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!
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.