Key points to remember
- the death of a brother, sister, or cousin may be a very painful and insecure time for children and teens
- when a family member dies the whole family grieves and each family member needs support
- some of the best support comes from each other
- if, for a short time, your own pain and grief means you can't give the support to your other children that you want to, make certain there are other adults around them who will
Grief reactions of children and young people
Bereaved children and young people may experience a wide range of ongoing grief reactions, as adults do, but their age and stage, personality and family situation will affect their experience and expression of it. After a death, children and young people can seem unconcerned at times - playing happily, or hanging out with friends, as they always have. Adults can wrongly assume they’re not aware of the death, or not affected by it. They always are, in their own ways.
Adults can help show children and teens how to grieve
The death of a brother, sister, or cousin may be a very painful and vulnerable time for children and teens. How the adults around them, especially their parents and carers, react to the death will influence how their children will respond. If adults openly grieve, they show that there is no shame in grief. After all, grief happens because we have loved someone very much. It is a natural and normal reaction. Children and teens need to know it’s okay to cry and it’s okay to be really sad – on the inside or the outside. They also need reassurance that the intensity of their sadness will not last forever – it will gradually get easier.
It is also important to remember that children and teens are, of course, young. They need the time to grow up gradually, so avoid telling them they need to grow up, or that they must now take on responsibilities that are not appropriate for their age or stage. Let them be the age they are.
But I am grieving too!
When a family member dies the whole family grieves and each member of it needs support. Some of the best support comes from each other. Children and teens – because they are young – are especially vulnerable and need adults around them to guide and support them. It can be a very confusing time for them. However, if, for a short time, your own pain and grief means you are unable to give the support to your other children that you want to, make certain there are other adults around them who will, until you are more able to spend time with them yourself.
What if the grief of brothers, sisters or cousins is not noticed or goes unsupported?
Losing a brother, sister or cousin is a deep and powerful loss. If adults around do not recognise this, a child or teen can feel an even greater sense of isolation. They may feel they aren’t wanted or are in the way. This can make their experience even more painful and may cause future emotional difficulties. They may push down their feelings so they can hide them, only to have them push their way out in other ways that can be very difficult, such as behavioural difficulties, relationship problems, comfort seeking risky behaviour (such as drugs, alcohol, sex) or an emotional breakdown.
Every child and teen is different
Every child and teen is different and it can help to know and understand some of the common reactions that children and teens of different ages may experience, and ways to help them through this time. You may find the fact sheet Bereavement reactions by age group helpful.
Brothers, sisters and cousins can have unique reactions
Anxious and fearful: The death may mean your other children question their own health and safety, and they are likely to have questions about death and dying. Honestly answer questions and know that it is common for a bereaved child or teen to be anxious that other family members, or children they know, might die also, leaving him or her even more alone.
Confused: It can be very confusing trying to figure out what your family is now – are you still a sister, brother or cousin to the child who has died? How many will you say are in your family? These are painful questions but understandable, and important as a young person tries to make sense of how life will be like now. Talk together about these things.
Guilty:They can feel somehow that they caused the death. Or they can feel terrible about any arguments or fights they had had with the child who has died. They need to be reassured the death was not their fault and be given good information about why the death happened. They also need to be told that disagreements are a natural part of every family’s life.
Relieved: This is a natural reaction after a long or stressful illness or injury, or after times within the family that have been really stretched, stressful and difficult. Many parents and carers feel relief also. This never means the child who has died is not loved. It means that what’s been coming has been so difficult, it feels better now it is over. Allow your child or teen to talk about true feelings, such as relief, without judgement.
School refusal: It is not uncommon for bereaved children to avoid going back to school. School requires energy, concentration, social effort, organisation and separation from others you want to be close to. For a bereaved child or teen, all these things can be extremely hard to manage. Some may find school exactly where they want to be. Others won’t. Or there may be a delayed reaction to school a week or two down the track. Be flexible and thoughtful as you work through this. Consult the teacher/s and school and take it slowly.
Ways to support their unique needs
Talk about dying and death - explain death honestly as part of life, so they come to understand it bit by bit. Using some examples in nature may be helpful, such as watching plants grow, bloom and die or seasons changing.
Skylight has some resources you may find helpful. See the link to their website below.
Involve your children - find ways to let your children or teens participate in things as much as possible, such as the planning of activities for a funeral, tangi or other memorial events, having their names in the newspaper death notice, making up a photo board or a memory scrapbook.
Encourage memories - encourage ways to help them remember the brother, sister or cousin who has died – and to celebrate their life. This can be an ongoing part of their lives, as they will always feel a bond or link with them – even after years. Their grief journey will slowly help them to realise their brother, sister or cousin has gone forever, but finding ways to remember them will help continue the special and precious relationship they have together. Studies show bereaved children are significantly helped in this way.
Be aware that it is not unusual for a child’s or teen’s grief to resurface, or even to surface for the first time, a considerable time after the death. This happens as they journey through different milestones and develop as individuals. They may have questions about what has happened many months or years later. Be patient and understanding of this and answer them honestly. At any stage, if you feel concern about any particularly extreme reactions or behaviour changes you have noticed, contact your doctor, nurse or health centre, a counsellor, a social or community worker, a youth worker, or local family support agency, such as Skylight.
Sometimes children or teens may need a hand as they work through their loss. Help is available, so do ask.
© skylight 2013
© Paediatric Society of New Zealand and Starship Foundation 2005 – 2015
Printed on 25 April 2015. Content is regularly updated so please refer to www.kidshealth.org.nz for the most up-to-date version