picture books before reading them to my daughter because some of them contain beliefs that we do not agree with. We have some favorite books that we mostly agreed with but I crossed-off and rewrote the passages that were not consistent with our beliefs. That way if other family members read the book to my daughter, I knew that she was hearing the words that I wanted her to hear.

  1. What if my children see me crying?

If your children see you crying, then you are giving them a great gift! As hard as it may be to believe, showing them that it is okay to express their emotions, that you are being open and genuine with them, and that you loved their brother or sister enough to grieve is good for them. Of course, you need to be sensitive to their response to your tears and you may need to reassure them that you are “okay, just sad,” but since children learn from example, you want to be a model of healthy grieving and healthy grief requires the expression of emotions. That being said, while there is no time limit on grief, healthy grievers begin to experience more breaks in their sadness as time goes on. If you find that you are constantly sad or that your mood is not improving over time, you may be depressed and having depressed parents can cause problems for children. If you are concerned that you may be depressed, the best thing you can do for yourself and your children is to talk to a medical provider about how to cope with your feelings of sadness.

  1. Should we bring our children to the funeral/memorial Mass?

Perspectives on this have changed drastically over the past several generations, which may mean that, before the funeral, you need to have discussions about your decision with older relatives who might feel that it is inappropriate for children to attend funerals. However, our current understanding of child grief suggests that funerals can be a healing ceremony for children because they help children to understand death and to express their emotions in a socially supportive context. Some child grief specialists suggest that children over the age of four or five are capable of choosing whether or not they attend their sibling’s funeral, however, many parents choose to bring much younger siblings to their baby’s funeral.

In our case, we talked with our three-year-old daughter about what would happen at the funeral and let her decide whether or not she came. She knew that there would be an adult who she knew well who would take her to a different part of the church to play if she chose to leave. Once she knew that she could leave if she wanted to, our daughter decided to attend the funeral and she ended up staying with us for the entire time. In order to include her in the service, we asked that one of the hymns be “Jesus Loves Me,” we tried to explain what was happening to her, and we passed out flowers to put on the baby’s coffin. My extended family also made sure that she had plenty of food that she could eat during the reception and my cousins made sure that she received a lot of attention.

If, like us, you decide that your living children will attend the baby’s funeral, therapists who specialize in child grief suggest that you talk with your child about the details of what to expect. This should include specifics about the coffin, burial, prayers, number of people attending, and behavioral expectations. You should also let your children know that people will cry at the funeral and that this is okay.

  1. What can I do to help my children go back to their daycare, school or other activities?

It can be helpful to make sure that anyone who works with your children know about your baby’s death. You never know when your children might mention the death and it can help for teachers to have a heads-up. We left messages for all of our daughter’s teachers before she returned to her usual activities so that they knew what had happened and could be prepared to respond to anything our daughter might say. While I do not think that any of her teachers ended up talking with her about her sister’s death, they all made sure to welcome her back to class and they gave her some extra support and attention as she got back into her routine.

  1. Should my children keep things to remind them of the baby?

Children and their parents can sometimes have different needs when it comes to keeping memorials of their baby. Some parents find it helpful to have physical reminders of their baby, others do not. Children, however, generally process their grief best when they can keep a physical reminder of their little sibling. This can be something that they take from the baby’s room, an ultrasound picture, a piece of clothing the baby wore, something the children make to remember the baby, or even a special piece of jewelry that was given to them as a reminder of their baby. You might need to work with your children to help them to understand how special this reminder is and how they can take care of their memorial object. You might also need to talk with them about where to keep their object so that it will be helpful to them without being painful for other family members to see.

  1. Should my children come with me to visit the baby’s grave?

In the same way that most children can decide whether to attend the funeral, many children can choose whether they want to visit their little sibling’s grave. You might find that sometimes your children want to go with you and other times they do not – that’s okay. Remember, your baby is not there so it is alright to avoid visiting the grave and visits should only be made if they are beneficial for the visitor. Also, you should not be surprised if the amount of time that your children want to spend at the grave is shorter than the time you want to spend there. Consequently, if you do bring your children to the cemetery with you, might need to return by yourself later so that you can spend more time there alone. You want your children to associate remembering their sibling with pleasant memories, so you don’t want to force them to stay at the grave for longer than they want to.

