Watching our son grieve the death of his sister has been one of the hardest parts of my own grieving process. Some people might assume because he’s only 2 years old, he is spared from grieving, but it’s been the opposite.
Our son bonded with his sissy early on. When I was pregnant, he would snuggle up to my stomach and giggle when he felt the baby kick. He would talk to my belly and ask me to read him stories about being a big brother. Our son is a huge fan of the PBS show “Daniel Tiger” and the show has several episodes that address the main character becoming a big brother. Our son was obsessed with those episodes and made connections between Daniel’s little sister and the baby in my belly.
Throughout my pregnancy, we showed our son pictures of other medically fragile babies. We wanted him to be prepared for all the tubes and wires. And he was. When he met his sister, he didn’t seem thrown off by all the medical equipment. We spent the majority of our daughter’s 4 months and 9 days of life in the hospital. During that time, we fully included our son. He came to visit his sissy, spent time in the child-life playroom and then visited his sister some more. The nurses and medical staff became our family and the hospital became his home.
Did we do the wrong thing by letting him get attached to his sister? Should we have shielded him, kept him distant from the pregnancy and then not allowed him to visit her at the hospital? I don’t think so. I will forever cherish the bond they had. I am so thankful we have pictures of them. Thankful they were able to take naps, go on walks and car rides together, and our son remembers his sissy.
But it also means after losing her, he has grieved deeply. The weeks following her death, he talked about his sister nonstop. He wanted to look at her pictures all day. He talked in his sleep, “Oh no, sissy.” And even, “Where did sissy go?” He is 2; I don’t believe he understands death but I think he understands she’s gone and this isn’t typical. There is a hole in his little heart.
As the weeks have turned to months, his grieving has shifted, but it’s still very present and real.
As parents, it’s our job to help our children grieve. Here are a few things I’ve learned about sibling grief while watching and guiding our son go through the process.
1. Let them grieve how they need to. Siblings may grieve differently from parents. Of course this will also depend on their age. They may withdraw, they may feel scared or wonder if they are going to die too. They may need to talk about their sibling all the time or not talk about them at all. They may have questions that feel hard to answer. It can be painful to see your child sad, and it may be tempting to try to just cheer them up. However, it’s important to validate their feelings and let them process how they need to.
2. Older children may want to protect or take care of their parents and therefore try to hide their feelings. This is something to watch out for. Make sure they feel cared for and they understand they do not need to be the caretaker.
3. Explain things honestly, but in an age-appropriate way.
4. We find comfort in visiting our daughter’s grave often. At first we were unsure how to approach this with our son. We felt if we were to tell him his sister’s body was in the ground, it would be too overwhelming and possibly scary for him. So we chose to tell him the gravesite is a special place to come and think about his sister. We let him know he can think about her anytime, anywhere, but her gravesite is an extra special place to do so. He now calls the cemetery “think about sissy.” As he gets older, we will explain the cemetery to him in more detail, but for now, we think this is what his little mind can handle.
5. Recognize triggers. I’ve noticed that even our young son can become sad when he sees a sibling group or something about a sibling in a book or television show. Also, when we drive on a street that leads to the hospital he thinks we are going there. I now try to avoid going this route. Other things may trigger your child. Just be aware of these and be present to help your child deal with any emotions they may have. None of these emotions are wrong or something to be ashamed of. If you are concerned your child’s feelings are out of control or unsafe, then it’s important to seek professional help!
6. Give them ways to remember their sibling. After our daughter died, our son wanted to look at pictures of her all the time. My mom was able to create a photo album for him to look at whenever he wanted. We also hung a picture of his sister in his room. He loves to pull out her blankets and snuggle up in them. He needs tangible ways to think about his sister and feel close to her.
It’s a horrific thing to have to watch your child or children grieve their sibling. I hate it so much. But I hope my husband and I can model to our son that it is OK to feel whatever he needs to feel and as a family, we will continue to be there for one another through it all.
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