Sibling Support

Sharing the news of your child’s death with anyone is not easy, but doing so with a child’s surviving siblings may be the hardest. The following sibling support information is to serve as a guide to help your child deal with the death of a sibling, as well as to give you an idea of what to expect from your child after learning about their sibling’s death.

Select each of the topics below to learn more.

Explaining Death

Explaining Death

Explanations about death to children need to be carefully thought out. Children often have a hard time understanding or processing the concept of death, and parents don’t always know how much information they should share with their living children. To help make this process smoother for you when you already have so much on your mind, we’ve provided the following tips on explaining death to children, as well as some common reactions and behaviors you can expect to receive from them.

Tips on Explaining Death to Children

Use Simple, Direct Language
Terms like “died” and “dead”, while hard to say, will be less confusing to a child than terms like “passed away,” “lost,” “taken,” or “went to sleep.”

Provide a Straightforward Description of Death
Something like “her heart stopped beating, so she died” or “his body stopped working, so he died” will help your child understand what death means. Death should be explained in simple, honest terms, otherwise your child will be left to imagine what happened. These thoughts can often be scarier that the truth.

Carefully Consider How Much Information to Share
Depending on how your child died, it could be frightening for surviving children to hear those details. Telling a young child that their sibling died in his/her sleep could make them scared to sleep or using phrases like “very sick” could make them worry they will die the next time they are sick.

Share Information as They Are Comfortable
Follow your child’s lead; let your child ask you questions when they are comfortable and share information in small doses. They may not be ready to hear everything at once. Depending on the age of your child they may have a basic understanding of death and may ask harder questions. Older children may ask a lot of “why” questions and want more detailed answers.

Be Prepared for Your Child to Quickly Move to Another Topic
Kids may quickly change the topic or run off to do something else after you tell them about their sibling’s death. Just like with other things in everyday life, a child may not be able to focus on a serious topic for long. That’s okay- don’t push them to have long conversations about it, especially initially.

Be Emotional Around Your Child
It is okay for your kids to see you grieving. This helps them understand what grief is and that their own emotions about their sibling are normal.

Saying “I don’t know” is Okay
Don’t feel like you have to create an answer for all of their questions. I don’t know is an okay response.

You May Have to Repeat Yourself
Some kids won’t initially understand that death is final or forever, and you may have to tell them over and over again what happened and what it means.

Be Patient
Death is an abstract concept for children and it may take time for them to fully understand what has happened.

Reinforce that Your Surviving Child Did Nothing to Cause the Death
Young children may think that because they were mean to their sibling or wished they would leave, that those thoughts and actions caused the death. Even if they don’t articulate these thoughts in this way, reinforcing that the death was no one’s fault will help ease these thoughts.

Experiencing the Death as They Grow Older
As your child gets older, their maturity and understanding of concepts surrounding death are likely to change. This may mean that new questions or forms of grief may come up. When this happens, help your child process the loss again in an age appropriate way.

Common Reactions and Behaviors

While each child will respond to death and work through their grief differently, these are all very common behaviors or reactions that you might see from surviving children:

  • Sadness or Depression
  • Behavior problems, such as irritability, acting younger than their age, or seeking attention
  • Anxiety
  • Crying
  • Denial
  • Guilt
  • Withdrawal
  • Anger or Blame
  • Trouble Sleeping/Nightmares
  • New fears
  • Physical responses such as headaches or stomachaches
  • Separation Anxiety
  • Indifference

Explaining Burial & Cremation

Explaining Burial & Cremation

Explaining burial and cremation to children can be a daunting task for parents, as burial and cremation are concepts that can be difficult for children to understand and might be scary for their imaginations to think about. For some children they may not wonder about what happens to their sibling’s body, but other children may have a lot of questions. How you explain this may also be connected to your religious and spiritual beliefs. We have provided some talking points that might be helpful in guiding the conversation.

