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.
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 For example, they might be unusually quiet, withdrawn, agitated, or aggressive.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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.