Ways to Help Your Other Children

It is possible to reassure your children that you will be okay, even though you are sad now.

Give them a reason for your sadness – such as how much their brother or sister was loved and wanted and is missed. Avoid telling your children that everything is fine when they know that it isn’t. They want the ‘real’ facts and to be talked to ‘like adults’. You may find it helpful to say something like: “We are all sad that Emily died and we don’t understand why she died. We will always remember her but we won’t always be sad.”

“At this stage you think you will always be sad, and you want to always be sad, to do justice to the child who has died.” (Kath)

Tell your children the facts in an age appropriate way.

Speak to your child with honesty and in language he or she can understand, using simple, easily understood words. In the context of telling children the truth, it is best not to try to soften the finality of death, at the same time trying to ensure that your child is not unduly frightened. Use the words ‘dead’, ‘died’, and ‘death’, hard though it can be. With young children, suggestions that the dead person has been ‘lost’ or has ‘gone to sleep’ may lead to unnecessary fears. Explain to very young children that death means that the body no longer works, that is, the person can’t breathe, move, see or feel anymore.

“Be honest, and answer everything irrespective of how difficult it is. Even though you feel you can’t find the words.” (Jenny)

“It’s very important to be honest with children. You just can’t say that someone has gone to sleep. I have always used the words ‘dead’ and ‘died’ when we have been talking about what happened. We shared everything.” (Jenny)

With an event as tragic as the death of a child, relatives and friends can be helpful by spending time with your children and listening to their concerns. Especially in the initial days, it is too much to expect that you will have the energy to respond all the time to your other children’s needs. If it is difficult for you to speak about what has happened, encourage another adult whom you and your child trust to do so.

“In the days immediately after, it was really important to have someone one-step-removed from us to spend time with the older boys. My sister Jan just sat with one of our sons under the trampoline. Just sitting there under the trampoline with someone helped him.” (Jill)

Remember that in the coming months and years, there will be many opportunities to discuss the death and its impact on your children. The sensitivity you gain through this tragedy will be valuable for a lifetime.

“It is vitally important for parents to realise that their children’s adjustment and understanding of their sibling’s death will not be achieved in a short time. It will be built upon over years. This is a good thing and should alleviate some of the guilt initially felt by parents that they haven’t done a good job of helping their children.” (Jenny)

When you are speaking with your other children, try to share as many facts as possible surrounding your child’s death, repeating them as needed. If it is difficult for you to speak about what has happened, once again, encourage another adult whom you and your child trusts to do so.

“It’s important to find out what they remember, one to one, but it’s so hard to do. We feel so stretched and exhausted. Children are amazing. Even though Steph was only 18 months old, I sat her down and talked about Danielle and what had happened because she was in the house and missed Danielle’s presence. I made a point of telling her so she felt included. I was shocked by how much she seemed to remember.” (Mel)

Continue to show visible signs of love, support and caring to your surviving children using physical signs such as hugs and cuddles or warm verbal expressions of support or concern.

“Being a close-knit family helped. We moved the girls’ beds into our bedroom for six months. After six months, they were happy to move back into their own rooms.” (Josie)

“I wrote about Joshua and Aiden, so I wrote about Natasha, too, and read some to her. I needed her to know I didn’t just love them.” (Natalie C.)

Make a special effort to really listen to what your children are saying or trying to say. If possible, allocate special times for your bereaved children so that they can ask questions and express their feelings. Children often stop asking questions that reflect their concerns because they know that such questions can make you sad.

“Mitchell would leave the room if he didn’t want to talk at that time, but we were always available when he did.” (Toni and Richard)

“They missed Molly desperately but they were really aware of our emotions. We learned we really had to listen to them, and not take anything away from them.” (Jill)

“We talked about it as a family and that helped.” (Alex)

“It’s so important to let them follow their heart. Sometimes, they don’t want to talk to us about it. We can’t pressure them, but be able to listen when they want to talk.” (Jill)

“I had to change the prayer I said with Kitty. It was ‘If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul will take…,’ I realised later that this prayer really upset Kitty, and we say a different one now.” (Alex)

One of the best ways to communicate with your children is to play with them, to sit with them, watch their play and join in at some point. Often children will play out things that are happening in their lives or the feelings they are experiencing. By joining in aspects of their play, you have an opportunity to describe and name their feelings. It is often during play that your children’s misconceptions about what has happened and their unanswered questions may start to emerge. Young children respond to play with dolls and puppets and, while playing, might communicate more easily with you. As with an imaginary telephone conversation, it is often easier for a child to ‘talk’ when he or she is pretending to be someone else.

“My boys were given calico dolls, their Jared dolls. Dean got his friends to sign it and Adam drew a happy and sad face on his, together with Jared’s name and his own. The dolls are now well worn and well loved.” (Sharon)

Looking at photos, drawing, writing and reading may also provide opportunities for children to talk about their worries or concerns.

“We always read books to the boys. They would choose. Sometimes they spoke about Molly then.” (Jill)

It is possible to create a book that is unique to your family by using a combination of photos and drawings. Books like this are very personal and will be treasured by your children and can be re-read and examined as they grow older. Reading books is another form of play that many children enjoy and is often a part of everyday family interaction. There are books about death that can be read with children. Other things you might like to encourage your children to do include drawing pictures or writing about the baby or child who died.