Burial

If you choose to bury your child, prepare your other child(ren) for what will take place using age appropriate language. Explain that his/her sibling’s body will be put in a special box and the box will be placed in a deep hole. Earth will be placed over the hole and grass will grow. This will be a spot that you can visit to remember and think about his/her sibling.

Cremation

Use simple straightforward language to describe this process. An example of what you might say would be, “we decided to have your brother/sister cremated. The special people who took care of his/her body took him/her to a very special room. This room gets very very hot and allows the body to turn into ashes. This did not hurt because when you are dead you do not feel anything. Once his/her body turned into ashes, the nice people collected all of them and placed them into a special box.”

Depending on what you choose to do with the ashes you can provide further explanation such as, “some people will spread the ashes in a special place or keep them in a special box in their home. We are going to do _______________.”

Avoid using words like fire or burned. These words may be scary for kids to think about and associate with their sibling.

FAQs from Children

FAQs from Children

Your living child(ren) may have many questions about death. Their age, maturity, and previous experience with death (grandparents, neighbors, etc.) will impact the depth of questions children might ask. Try to answer these FAQs from children as honestly as possible, and in words that your child can understand. Be patient with your living children, as they may repeat the same question, especially if they are younger. Here are some possible questions children might ask with suggested answers:

What does “dead” mean?
“Dead” means that the person’s body has stopped working. The person’s heart has stopped beating; he/she does not breathe anymore. The person can no longer see, hear, feel, or move.

Is death like going to sleep?
It is important to explain the difference between sleep and death. When you are sleeping, your body still works. You still breathe, your heart beats, and your body can still move. When a person dies, his/her body stops working. Keep in mind that children who are told that death is like sleeping may be afraid of going to sleep, as they may think that they won’t wake up.

Is he/she hungry, sad, or cold?
Often, young children do not understand that someone who has died no longer has feelings. Children may need to be told repeatedly that when someone dies that they no longer feel, breathe, move, and that their body does not work anymore.

Will he/she come back?
“Forever” is a hard concept for young children to fully grasp. You may need to tell you child many times that the person will not ever come back.

Where is he/she?
This answer will vary depending on your beliefs. Initially it is okay to answer in very concrete terms telling your child that his/her sibling’s body is at the funeral home or hospital. It is okay to include your spirituality or religious beliefs in simple terms that your child can understand. If you choose to talk about an afterlife, keep in mind that depending on the age of your child this may be a difficult concept for them to understand. It is also likely that your child may ask if they can go visit his/her sibling in whatever place you believe your child to be.

Did I do something bad to cause the death?
It is common for young children to feel like they are at fault for death. Your child might feel that they did something or thought something that caused their sibling to die. It is important to reassure your child that nothing he/she did, said, or thought caused their sibling to die. Words and thoughts cannot make anyone die.

Why did he/she die?
Depending on the cause of death, it is important to use appropriate wording to explain the death. A few examples are:

  • If your child died from an illness, explain that his/her body could not fight the illness any longer. It is important to differentiate between the illness the person died from versus a cold or the flu.
  • If your child died from a heart defect, explain that when he/she was born, his/her heart was not strong and healthy. Reassure your child that their heart is healthy.
  • If your child died in an accident, explain that he/she was hurt so badly that his/her body stopped working. Make sure to also explain that when most people get hurt, their bodies can get better.
  • If the reason your child died is unknown, it is okay use general language like “his/her heart stopped beating and doctors are working to find out why”. Reassure your child that he or she has a healthy body and that most people live a long time.

Will I die? Will you die?
Once you have experienced this type of loss it is hard to answer this question with any certainty, but reassure your living child(ren) that they are healthy and that while everyone dies at some point, most people live a long time.

Sibling Grief Tips

Sibling Grief Tips

Just like adults, every child grieves differently. However, the below are general sibling grief tips for children to help your child process their grief in a healthy way. Additionally, we hope these tips will help you understand what to expect from your living children as they grieve their sibling.

