Children will feel the death of their sibling in a very real way, regardless of their age, because, if we are old enough to love, we are old enough to grieve. And like you, children will face a world that has completely changed because their sibling is no longer living.
Children will most likely remember where they were and how they learned that their sibling died. You know your child best, so consider their demeanor and developmental age before you begin the conversation. For example, would sharing the news in the daytime, in a familiar and comforting space, give them the time to process the news, as opposed to learning the news at bedtime?
Conversations about death are difficult, which is why many prefer to use euphemisms like “passed away,” “lost,” or “eternal rest.” However, children will take your words literally.
If you explain that your child who has died “went to sleep and won’t wake up,” their sibling may fear that they—or someone else they love—will fall asleep and not wake up.
Do not be afraid to talk about death in concrete terms. “Your brother died before he could be born,” and “Your sister was in an accident, and she died,” are simple, concrete, and clear examples. You can clarify that your child’s body has stopped working, and it won’t start working again. Explain that their sibling can no longer talk, move, see, breathe, or think.
Continue to reassure your child that their sibling does not feel pain, fear, cold, etc., and encourage questions. Remember that it’s ok to not know the answers. Your funeral director can help answer your child’s questions and connect you with additional resources about death, dying, and grief.
Even with a compassionate funeral director by your side, planning your child’s funeral may seem overwhelming. It’s natural to want to shield other children from the big emotions that these unfamiliar events can carry with them. You might wonder if funerals are too traumatizing for children. Perhaps when you were growing up you learned that funerals are only for adults.
Funerals and memorials are indeed sad occasions, and saying goodbye is never easy. However, the memory-making, rituals, reunions, stories, and acts of love that make up a funeral help us understand the finality of death and provide a foundation to carry grief forward. Excluding children from the funeral means that they’ll miss out on this comfort and community, and the opportunity to express their grief and share their loss with others. They may feel forgotten and might assume funerals are far more frightening than what actually takes place.
“Funerals can help you get out your grief.”
—Clare, Age 9
Offer explanations and information about what will happen to help your child make an informed decision about attending the funeral. Where will they be? Who will they see? What will people be doing? Where will they go if they choose not to attend? Describe what happens at visitations, memorial services, funerals, burials, etc. Give as many specifics as your child seems interested in hearing and reassure them that participation and attendance is their choice, and that they can change their mind at any time.