The horrific events that took place in Newtown, Connecticut leave us with so many unanswered questions. Our hearts are broken for all of those who lost their lives; twenty of the youngest never having had a chance to experience life on their own terms. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who loved them, especially their parents, brothers and sisters.
A child’s death profoundly alters future family dynamics and changes the course of the family’s life, as well as the life of each individual within the family constellation.
A totally new reality follows the death of a child for the surviving family members.
There is often a misguided expectation that living children will resume their normal lives while their parents and other close adults grieve. But we must acknowledge that children are far more perceptive about what’s happening around them than many adults might realize. Children need to grieve too, in whatever age appropriate way they can. From the very beginning, keen attention must be paid to surviving siblings since it’s mostly adults they look up to for support and guidance.
Researchers suggest that open communication within the family is an essential determinant of how well family members are able to move through and beyond the profound grief, deep sense of loss, and psychological vulnerability experienced immediately after, and for an extended period after the death of a child.
It’s essential for parents and/or other very close family members (especially if the parents are unable to do this themselves) to explain the circumstances of the death in simple terms; be truthful and direct, especially with very young children. If the surviving sibling is very young, refrain from using pat phrases or euphemisms to describe the death of the child, or even the idea of death itself. Older children are capable of understanding the nuances and the circumstances surrounding the death.
Children learn how to express grief from watching their parents; in other words, parents model behavior for their children. Parents who are capable of expressing their emotions and displaying their feelings positively show their children that they can do the same thing. Parents who can openly express grief, yet are still able to stay present and grounded in their lives, reassure their children that in the midst of profound sorrow, they are still capable of taking care of their family.
Children may cry, feel depressed, and sometimes even show regressive behavior, both developmentally and emotionally, such as tantrums, aggressive, or dependent behavior. Some children may withdraw, showing little emotion outwardly, choosing rather to grieve privately. However a child chooses to respond, be patient, be loving and compassionate, pay more attention, and make extra time for the child.
For older children, changes in behavior, including withdrawal from usual activities, using alcohol or drugs, sexual acting out, taking risks, and talking about suicide require immediate parental intervention without judgment, and/or professional intervention.
Parents need to include their surviving children in the process of mourning in the same way they mourn themselves. Mourning may last for months, or even for years if it’s complicated, but grieving may last a lifetime---birthdays, anniversaries, and all the events that should have happened but didn’t. Children need to be included in all aspects (again, whatever is age appropriate) of family grieving, from attending the funeral and/or memorial service to planning family rituals around the death of their sibling.
Parents (and other close family members who may be involved with children after a sibling’s death) need to be aware of becoming too over-protective and restrictive toward surviving children in an effort to keep them “safe” so that what has happened to the deceased child won’t happen to them.
On the other hand, when there are no other caretakers, older siblings may temporarily assume the role of parent. At some point, though, children must be allowed to return to their role as children. Professional help may be needed if parental grief remains largely unresolved and the parent’s functioning within the family is compromised.
Remember that sibling relationships are among the closest many of us will ever have. The death of a child breaks that unique sibling bond and is irreplaceable. Siblings are best friends, “buddies” through life, protectors, and keepers of the family secrets. The loss of a sibling is the loss of a “life witness”, one who knows you in a way that no one else ever will.