Keep Their Schedules and Routines as Normal as Possible
If you can, continue to send your child to school, keep bedtime routines consistent, etc.

Share with Other Caregivers, Family, and Friends How You Explained Death to Your Child
It will be helpful for your child to hear consistent messages from others. Sharing with others how you explained death to your child will help the other adults in your child’s life support your message.

Your Child May Experience Some Regression
A child who has long since gotten over separation anxiety, for example, may become overly clingy again. Don’t worry about addressing that behavior specifically in the short term. It is likely to resolve as your child processes the loss.

Set Limits for Behaviors
While some regression is normal, it will be important for you and your child’s other caregivers to continue to set limits for what is acceptable behavior.

Your Child May Start Playing “Dying” or “Funerals” etc.
You may start to notice that your child’s imaginative play now includes things like babies or stuffed animals dying or going to funerals. This is a completely normal way for children to process these big concepts.

Use Books to Help
There are a number of books that can help provide you with language to talk to your kids or help your kids understand death. We have cultivated a list for all ages of books on death and grief for children and books on losing a sibling for children (see tab above) to help you start.

Drawing or Journaling May Help
Depending on the age of your surviving child(ren), drawing and journaling can be a helpful outlet for them to process their feelings. Encourage them to work through thoughts and feelings in this way.

Mental Health Support
An simple way to find resources for mental health support for your child is by reaching out to his or her school. School counselors can provide resources for your child and family. If your child isn’t yet in school, the school district may have community education resources that would still be helpful, such as Parents as Teachers. Pediatricians may also be able to offer referrals for counseling support.

Take Care of Yourself
While taking care of a living child can be a welcome distraction, it is important that you also take the time to process your grief. Ask for help from family, friends or professionals, to give you the space to process your own grief.

Incorporate Siblings in Remembering

Incorporate Siblings in Remembering

One of the best ways to help children grieve is to allow them to be a part of remembering their sibling. This allows them to work through their grief in a healthy way. Here are some ideas on incorporating siblings in remembering the brother or sister they lost and making them a part of your rituals.

  • Allow them to contribute to the planning of the funeral: pick out pictures to share, songs to include, or clothes to wear.
  • Give them a stuffed animal, blanket or other item to remember their sibling by.
  • Create a photo book with pictures of them with their sibling.
  • Share memories of your baby with them.
  • Allow them to help plan subsequent birthdays and special days.
  • Ask them how they would like to remember their sibling on special holidays.

Books on Losing a Sibling

Books on Losing a Sibling

Below is a list of books on losing a sibling for preschool and early elementary children. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but we hope it provides you with a place to begin the conversation with your children about losing their sibling. We hope these books help you and your living children find comfort and understanding.  

For your convenience we have included links to each book on Amazon; many of these books can also be found at your local library.

Disclosure: The Amazon links below are affiliate links, which means that (at zero cost to you) Just Enduring will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.

A Perfectly Imperfect Family

The story of how a brother loves and includes his sister, who died before he was born into the family’s every day life.

Big Sister to an Angel

The story of how one little girl can still be a big sister to a younger sibling who has died. 

Dancing on the Moon

The story of a little girl whose baby bother dies and how she finds healing and comfort. 

My Sibling Still

Written as a love letter from a sibling lost to miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death to a surviving sibling.


More Sibling Support

Books on Death & Grief for Children

Explore some selected books to help navigate these difficult conversations with children.

How One Family Spoke to Their Surviving Child

Read how one set of parents communicated the tragic loss of their infant to their other child.


All Resources for Parents

A Parent Like You

Funeral Planning

Suicide Prevention

Sibling Support

Lactation Support

Grief

Retreat

Books on Grief & Child Loss

Counseling Resources

Support Groups

Child Loss Statistics

Child Loss in TV, Music and Sports

Our Children’s Stories

Blog: Living & Loving After Child Loss