Sometimes, surviving siblings are referred to as the “forgotten mourners” because parents receive the most attention and support from others. It is not uncommon for them to feel ignored, overlooked, and as a result delay or hide their grieving.
Surviving siblings experience the same feelings as you - fear, denial, sadness, anger, and guilt - but react differently based on their age. Preschool children usually see death as temporary and reversible, similar to the cartoon characters that they watch on television. Children between five and nine begin to realize that death is permanent but still view it as something that does not affect them. From age ten, children begin to comprehend that death is irreversible and has a profound effect on others.
Children take cues from the adults around them on how to express grief. They need reassurance and validation that it is okay to be sad, and others around them care for them and will help them cope with the loss of their sibling.
Common Feelings and Reactions
It is normal for grieving children to want their life to appear “normal” again and feel the need to tell their story. They may speak of their deceased brother or sister in the present tense and even imitate their behaviors. If they or a parent has been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy they may worry about their health.
In school, a bereaved child may become withdrawn or mask their sadness by becoming the class clown. Other changes include becoming disorganized or overly talkative, not completing schoolwork, and having difficulty following directions or concentrating.
It is important for children to develop coping skills and have a support system like their parents. Children need age appropriate information, comfort, and understanding. They also need to know that they have a safe space to share, vent, or cry. If the siblings are school-aged, schools are often a helpful resource to assist students in the grieving process. They may be able to provide or give referrals for counseling, support groups, and other support services. The NIH Clinical Center provides materials on "Talking to Children About Death." Below are additional tips for providing support to your surviving children.
If your children show signs of severe depression, withdrawal, or unusual behavior, a child or adolescent psychiatrist or psychologist can help them through the grieving process.
Surviving siblings may worry that they have cardiomyopathy. Screening and genetic testing when appropriate can help alleviate some of these concerns. If determined to have the same genetic mutation for cardiomyopathy, a treatment plan can be put in place to ensure optimal care.
For siblings diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, they may fear death. Depending on the child’s age, it may be better to be up front and open about the facts on cardiomyopathy, the risks, its impact, and treatment options. CCF has a variety of patient education materials that can assist with this discussion.
Families can start to piece together their new way of being a family by giving support to each other and facing the struggles, sadness, and ultimately, acceptance together.