Coping with your Grief

The loss of a child is probably the most painful experience any parent can endure. The loss of a child is the most inconsolable of losses; it violates the natural order of things. When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it is really difficult and heartbreaking for the parents; it is even more difficult and heartbreaking to watch a child fight this awful disease, to watch them endure intense pain, to see them struggle to breathe, to see how frightened they are of the various tests and treatments, and to feel absolutely helpless…

But to watch your child die and to know that you will no longer hear their laughter, see the twinkle in their eye, play catch with them… THAT is the most excruciating pain that any human can experience.

Grief is a normal and natural reaction to the death of a loved one, but when it is your child’s death that you are grieving, the reaction can be more intense and devastating. It doesn’t matter what age your child is; parents are supposed to go before their children, not the other way around. A parent’s grief at losing their child is like no other grief, and no two parents grieve the same…

Grief is extremely powerful. It can catch you totally unprepared, knock you off balance and shake you to the core. It can be painful beyond words — physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually — and it can change your life completely. Grief serves to remind you how fragile life is and how vulnerable you are to loss. It can make your present life seem meaningless, and take away your hope for the future.

Remember these words from the Mourner’s Bill of Rights, though

  • You have the right to experience your own unique grief
  • You have the right to talk about your grief
  • You have the right to feel a multitude of emotions
  • You have a right to be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits
  • You have the right to experience grief “attacks”
  • You have the right to make use of ritual
  • You have the right to embrace your spirituality
  • You have the right to search for meaning
  • You have a right to treasure your memories
  • You have the right to move toward your grief and heal

Remember, There is no right or wrong way to grieve; there is only your way, and you must discover the best way for you to grieve for yourself. There is no magic formula, no short cut, and no easy way out.

Grief is like a long, winding tunnel whose entrance is closed behind you, and the only way out is through, but it is important that you work your way through it on YOUR terms and within YOUR timetable.

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Helping Siblings Cope with Grief

Things to Avoid Saying

We have a natural urge to want to protect children from hurtful things and this can lead us to saying things that children may actually find confusing or worrying instead of using the real words.

  • “Gone to sleep” This can give children the fear that they too may not wake up, and they may be afraid to go to sleep, resulting in anxieties at bedtime.
  • “We have lost your sister/ brother” This can leave a child searching in the hopes of finding them again, like looking for a lost toy or to fear that they too may be lost.
  • “The doctor has taken him/her away” This can leave children fearful of visiting a doctor again and may cause the child to fear being abandoned

Ways to Help Your Other Children

  • Try to include siblings in the events and ceremonies which follow the death, as excluding them is likely to leave them feeling anxious, bewildered and alone. Allowing them to see their sibling if they wish and say goodbye is usually helpful. If they don’t want to view the body or go to the funeral, they could make a card or drawing to go in the coffin or choose a poem to be read or a song to be played or pick some flowers. They could choose to attend the gathering afterwards instead of attending the funeral. If they do want to go, it can be helpful to show them in advance where the funeral will take place so they have an idea of what to expect.
  • It can help to have a backup plan of someone to care for the child if they change their mind about going to the funeral. Even a baby or very young child can attend a funeral and may appreciate the knowledge they were present when they are older.

Talk About Feelings. Encourage your child to talk about their grief and feelings. Let them know that everyone grieves differently and that talking about grief and sharing feelings can help the whole family cope. It can also be helpful for your child to talk about how they feel with someone outside of the family. They may feel comfortable talking with a close friend, spiritual care worker or a counsellor. Joining a support group of other siblings who have experienced the same loss may also be helpful. There may be online support groups or in-person support groups available. There may also be camps in your area for children whose sibling has died.

Answer Questions Honestly Try to answer any questions that your child has as honestly as you can. Find support from your healthcare team, social workers, grief workers, palliative care team or clergy to help answer your child’s questions. Encourage them to share any questions or any fears that they may have. You may have some of the same fears. Assure them that you can deal with things together as a family.

Involve Your Child If your child is old enough and interested, find ways to help them be involved with planning the funeral, celebration of life or other memorial event. Talk to funeral home staff about ways to include siblings, such as helping to choose the headstone or speaking during the funeral. Siblings may want to leave a special toy, stuffed animal or letter to their sibling in the casket.

  • Help Your Child To Forgive Themselves. Reassure your child that it is normal for siblings to compete, argue and challenge each other. Help your child to forgive themselves for things they said or did or things they wish they had said or done. Let them know that all relationships are different and that even if they feel they weren’t close to their sibling, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t love their brother or sister. Reassure your child that their sibling knew how much they loved them.
  • Let Them Be A Child. Always remember that they are children and they are young. Let them be the age they are. They may not respond to grief the way you expect them to. Try not to tell them that they need to grow up or take on extra responsibilities. Spend lots of time together doing what they like to do.
  • Let Them Be Themselves. Never compare siblings to your child who has died. Let them know that you don’t expect them to replace the sibling who has died in any way. Give them time and be flexible. Some children may not want to go back to school right away. Others may look forward to returning to school.
  • Maintain routines and familiarity as much as possible – With all the other changes, maintaining routines around meals, homework, etc. will help stabilise their lives.
  • Reassure them that it is still okay to have fun and laugh – Make sure your child understands that laughing and having fun doesn’t mean that they didn’t love their brother or sister.
  • Acknowledge any concerns about their own mortality – Your child may have many fears and worries along with grieving. They may be afraid of getting sick or dying themselves or they may worry that someone else in the family will die.
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Remembering a Sibling       

Help Your Child to Remember Their Sibling

Having a sense of a continued link with the person who dies is an important part of coping with grief. It can be good to make a plan in advance about how special dates will be handled and marked.

  • Share memories of their brother or sister by looking at photographs and remembering events.
  • It is good to give children opportunities to remember their siblings, especially on anniversaries and special times.
  • You might like to put together a memory book or box. Children may like to contribute a drawing or write something to go in the box
  • They might like to keep something that belonged to the baby like an item of clothing or a toy
  • Some families like to light a candle on the anniversary of a baby’s birthday or make a cake.
  • Some families like to get involved in charity events as a way of honouring their child who died.

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Please check our Blog under Bereavement or Advice and Tips categories for more helpful information