The death of a sibling is a profound loss for a child. Whether children are close in age, such as twin siblings, or far apart, and whether the siblings were close or more distant, they will have a shared history, life experiences and key moments. 

The impact of the death of a sibling can be complicated by the tendency for sibling grief to be overlooked as people understandably feel concern for the parents who are coping with the loss of their child. Adults can sometimes unthinkingly say things to bereaved children such as: ‘You have to be strong for your parents now’ making children feel that their grief is less important, and that they should hide their grief because talking about how they feel will be upsetting for the adults around them.

Acknowledging the grief of a sibling and giving them the opportunity to express their feelings is important in helping them manage their grief and feel connected to their sibling who has died.

How can I tell my child their brother or sister has died?

It’s important to tell a child of any age when someone important in their life has died or is expected to die, and ideally, this is done by someone who is close to them. Use clear, age-appropriate language avoiding terms such as ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to the stars’, which can be confusing for younger children. Allow time for questions and expect to answer more questions as your child’s understanding develops. Visit our resource on explaining to a child that someone has died for more guidance.

Why do children bereaved of a sibling experience so many complicated feelings and how can adults help?

When their sibling has died, a child may have complicated and difficult feelings. Reassure your child that these are normal and encourage them to talk about their feelings, which might include:

Guilt: When a sister or brother dies, a bereaved child may feel a strong sense of guilt about the way they behaved towards their sibling before they died. It can help to reassure your child that having arguments is a normal part of being a sibling as is having unpleasant thoughts or saying unpleasant things. Some children feel guilty that they were not able to prevent their sibling’s death or that they should have died instead. It’s important to let your child know that they were in no way responsible for their sibling’s death and that you love and value them in the same way as you always did. Try to avoid putting the child who has died on a pedestal or making negative comparisons between the child that has died and your surviving child, however gentle it may seem. You may find it helpful to look at our resource on building resilience in bereaved children.

Relief:  Where a sibling was ill and not expected to live and there was family disruption and upset as a result of their illness, a child may feel a sense of relief that their sibling has died. Reassure your child that this is OK and that it’s normal to be relieved that the stress and anxiety of someone in the family being very ill is over, and that this doesn’t mean they didn’t love or care about their sibling.

Jealousy: A child may experience feelings of jealousy towards their sibling who has died, particularly if the child who has died is put on a pedestal or if people make comments comparing surviving children negatively with their sibling who has died. Some children feel they need to live up to their brother or sister or they might behave in a negative way, feeling that they can never be as good as them. Talking to your child about their feelings can help, as can letting them know that they are also special to you and that you love them. 

Regret: A child may feel regret about the relationship they will never now have with their brother or sister, or regret that they didn’t have a closer relationship with them when they were alive. Doing memory making activities together is one way of helping your child feel an enduring connection with their sibling. For ideas, have a look at our activities for grieving children and young people.

Fear: Children may worry that they too will die or that someone else they love will die. It can help to talk to a child about their worries. You might say: 'Sadly, sometimes children die, like your brother did. But it is very unusual, and most children grow up and become adults.'

You may find it helpful to watch our short animated film Volcano with your child, which aims to help children cope with feelings like sadness, anger, worry and guilt.

Visit our resource for more on supporting a child when a twin sibling has died.

Why do bereaved children often feel left out when their brother or sister dies?

The death of a child or young person has a huge impact on a family. Aware that their parents are upset, some children may hide their emotions for fear of causing more upset, wrongly thinking that their role is to be brave and to support their parents. As a result they can feel very alone and isolated in their grief, particularly as others around them can tend to focus on the bereaved parents and their grief, leaving siblings feeling overlooked and unacknowledged.

Often the wishes and opinions of bereaved siblings can be overlooked as a family copes with their grief. It can be helpful to try to include siblings, for instance by asking their opinion on things such as the funeral (is there a particular story or piece of music they would like included for instance?) and ways to remember

If parents are visibly distressed, children may feel unable to talk about their feelings for fear of upsetting them. It can help to let children know who is there for them so that they know they have people around them who will support and listen to them, for instance a family friend or relative outside of the immediate family, or another trusted adult. Teenagers often find it difficult to communicate with immediate family members and it’s important to give them opportunities to be with their friends if this is what they need. 

Why are my children grieving differently for their brother or sister who died?

No two people grieve in the same way and it’s important that children understand that it’s OK to grieve differently to others. Help them to know that whatever they feel is OK and acknowledge each child’s individual feelings and worries, giving them time and space to talk about their feelings separately if possible. Even if a child is not outwardly showing their grief, it doesn't necessarily mean they are less affected.

The way children grieve can be affected by their understanding of death, their relationship with their brother or sister, and the way they died. If a child is bereaved of a sibling at a very young age, as their understanding develops, they may revisit their grief at different stages in later life.

Younger children are unable to cope with difficult feelings for too long and may ‘puddle jump’, moving in and out of their grief a bit like they’re jumping in and out of a puddle. Watch our short animation Puddle Jumping for more information

How can I help my child remember their brother or sister who has died?

Finding ways to remember their sibling who has died can help bereaved children manage their grief and feel a lasting connection with them, particularly if they are concerned they might forget them, or if their sibling died when they were very young. Ways to remember could include making a memory book or journal, creating a special photograph album, or making a sand jar with colours that represent different memories or associations with their sibling. Have a look at our activities for grieving children and young people for some ideas. Our short animated film also suggests ways families can remember someone special who has died.

Why can reaching the age of their brother or sister who died, or outliving them, be difficult for a child?

Some children and young people we support say they find it difficult when they reach the same age as their older sibling who has died. They can feel guilty and that there is pressure on them to make the most of the life that their sibling wasn’t able to have. In some cases this can be positive for a young person, inspiring them, for instance, to work hard and take advantage of opportunities, but it can also feel like a burden. It can help to talk to your child about their concerns and to reassure them that although it’s good to remember their brother or sister, they can choose to forge their own path in life. 

Visit our page: How we can support you for more on our services.

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