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.
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.