Not all parents are comfortable with this kind of play with children and may find other ways to communicate with their children. The idea is to search for opportunities around play to encourage children to express their own feelings and reactions.

“We’ve all sat together and written stories about Jared. One of the stories is ‘That Twinkling Star is my Brother.’ Red Nose Grief and Loss gives that book out to families.” (Sharon)

“Kitty writes letters to Jesse and draws pictures of the whole family. Jesse is an angel with a big broad smile. He looks the happiest of all of us.” (Alex)

“He needed an outlet for his emotions. He needed to do something physical. Just letting him run seemed to help.” (Mel)

If you can, ask your children what they are thinking and imagining. This is helpful to address any misunderstandings or unnecessary fears. It is amazing and useful to hear explanations that children have put together from their own imaginations and experiences.

“At one point, when we drove past the Melbourne General Cemetery, Hannah said, ‘Are babies all in there?’ She thought cemeteries were full of babies. I took her around the cemetery to where Samuel is buried and pointed out that most people who were buried in there were old when they died.” (Jenny)

“Adam, who was three, went around asking women, ‘When is your baby going to die?” (Sharon)

“When Hannah was three we walked past an open grave ready for a burial the following day. Hannah asked me: ‘Will I die and be put in a grave?’ I had to say ‘yes’, but that she would not die until she is very, very, very old. I didn’t want her thinking that it could be soon.” (Jenny)

For adults to understand the way a child is thinking, they should talk normally, as if the child was a person and not too young to understand.” This excellent piece of advice, which was given by a 10 year-old girl, again reflects the need for children to be taken seriously. At the same time, it can be hard to recognise and pick up on your child’s questions without being intrusive. It takes patience, watching, listening and a sense of timing. Because a child says ‘no’ to talking at one moment, does not mean there will not be another, more opportune time.

“Nick would help me to do the gardening and while we were working, he would often talk to me about Gumba. ‘Gumba liked gardening, Dad.’” (Paul)

If you are able to give a name to your feelings, it can be very helpful to your children in trying to understand their own emotions. This can be straightforward and simple: “I am crying because I feel very sad” or “I am very sad because our baby died.” If this is too painful, a relative or friend might help to explain these same feelings to your children, to help them understand what you are feeling.

“I always tried to explain to Jacob why I was crying. Often, I just could not get off the couch. He would answer the phone for me. I used to say to him ‘I am sad because Lewis has died.” (Kath)

“Sometimes, I would fly off the handle and smash things. I explained to Jacob that it wasn’t anything he had done. I didn’t want him to think it was him who upset me. I would say to him ‘Even though you think I am angry at you, I am not. I’m just upset that Lewis has died’. When I calmed down I always sat him down and apologised to him for my behaviour.” (Kath)

“I spoke to Nick and said, ‘When you’re sad, just give me a hug.’ A few times when I’ve been sad, he said, ‘You just need me to give you a hug, don’t you Mum?’, so it’s like this understanding that we have, that there is something we can do. When I’m sad, you can hug me and when you’re sad, I can hug you.” (Mel)

“When I cry, I explain that these are my Molly tears.” (Jill)

Encouraging children to talk to each other about their sibling who has died may be helpful, as grieving children can be a great source of help and comfort to one another.

Red Nose Grief and Loss provide opportunities for bereaved children to get together. These include children’s activity programs and groups for bereaved adolescents. Contact Red Nose Grief and Loss 1300 308 307.

“Aaron said that he didn’t know anyone with a dead brother – so we brought him to the Children’s Program (at Red Nose Grief and Loss), where he met other children who had had a brother or sister die.” (Alex)

“Most importantly, the children have fun. It is a happy program.” (Jill)

“When I came for the first time, I was scared that I would be wrecking my children’s innocence. Instead, I saw other kids who are ‘further down the track’, and this gave me confidence that my kids will be okay in the future.” (Parent attending Children’s Program)

If a child’s needs or fears seem to last unusually long or seem unusually severe, a professional counsellor may be helpful. Children need to know there are ‘safe places’ and trusted people who can help at a time like this. Contact Red Nose Grief and Loss for more information about sibling counselling and support.

“Going to a counsellor helped Kitty for a while. She felt special. She seems to have felt overlooked previously. It was good for her to talk to someone outside the family. She now goes to drama which she really enjoys.” (Alex)

As your children grow, they may want to discuss what has happened and try to put the event into a new perspective at a new life stage. A bereaved child’s view of their brother or sister who has died may change over time. They may also grieve for new losses within the relationship as they mature. A youngster, for example, may miss their sibling as a playmate whereas an adolescent may miss their sibling as a confidant or practical supporter.

This re-visiting may be triggered by the birth of another baby, someone getting married, a birthday or another death, even the death of a pet.

“Dan was really affected by September 11th. He is aware of the fragility of life now. He cried a lot over that.” (Jill)

“We’ve had twins since - Emma and Riley. Once, Emma fell over. My husband’s voice sounded scared. Dean really freaked. He immediately thought Emma was going to die. These things trigger things for kids.” (Sharon)

“Natasha was deeply affected by the Asian Tsunami. She was bothered when the young siblings of her friends started Prep. She notices milestones her brothers aren’t reaching and commented that she should have been a Grade 6 Buddy for one of them.” (Natalie C.)

This article was prepared using extracts from What about the Other Kids?1 The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.

Last reviewed: 20/6/24