Standing by the grave can be boring for young children. To help our daughter to actively remember her sister when we visit her grave, we try to bring flower arrangements that she has chosen or that she has made. While we are at the grave, we also pray. In addition to our own prayers, we have found that it is helpful to pray a short prayer that is intended for cemetery visits, like the following from http://www.acc-seattle.com/resources/visits.htm: “Praise be to God our Father, who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  Blessed be God for ever. We gather today to pray for our baby whose body lies here in rest. Our baby is purified now of all faults. We pray that God may welcome our baby among all the saints of heaven. Amen.” I have found that having a pre-written prayer helps our living daughter to know how she can honor her baby sister in a setting that is unfamiliar to her. It also helps me to feel like we have spent some time really focusing on God and our baby so that, even if the visit is short, it is meaningful and precious.

  1. Are there special days that we can use to help our children remember their little sibling?

Absolutely! Many families have special traditions that they keep on the anniversary of their baby’s birth and death. These can range from having a cake to donating to a charity in the baby’s name. Some families have similar traditions on the Saint day of the Saint their baby was named after.

In addition to remembering their little sibling these more personal days, the Catholic Church also offers several opportunities to celebrate and remember the dead throughout the liturgical year. Remembering your baby at Christmas and Easter can be a wonderful way to show your children how precious and relevant Jesus’s gift of salvation is. In addition to these major holidays, we also like to celebrate the Saints Days of Saints who were bereaved siblings. Learning about the lives of these Saints provides children with a sense of hope and connection to others who have suffered a similar loss. As a parent, these days also offer a reminder to ask these Saints to pray for my daughter to overcome and grow through the loss of her sister. I am sure that there are many bereaved siblings who have become Saints that we have yet to discover, but so far, we have learned about the following Saints who lost siblings: St. Bernadette Soubirous (Saints Day April 16th), St. Catherine of Siena (Saints Day April 29th), St. Kateri Tekakwitha (Saints Day July 14th), St. Therese of Lisieux (Saints Day October 1st), St. John Paul II (Saints Day October 22nd), and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (Saints Day November 13th).

Finally, the month of November is a special time in the Catholic Church that is set aside for remembering the dead. At the beginning of the month, All Souls Day and All Saints Day provide opportunities to pray for and to remember the dead. I have found that these are good days to visit the baby’s grave and to pray special prayers that are intended for these days. Throughout the month, churches hold memorial Masses for the dead. In addition to these memorial Masses, churches set up books for parishioners to record the names of loved ones who have died. During Masses during the month of November, the church remembers and prays for those written in this book. Explaining this ritual to your children and offering to have them accompany you as you write your baby’s name in the book can provide them with a physical act of remembrance that is affirmed by the church community.

 

REFERENCES

Catholic Online, “St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.” http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=278

Donnelly, Katherine Fair. Recovering From the Loss of a Sibling. Dodd, Mead & Company, NY, 1988.

Miller, Don, OFM. “Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.” https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-kateri-tekakwitha/

Rosen, Helen. Unspoken Grief-Coping with Childhood Sibling Loss. Lexington Books, MA, 1987.

St. Bernadette Soubirous, “My Name Is Bernadette.” http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/bernlife.htm

Saint John Paul II National Shrine, “John Paul II.” http://www.jp2shrine.org/en/bio/index.html

The Forgotten Grievers

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When a baby dies, the community naturally rallies around the grieving parents. In the face of such overwhelming parental sorrow, it is easy to overlook the baby’s more quietly suffering siblings. For this reason, bereaved siblings have been called “the forgotten grievers.” As the parents and caregivers of these children, it is important that we do not forget them and their grief. Instead, we need to do everything we can to understand their unique experiences of loss. Our children face a vast range of emotions in the face of their sibling’s death. If we listen to their words, carefully observe their behaviors, and are sensitive to their needs, we can begin to understand their feelings and help guide them through this tumultuous time. In my experience, the following seven emotions are the most common feelings that surviving siblings encounter.

