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Death of a Sibling : Issues for the Grieving Child
By Robin Fiorelli

When a sibling dies, the surviving child reacts both to the loss of his or her sibling and to the change in behavior and grief process of his or her parents. A sibling's grief response may be longer or shorter than the parents', and the sibling may have a different understanding of the death. Siblings often are asked numerous questions about their brother or sister's death by their peers and other adults. This can feel overwhelming to a child.

An ill child often receives more attention from parents than a well sibling. The surviving child often believes he or she will get more attention from the parents after the death of the sibling, and then he or she is disappointed when those expectations are not met. The surviving child also may grapple with identity and role issues after the loss. "Am I still a little brother?" "Who's going to take out the garbage now?"

Grieving parents sometimes are overprotective of the remaining siblings, concerned that they may die or become ill as well. Other parents place expectations or unreasonable demands on the remaining siblings to take on the responsibilities and roles or to have the attributes of the deceased sibling.

It is important that parents avoid being either overprotective or overpermissive with a grieving sibling—despite the temptation. Care should be taken not to make comparisons between the deceased child and the siblings, as it may lead to the surviving children feeling inadequate. Care also should be taken not to assign inappropriate responsibilities to a child that the deceased sibling used to have—especially responsibilities that are not developmentally appropriate.

For all these reasons, grieving siblings need a lot of reassurance from their parents that they are loved for who they are and that they will be cared for and supported. They need to be reminded that they did not cause their brother's or sister's death. They also should be encouraged to share memories and hold keepsakes of their deceased sibling and to participate in family rituals related to the deceased child.

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