How do I talk to siblings about their brother or sister dying?
How you talk with your other children will depend on their personality, age and your relationship with them. Whatever the circumstances, there are things you can do to help – like letting them know you’re here and following their lead.
Understanding what they’re going through
It’s common for brothers and sisters to feel sidelined and left out while your other child is going through treatment. They could be experiencing difficult and complex emotions, like jealousy, resentment or guilt. So it’s vital that they feel important and loved.
Sometimes, it’s easier for them to talk to someone outside the close family circle, like a social worker at the treatment centre, if they’ve spent lots of time there, or a family friend.
Simon, dad of Hannah
In most situations I know of the sibling either is or feels side-lined, no matter how much parents will try not to, and this happens throughout treatment. They will often feel guilty about sharing their own feelings, especially to their parents who they know are going through difficult times too, so they will keep it to themselves for fear of upsetting family members.
How do I tell them?
Your child’s siblings might already be more aware than you think. It’s quite common for brothers and sisters to pick up on what’s going on around them. If they go to the same school then they might have already been faced with tough questions from classmates.
Being honest with them might not be easy but preparing them can save pain in the future and will help prevent them from feeling confused, anxious or isolated. It also builds trust and gives them the opportunity to spend special time with their sibling.
You could ask a professional to do this with you if you feel you might need some support.
What will their reaction be?
Children can often appear surprisingly indifferent after being told devastating news. Younger children might seem like they’ve heard nothing and go back to whatever activity they were doing, or change the subject. This might feel both painful and infuriating but it’s a common reaction to shock.
They might also become angry, insensitive, quiet and insecure or shift quickly from one of these behaviours to another.
Remember that this is an ongoing process. Your child might benefit from being given small chunks of information over a period of time. Keep encouraging them to express themselves by asking what they’re thinking about or how they’re feeling.
Teenagers and young adults may want to talk in more depth and may want to play a more active part in helping out. They could also become angry, seem disengaged or blame themselves. Give them some time to sort through their feelings.
It’s ok to come back to it later – it might not be right for them to talk right now, and that’s ok. Just let them know that you are here and go at their pace.
Should I talk to their school?
Teachers can be an important source of support. Involve them as early as possible so they can be kept in the loop. This will help them understand what siblings are going through and make sure they are getting the best support in school. Parents report having mixed experiences with support from schools – some might be fantastic, while others might not step up in the way you’d expect. If you’re having any problems, seek support from your social worker or take a look at our advice for talking to your child’s school [LINK].
Is there anything that can help me?
- A Parent’s Guide to Helping Siblings Cope by the Courageous Parents Network
- Watch now: A child life specialist on talking to siblings about end of life by the Courageous Parents Network
- I miss you: A first look at death by Pat Thomas: An illustrated book to help children understand that death is a part of life and helps them to express their feelings. 4-7 years
- When someone has a very serious illness by Marge Eaton Heegaard: this workbook allows children to put their thoughts and feelings into words, helping families to communicate. 9-12 years
- Michael Rosen’s sad book by Michael Rosen: Illustrated by Quentin Blake, this book is about love and loss, explaining grief in a way children can understand. 5-7 years
- Help me say goodbye: activities for helping kids cope when a special person dies by Janis Silverman: an art therapy and activity book to address questions and fears children may have when someone is dying.
- Follow the Child: Planning and having the best end-of-life care for your child by Sacha Langton-Gilks: Sacha is a parent of child who died from cancer in his teens. She gives her perspective about what to expect and what she found helpful. Specialists also share their expertise and the book offers practical advice.