  1. Sadness

One of the most frequently acknowledged emotions after a death is sadness. Just like adults, surviving children often feel sad when they are reminded of their baby sibling. Reminders may come in the form of other babies, activities that children had anticipated doing with their baby, or conversations about their baby. Sometimes, children can tell us that they are sad, but at other times, they are not be able to recognize or label their sadness. At these times, their behaviors can offer us clues that they are feeling sad. For example, they might be unusually quiet, withdrawn, agitated, or aggressive. They might also be tearful or have difficulty focusing. It can be helpful to ask them direct questions about their feelings such as, “I see that you are very quiet. Are you feeling sad? What are you sad about?” Helping our children to identify their emotions with words can provide them with a sense of control over their feelings while simultaneously acknowledging their pain and conveying our concern for them. Our sorrowful children can also benefit from a hug, kind words, and a simple comment like “I’m sad about the baby, too.” Often, having someone acknowledge their pain will help our children to start feeling better since, unlike adults and older children, young children tend to experience sudden bursts of intense sadness that are rapidly followed by feelings of happiness and energetic play. Roller-coaster emotions are normal for grieving children and, if your children do not experience some periods of positive emotions, it might be helpful to speak with a pediatrician about the possibility of grief counseling. It might also be a good idea to seek professional help if your children are saying or doing things that indicate a decrease in their self-esteem, loss of interest in preferred activities, or sadness that is not directly related to the loss.

In addition to being sorrowful about losing their brother or sister, bereaved siblings also experience sadness about the (generally temporary) loss of their previously attentive, happy parents. During the early phases of grief, it is common to feel overwhelmed and unable to be as present to your children as you usually are. You might feel detached, distracted, or extremely fatigued which can make interactions with your children challenging. For example, in the days after my own loss, I frequently stared, uncomprehending, at my frustrated daughter as she repeated the same simple words over-and-over again. Because of this change in your emotional availability, it is particularly important for you to have times when you deliberately set aside your grief and focus your attention on your surviving children. Similarly, as much as you might not want to, I encourage you to push yourself to share normal and fun activities with your children as soon as possible. During periods when physical activity must be limited, you can cuddle while reading, watch movies together, or playing board games. When you are physically feeling better, you can prioritize day trips, seasonal activities, visiting friends, traveling, and museum visits. These activities help to reintroduce fun into your family life and provide you with conversation topics that are not related to your loss.

  1. Anger

Another emotion that bereaved siblings often face is anger. Your children might be angry at the baby for dying, angry with you for not being yourself, angry at God, or even angry at themselves. Sometimes, this anger is a normal response to loss. However, sometimes, anger can be fueled by misunderstandings about the events that led to the baby’s death. For example, our oldest daughter believed that her sister had died because of the whooping cough vaccine I received shortly before her birth. She knew that her sister could not breath when she was born and that whooping cough makes it hard to breath, so she assumed that the two things were connected. Thus, she was angry with us and with the doctors for hurting the baby. Fortunately, because we frequently talked with her about how she was feeling, we discovered her misunderstanding and then helped to correct it.

Don’t be surprised if your children filter their anger into troublesome behaviors. If this happens, it is important that you maintain your usual rules and expectations for behavior while remaining sensitive to the emotions that are causing the challenging behaviors. Children find comfort in knowing that there are boundaries for their behaviors and that you are in control. While it might take every bit of energy you have, not allowing them to hurt themselves, break things, yell, or be disrespectful, is normal and healthy even when they are grieving. It can be helpful to reassure your children that it is okay to be angry and that they can talk with you and with God about their anger, but cannot make bad choices like hitting, yelling, or breaking things. You can also give your child ideas about what they can do instead (draw, run, pray, talk). Finally, if you are like me, you will probably respond to your children’s angry behaviors with your own anger. Like your children, you might find yourself behaving in ways that you should not. If this happens, I encourage you to talk with your children about your mistakes, tell them that you are sorry, and ask for their forgiveness. Apologizing to your children provides you with an opportunity to heal your relationships with them while simultaneously teaching them about grace, repentance and forgiveness.

