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Especially for Siblings

Siblings are often called, "The Forgotten Mourners."

 When a baby or child dies, life as we know it turns upside down and families struggle to find ways of moving through their new life crisis. The focus of grief quickly turns to nurturing and helping the parents; often times leaving the siblings with a sense of being left behind or forgotten.

The following chart may be used as a guide to the different developmental stages of sibling loss.

Children's Understanding of Death and Reactions to Grief

AgeUnderstanding of deathCommon grief reactionsTraumatic grief reactions
  • Do not understand that death is final May think that they will see the person again or that the person can come back to life. May think it was their fault that the person died.
  • May become upset when their routines change.
  • May get worried or fussy when apart from their usual caregivers and may be clingy and want extra attention.
  • May express fears, sadness, and confusion by having nightmares or tantrums, being withdrawn, or regressing to earlier behaviors.
  • May repetitively engage in play about the death or the person who died.
  • May have problems getting back on schedule or meeting developmental milestones.
  • May have difficulty being comforted.
  • School-age children
  • Gradually gain a more mature understanding of death.
  • Begin to realize that death is final and that people do not come back to life.
  • May have scary beliefs about death, like believing in the "boogey man" who comes for the person.
  • May ask lots of questions about how the person died and about what death means.
  • May display distress and sadness in ways that are not always clear, like being irritable and easily angered.
  • May avoid spending time with others.
  • May have physical complaints (headaches, stomachaches).
  • May have trouble sleeping.
  • May have problems at school.
  • May have no reaction at all.
  • May dream of events related to the death or war.
  • May want to call home during the school day.
  • May reject old friends and seek new friends who have experienced a similar loss.
  • May repeatedly talk or play about the death.
  • May have nightmares about the death.
  • May become withdrawn, hide feelings (especially guilt), avoid talking about the person, or about places and/or things related to the death.
  • May avoid reminders of the person (for example, may avoid watching TV news, may refuse to attend the funeral or visit the cemetery).
  • May become jumpy, extra-alert, or nervous.
  • May have difficulty concentrating on homework or class work, or may suffer a decline in grades.
  • May worry excessively about their health, their parents' health, or the health and safety of other people.
  • May act out and become the "class clown" or "bully."
  • Teens
  • Have a full adult understanding of death
  • May have similar grief reactions to those of school-age children when at home, with friends, and at school.
  • May withdraw, become sad, or lose interest in activities.
  • May act out, have trouble in school, or engage in risky behavior.
  • May feel guilt and shame related to the death.
  • May worry about the future.
  • May hide their true feelings.
  • May have similar traumatic grief reactions to those of school-age children when at home, with friends, and at school.
  • May avoid interpersonal and social situations such as dating.
  • May use drugs or alcohol to deal with negative feelings related to the death.
  • May talk of wanting to harm themselves and express thoughts of revenge or worries about the future.
  • May have low self-esteem because they feel that their family is now "different" or because they feel different from their peers.
  • Sibling Loss Fact Sheet: Sibling Death and Childhood Traumatic Grief The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

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