Sibling Loss in Primary School

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A child whose sibling dies loses more than a brother or sister.  They have to adjust to many new situations.  They may now be an only child,  the eldest in the family or the youngest.  They may now  be the only boy or girl.   Changes such as these are profound for children.  The family system has changed and there are major readjustments to be made.

One of the major challenges for the child is that their parent/parents are grieving intensely.   The parents who in the past provided stability and structure are now themselves unsure and distressed.   Depending on their age a child may avoid talking to them about their dead sibling for fear of upsetting them further.   Teachers, who are not emotionally impacted in the same way, can offer reassurance, normality and a space for children to talk informally without fearing they will cause distress.   If concerns come up that the teacher is unsure or worried about they can communicate with the child’s parents.   In some schools this will be the role of the Principal or the HSCL( Home School Liaison Coordinator).

Young children can have an exaggerated sense of their own power (“magical thinking”).   Children can also experience guilt over normal sibling disagreements.   A teacher can reassure the child that all siblings fight, that nothing the child did or said caused the death and that everyone experiences regret after a death.

If their sibling experienced a long illness children can, in the course of the illness, have had feelings of anger and resentment, both at their parents’ focus on the sick child and the impact on their life of the illness.   Such natural feelings of resentment can cause problems when the sibling dies.  Reassurance around the normality of such feelings can be beneficial.

Special dates such as birthdays and anniversaries are difficult for children.   A teacher can make themselves aware of special dates and be sensitive to a child’s emotional state at such times.  It is important also, as a child moves through various classes in the school, that the new teachers are made aware that he or she has suffered a significant bereavement.

The school should stay in contact with the parents and respect their wishes around how the school acknowledges the death, taking into consideration the different needs of all the children in school.  It is important to remember that siblings will have very different understandings of death depending on their age and stage of development.

It is important also that the school understands what information about the death a child has been given in order to support them and respect their parents’ wishes in this regard.   If, at the time of the death, parents ask for advice they should be encouraged to involve the dead child’s siblings in the funeral, while also respecting their their wishes in this regard.

In SPHE one of the topics we explore is how families change.   We need to take care that children who have experienced bereavement are not exposed emotionally by talking about change too soon after the death.  The timing of these topics is important.

It can be a great comfort to parents to know school staff want to be sensitive to their remaining child/ children.   School has not changed and this normality and routine is vital as a child adjusts to a life changing event.

The teacher can also highlight positive aspects of the child’s life such as friendships, talents and hobbies and encourage the child to enjoy them without feeling guilty.

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