  1. Fear and anxiety

In addition to the sadness and anger that many bereaved children experience, many siblings become more anxious and worried. Your children might be concerned about their own safety or about your health and well-being. This makes sense, because their baby’s death has made their world seem suddenly unpredictable to them. From your children’s perspectives, there are countless unexpected and confusing changes that happen when a baby dies: you went to the hospital to have the baby and came home without one, you used to be patient and are suddenly quick to lose your temper, your daily routines are disrupted and, your family might even move to a new house to escape painful memories. Each of these changes threatens your children’s sense of security and can be stressful to them. Additionally, your children might realize that, if the baby died, other loved ones could also die. This can exacerbate fears of death. If the baby’s death was unexpected, the idea that death could come without warning can be especially troubling to your young siblings. Being patient, honest, and sensitive to your children’s fears while offering accurate reassurance can do a great deal to alleviate their stress and to help your children to overcome their anxieties.  It can also be helpful to pray with your children about their fears and to remind them that God is big enough to take care of all of their worries. In our house, we like to sing the VeggieTales song “God is Bigger than the Boogie Man” to remind us that God will keep us safe.

Anxiety and fear can impact children’s behaviors in several ways. If your children are fearful about your safety, they might be reluctant to separate from you. Alternatively, your children might be fearful at night, have nightmares, or have trouble falling asleep. Children might also complain about experiencing physical pain or feeling sick. In fact, it is not unusual for siblings to experience physical symptoms related to the way that their sibling died. This was true for our oldest daughter who experienced two asthma attacks in the weeks following her sister’s death. Other signs that children are experiencing anxiety include having difficulty doing things that they usually do well, struggling with constipation, or having uncharacteristic toileting accidents.

  1. Guilt

In a survey of adult survivors of sibling loss, fifty percent reported feeling guilty about their sibling’s death. They noted that they experienced guilt about surviving, being healthy, feeling angry, experiencing happiness, and having fun. Some children even feel guilty because they enjoy the extra attention that they received because of the baby’s death. Additionally, many children think that they were “too rough” with their mothers or that they were “naughty” so God punished them by taking their baby away. Also, because young children often believe that the very act of thinking something can cause it to happen, they might believe that any anger they felt about the baby caused the baby to die. While it is hard for adults to understand how children can believe such things, it is important to remember that children have a limited understanding of how things work and many things seem “magical” to them. Additionally, Dr. Richard Gardiner has suggested that feeling responsible for their sibling’s death might help children to feel like they have some control in a world that suddenly feels out of control to them. In other words, it might be easier for children to feel guilty about their sibling’s death than it is to feel like they have no control over the chaotic world around them.

Young children may demonstrate their feelings of guilt in surprising ways. While some children will verbalize their feelings openly, others may not be able to do this. Instead, they might act out so that they will be punished in the way that they believe they should be. If you find that your children are seeking punishment, it might be worth asking them if they feel badly about something or feel like the baby’s death was their fault. It is also important to reassure your child of several things. First, reinforce that the loss and your sadness is not their fault. Second, remind them that God made them and that they are good (even when they do naughty things). Finally, tell them that you love them, that they are precious to you, and that you are glad that they are still with you on earth. With time and reassurance, punishment seeking behaviors and feelings of guilt should lessen. If they do not, you might want to consider seeking professional help for your children since excessive guilt can be a sign of depression.

  1. Love

While the emotions that we have discussed so far have been painful, children who have siblings that die also experience pleasant feelings about their baby and their loss. At first glance, positive emotions may seem out of place in grief, but we are not meant to “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).” Instead, since we believe that our babies are in Heaven, we also believe that our children are still their big brothers and sisters. This means that the love that they felt for their little sibling during their mother’s pregnancy can continue and be a blessing in their lives. The other day, my oldest and I were talking about Heaven and she said that she was excited to meet Noemi there someday. I asked her what she would say to Noemi when she saw her and, without hesitation, she replied, “I love you!” At other times, she has asked me to pray with her that God would tell Noemi how much she loves her and that she is looking forward to holding her. These moments are precious reminders that, thanks to Jesus, the bond between two sisters cannot be destroyed by death.

