The loss of a sibling can have a profound impact on the surviving child. Finding the right way to tell a child that their sibling died can leave anyone at a loss for words. Not only are you struggling with coping with your grief and loss, but finding the strength to support others may be challenging.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Four Steps for Telling a Child About the Death of a Sibling
- How Can You Support a Child Who Lost a Sibling?
Death and dying is an inevitable part of life that all of us will face one day. Regardless of how painful it is to face death, talking about it can present its own challenges. Many people aren’t comfortable discussing death with their loved ones and may not know how to best approach such a sensitive topic.
Tip: Talking to your children about the death of their sibling is one of many challenging tasks you might be facing. Our post-loss checklist can help guide you through the rest of that process.
Four Steps for Telling a Child About the Death of a Sibling
There are specific steps you can take for successfully talking to a child about the death of their sibling.
You may not know how to tell a child about the death of their sibling, but the following tips may help you navigate this sensitive conversation.
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Step 1: Have an in-person conversation
How a child survives their sibling's loss is related to the support they receive once their sibling passes away. When sitting down to tell a child that their sibling has died, it’s always best to do so in person so that you can gauge their emotional responses and support them through their grief.
Your child may express several emotional responses as a result of getting the news their sibling has died. Be prepared to offer support as the child goes through the initial stages of shock, disbelief, and anger brought on by grief.
Step 2: Set the stage
Setting the stage for talking about death means, in part, finding a comfortable and private place to chat. Be prepared with information and details of the death. It helps to have children’s books about death on hand to share with them at the end of your conversation.
The age of the child will play a significant part in how to have this conversation best. Take care not to spring the news about their sibling’s death without warning or preparation. The child may experience unexpected emotional reactions that you’ll need to know how to react to.
You can spare a child a lot of heartache by choosing the right words to say in the appropriate environment. Years later, they may not remember what exactly you said to them, but they’ll likely remember what they were doing and how they reacted when you told them.
Step 3: Be honest and straightforward
When talking to kids about death, it’s best to have knowledge and information handy. Children of all ages are naturally curious and may surprise you how much they already know about death. Older children may have already experienced the death of a friend, classmate, or know someone who’s lost a sibling.
Consider being as honest and straightforward as you can when telling a child about the death of their sibling. Even young children can understand some of the concepts surrounding death. When you choose to use anything but straightforward language, you run the risk of confusing the child and creating distrust.
Some examples of what to say are:
- I have some sad news to tell you. Let’s go out for some ice cream so we can talk.
- I’m sorry to say that your brother/sister has died today. They were in an accident (or they didn’t survive their illness), and there was nothing more we could do.
- Your brother/sister didn’t make it like we expected them to. I’m so sorry to tell you that they’ve died and won’t be coming home from the hospital.
Children need to know the truth, and they want details. Of course, you don’t want to traumatize them by giving them sensitive information. But do talk to them about some of the specifics using age-appropriate language to understand what’s happened.
Step 4: Let them ask questions
Children are naturally curious, and they’ll want to know everything they can about their sibling’s death. Instead of shunning away from having these conversations with them, have an open dialogue, and encourage them to ask questions. Regardless of how painful it may be for you to talk about your loss, it’s essential to keep the door open to these conversations.
Be patient with the child and understand that children will ask the same questions over and over again. Answer them with honesty and well-thought-out answers that are appropriate to their age. Not all questions will have easy answers, and it’s okay to tell a child that you don’t know how to answer certain things.
Some common questions that children ask:
- What does it mean when someone dies? When explaining the concept of death to a child, consider keeping it simple and direct. Try and avoid using euphemisms or substitute words for death. Explain to the child that when someone dies, unlike sleeping, death is permanent and irreversible. When someone dies, they don't come back.
- Am I going to die too? While the most straightforward answer to this question is yes, choose your words carefully when responding to a child’s curiosity about their mortality. Consider explaining to them that everyone will eventually die, but just because their sibling has died doesn’t mean that they’re the next to die.
- Are you going too? What a child wants to know is if they’ll be left all alone in this world to fend for themselves or will you always be there to take care of them. Give them hope and reassurance without lying to them or making up false stories related to death and dying.
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How Can You Support a Child Who Lost a Sibling?
The main ways you can support a child who has lost a sibling is to give them space to grieve and let them express the emotions associated with their grief. You may find that you’ll be dealing with many emotional ups and downs, or a child who may be suddenly disinterested and withdrawn.
You may find it challenging to give reassurance when you’re grappling with the pain of loss as well.
A child will need you to guide them in what’s next to come following the death of their sibling. They may be feeling lost and confused in dealing with emotions that they don’t understand and are often overwhelming.
Let them talk
Avoid changing the topic of discussion away from death when a child walks into the room. When you do this, it adds to the sentiment that death is a taboo subject.
Children can sense when you’re hiding things from them, and they’ll naturally become more inquisitive. On the other hand, if you don’t allow them to talk about the death of their sibling, they may become isolated and withdrawn in their grief.
Give them space
A child will express their grief in many different ways as they explore their feelings and emotions. They may exhibit some behaviors that you might find disturbing. Remind yourself that these are merely expressions of grief, and that in time, the child will learn to cope with their loss better.
Give the child time and space to experience all of the emotions associated with grieving. Everyone follows a different path to healing, and a child is no different. They’ll need space to readjust to their new life without their sibling.
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Allow them to grieve
There is no exact timeline for how long grief lasts. Some people will grieve for a few months, while others will take years to heal from their pain and sorrow. A child will experience a different trajectory in their grief process as they deal with not only the death of their sibling but the ensuing loneliness of no longer having them around.
Don’t let yourself be alarmed if your child goes about their routine as if nothing’s happened. This is also a normal part of the grief process. In time your child will begin to experience different levels of grief, and their emotional responses will start to manifest.
Get them counseling
A child mourning the loss of their sibling may be affected in ways that may not be immediately apparent. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing how to help a child cope with their grief.
Consider enlisting the help of a professionally trained grief counselor to help the child with their grieving. Counselors and therapists help understand the grief process and help you heal from the pain and sorrow associated with loss.
Ask how you can help
A child who is experiencing sibling grief mourns the death of their brother or sister in the same way an adult grieves over loss. Just because a person is a child does not make them more or less resilient to feelings of loss.
Remind yourself to stay present in the child’s life as they deal with their emotional ups and downs. Often, a child will feel left out and isolated following the death of a sibling because most people focus on consoling the parents and seldom the children.
Telling a Child Their Sibling Died
How you tell a child that their sibling has died may significantly impact them in the years to come. Pay close attention to the words you choose, the time and location when delivering the news, and the information you make available to a child of any age when telling them about their sibling’s death.
Remember that most children exhibit signs of suffering, even at a young age. Their young age doesn’t make the effect of their sibling’s death any less impactful than that of their parents or older siblings.
If you're looking for more resources on helping your child through grief, read our guides on Children's Grief Awareness Day, how to deal with the loss of a twin sibling, and the best sympathy gift ideas.