what to do for kids when their sibling dies

what to do for kids when a sibling dies

My older brother died when I was ten. My twin daughters died when their brothers were 6, 4, and 2.

I’m not a professionally trained grief expert, but I know a few things from what life (and death) has taught me.

After our daughters died, we struggled to know how to help our young sons in their anger, sadness, confusion, and grief. The following list of ideas was born from our efforts, the advice of therapists, and the help of friends who had suffered similar losses. If you’re wondering what to do for kids when their sibling dies, I hope these ideas can help.

Here’s what you can give to kids who are grieving: something they want, something they need, something to keep, or something to read.

Something They Want

After a sibling dies, kids need your time and attention more than anything else. Clearing space to simply sit with them, talk with them, give extra cuddles and love – this is kids’ #1 love language during the trauma of losing a sibling. Here are ways to spend quality time with children during the chaotic time of grief:

  • Give siblings one-on-one opportunities. Take each one on a special errand when you have the energy, or simply spend a few private minutes with each one.
  • Meet at bedtime. For months after our babies died, we found that our sons needed to talk about them at day’s end. In quiet moments in the dark, they could ask questions about death or heaven and share how they were feeling. Older children and teenagers let down their guard at the end of the day, too. Listen when they talk.
  • Pray together. Instead of worrying about how to explain death or heaven to children, praying together can be a simple way to speak the name of their sibling and remember that God still cares for all of us, even when we are sad, angry, or confused.

Kids also want distraction. They need opportunities to laugh and play when stress and sadness hang heavy in the house. Grief takes more time and energy for adults, so kids benefit from an outlet for fun.

Here are some easy ideas for distraction:

  • Kids love mail: If you’re far away, send a package to the kids (my cousins sent a box full of small games, wind-up toys, and new books – inexpensive, but thrilled our kids for days!). If you’re local or lost-distance, there are sympathy cards specific to children, too.
  • Family games: Our middle son’s godparents gave the kids a new board game and card game for our whole family to enjoy. (We played Uno Attack for three.solid.weeks, but it was a great distraction for all of us.)

Something They Need

Kids need space to talk. Their ability to understand death depends on their age and maturity level, but even the youngest need opportunities to voice their feelings.

Extra time on lets adults meet kids at their level and learn what kids needed to get through this tough time. (This article gives a great introduction to help children cope with the loss of a baby.)

Here are ideas for talking about grief:

  • Be honest. Talk about death in simple, truthful terms. Euphemisms like “lost,” “sleeping,” or “angel” can confuse children. Depending on your family’s beliefs, you may find it helpful to talk about how each person has a lifetime (some short, some long), how bodies can stop working, or how death is a natural part of life.
  • Share your own grief. Instead of hiding your tears for fear of upsetting your children, explain that adults cry when they are sad, too. Let them know that it is okay because it means we love and miss the person who has died. Later you can share when you feel better, so that children can see how happy and sad moments are healthy parts of life after loss.
  • Talk to a therapist. A professional counselor can offer important support for kids dealing with grief. Play therapists and psychologists who specialize in children are great places to start. Hospital bereavement staff or chaplains can provide local recommendations for children’s therapists in your area.

Kids also need exercise: time off to release energy and natural feelings of aggression or frustration that arise from grief.

Here are ideas for helping kids exercise:

  • Get outside. Our twins died in February, a rough month for outdoor time in Minnesota. (So we played lots of “basement sports!”) But our therapist wisely advised us to make sure we all got outside as much as we could once spring came: to breathe in fresh air and move outside of the spaces that held our grieving. Whenever it was nice, out we went together – and it made a huge difference.
  • Burn off energy: My sister recognized that our boys needed someone to “beat up on” in the early days and weeks after their sisters died. So whenever she visited, she let them wrestle and climb all over her. I try to keep tabs on this now: to notice when they need to burn off steam and let them tackle me (before they attack each other).

Something To Keep

Kids need something to hold when their world feels like it’s spinning out of control. Tangible, concrete gifts mean a lot to grieving parents, but they can mean just as much to grieving siblings.

  • Stuffed animals: We bought teddy bears with the twins’ names embroidered on them and a “heartbeat” inside so our kids could hear this comforting sound. Naming the bears after their sisters has been a lovely way for all of us to hear their names in a fun, playful way each day. (See Build-A-Bear to create your own personalized gift.)
  • Prayer partners: My in-laws gave our family a battery-operated candle that we used for our evening prayers together. The kids loved being able to light it themselves, and it became a lovely symbol of light in the darkness. For Catholics, check out my friend Annie’s beautiful Rosary Roses. She sent us a set as a gift after Maggie and Abby died, and our sons love holding the roses when we pray at night.
  • Personalized gifts: Inspired by Abby and Maggie’s story, the Etsy owner behind My Little Felt Friends is now making these beautiful Saints in Heaven: personalized felt dolls for families who have lost children.

Something To Read

Loving Baby Louie: Hope in the Midst of Grief is the best kids’ book on losing a baby that we have found. It speaks from a Catholic perspective about a family knowing their baby would die shortly after birth. But the family’s love for their baby and celebration of his short life can connect with many families’ experiences of death.

The Story Of…Books offers personalized books for children dealing with the death of a loved one. Our kids loved the gentle story, especially seeing their sisters’ names in print. I was grateful for the option to make the book about twins. Now you can personalize the book even more: for the loss of an adult (parent, grandparent, or other favorite person), loss of a child, multiple loss, or loss of a twin.

The Chronicles of Narnia became our family’s bedtime read for the summer after our daughters died. It turned into a beautiful, healing practice, since the books translate abstract concepts of faith, God, heaven, and death into simple conversations that speak to both children and parents. Aslan helped all of us to make sense of our grief.

What has helped your family or children you love after the death of a sibling? What suggestions would you add to this list?

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