  1. Gratitude

How often have you read the commands to Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)” and thought of your children? If you are like me, not often enough! While I have heard these as commands directed at myself, I have never really thought of them as commands that are meant for my daughter; however, it is just as important for my oldest to “give thanks in all circumstances” as it is for me. Thankfully, God did not wait around for me to get with the program and foster gratitude in my daughter. Instead, He has given her gratitude for her family, for our health, and even for her baby sister. In fact, she recently said, “Mommy, we are really lucky because not everyone gets to have a baby in Heaven.” The truth is, we are really lucky! God gave us a little life, a little person who reflects His image, and while we still haven’t met her, we know that someday we will. That is truly something to be grateful for!

  1. Hope

When children who have lost a sibling have been taught about Jesus’ salvation, when they know about Heaven, and when they believe in God’s plan for His people, they experience incredible hope. My oldest daughter is a happy, enthusiastic four-year-old, but she often says that she wishes that she was already in Heaven and I must remind her that God still has plans for us on earth. Sometimes it feels like she is on an extended layover on earth and is enjoying her time mulling around the terminal but will pick up and run to the departure gate as soon as the announcement is made that the plane to her final destination is boarding. Her sister’s death has caused her to think deeply about Heaven and, in her child’s faith, she knows that the place where Jesus is and where there are no boo-boos is a much better place than this world that she lives in. If I am honest, this restlessness for her true home is exactly what I want for her. As I am reminded in Jim Reeves’ song, “This world is not my home I’m just a passing through, my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” I am so very glad that my oldest daughter knows not to get too comfortable here because there is so much more to come!

 

References

American Psychological Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). American Psychiatric Publishing, Washington, DC, 2013.

Donnelly, Katherine Fair. Recovering From the Loss of a Sibling. Dodd, Mead & Company, NY, 1988.

Merrell, Kenneth, W. Helping Students Overcome Depression and Anxiety – A Practical Guide. The Guilford Press, NY, 2008.

Rosen, Helen. Unspoken Grief – Coping with Childhood Sibling Loss. Lexington Books, Lexington, MA, 1987.

 

An Unexpected Blessing

lotus

When my daughter died, I gained multiple new identities in a single moment: grieving mother, grieving wife, and mother of a grieving child. I was extremely concerned about how I would be able to help my daughter to navigate her journey of grief. While I would have given anything to keep her from having to experience the pain of this loss, I knew that protecting her was not possible. Just like us, she had spent eight months preparing for her little sister’s birth and, like us, she had grown to love our baby. The cost of that love was grief. A quote from Helen Rosen perfectly explains the situation I faced: “At heart, we prefer to deny that there is any connection between death and our children. Nonetheless, the experience does not allow us to maintain this denial for very long.”  If you, or a caregiver you know, must carry the heavy responsibility of helping a young child through loss, I hope that my words will provide you with comfort and encouragement. We will never be able to spare them from pain, but we can help them to bear it and to grow through it.

It is easy to imagine the ways that children can be “damaged” by loss. This is especially true when we are forced to recognize how different our children’s experiences are from many of their peers. I can’t tell you how many times I have cringed as my daughter nonchalantly brought up the topic of death while playing with her confused playmates and their horrified mothers! However, I want to challenge you to see sibling death as a powerful tool that God can use to shape young souls. Although it might not feel like it, the caregivers of grieving children have an incredible opportunity to help their children to develop a stronger faith in God, build their character, and strengthen their values. When a baby dies, the realities of life and death, God’s sustaining graces, the importance of faith, and the splendor of Heaven all become amazingly relevant to their surviving siblings and this relevance is fertile ground for developing faith.

I have been blessed to witness some of the ways that God has worked through sibling loss. For example, a bereaved father who had lost his son in the Middle East was moved when my daughter comforted him by saying, “Do you know God? Then the good thing is that we will get to see our babies again!” At other times, my daughter has been so concerned about what will happen if one of her loved ones dies without knowing God that she faithfully prays for them before meals and strategizes about how she can help them “to know God.” I’ve read that other surviving siblings find that their grief helped them to become better listeners and to value life more deeply. They understand that life is a gift, not a given, and that it must not be wasted. In fact, a study that was done in the 1980s suggested that children who lost siblings during their childhood grew up to be more willing to pursue “worthwhile goals” and “moral actions.” What amazing things God can work in the lives of our children through their losses!

Sibling loss also provides parents with the opportunity to demonstrate their acceptance of God’s will and their hope for eternity. A woman who I recently met and who has become a prayer warrior and a leader in my church, recalls how she first witnessed faith when her sister died. She remembers watching her grieving father seek God’s comfort at church each evening and his example demonstrated to her an unconditional devotion. Studies suggest that one of the best ways for parents to pass on their faith is to share their own testimony with them. For children who lose a sibling, they walk with their parents during a major part of their parents’ faith journeys and they have the opportunity to witness faith that is unshaken when the world around them is falling apart. Such an awesome way to share faith!

Of course, the idea that grief shapes our children and their relationships with God presupposes that young children can grieve; however, until recently, this was not accepted as a given. This was partly because childhood grief can look very different from adult grief. For example, it can seem more like anger, sulking, or withdrawal. It can come in flashes and melt away again in a moment. It may be manifested in problematic behaviors or regressions in sleep and toilet training. Children’s limited ability to express their emotions makes it even more difficult for adults to identify grief children. However, a researcher by the name of Bowlby was able to identify grief responses in babies as young as six months of age! While psychologists vary widely on when they believe that children can comprehend death (some think children begin to comprehend death at the age of two-and-a-half, others think they don’t really understand until adolescence), it is generally recognized that young children grieve, even if they have not yet developed a realistic understanding of death. Schell & Loder-McGough suggested that the main aspect of grief is the response to separation, regardless of whether or not a person can comprehend the meaning behind that separation. For our children, the loss of their dreams about their sibling results in sorrow.

If we want to help our children to grow through their loss and to assist God in using their grief to strengthen their faith, we need to be very attentive to our children’s emotions, cognizant of situations that may help or hurt our children, and able to navigate our own pain while walking alongside our children. Over the next three weeks, the posts on this site will seek to provide you with encouragement as you carry the heavy load you have been given. On February 10th, the post will examine the range of normal emotions that children feel in response to bereavement, as well as warning signs that they may need additional support. The post on February 17th will focus on handling rituals of loss and remembrance in ways that are sensitive to your child’s needs and facilitate their growth and healing. The final post in this series will address some of the unique challenges of raising a survivor of sibling loss (I am tempted to title this one “Trick or Treat, my baby died, can I take two!” after one of the unexpected challenges we have faced).

In closing, I would like to offer you an image of what I am praying for our children. It is a quote that comes from the most unlikely of places – an exercise book! – but it provides a metaphor for the amazing things that God can do with even the darkest, dirtiest parts of our children’s lives: “The lotus flower has its roots in the mud and stretches up through the water to blossom into a beautiful flower, its petals facing the heavens above.” May God strengthen, and encourage you as He helps you to raise little lotus flowers that turn their faces toward Him!

 

REFERENCES

Complete Guide to Pilates, Yoga, Meditation & Stress Relief. Parragon Publishing, UK.                             2003.

Donnelly, Katherine Fair. Recovering From the Loss of a Sibling. Dodd, Mead & Company, NY.         1988.

Hopler, Whitney. “Twelve Ways to Help Your Kids Develop Faith That Lasts,”                                  Crosswalk.com. 2011. http://www.crosswalk.com/family/parenting/help-your-kids-            develop-faith-that-lasts.html.

Rosen, Helen. Unspoken Grief – Coping with Childhood Sibling Loss. Lexington Books,                          Lexington, MA. 1987.