A child who loses a sibling has so much adjusting to do. The sibling may have been the older one they looked up to, or the little one they played with. They will have had many fun times together, shared many toys and activities, fought over things, laughed over things, and interacted in a million little ways. Now home is different and the family has to find new ways to share and play and find new routines.
The role of a teacher
One of a child’s major challenges is that their parents are grieving too. Parents who used to offer reassurance when things went wrong are now themselves upset. Children sometimes find it hard to talk to the parents, for fear of upsetting them further. While encouraging children to be open with their parents, teachers can offer reassurance and normality and a space for children to talk informally without the fear they will be a burden. If concerns come up that a teacher is unsure of 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 Community Liaison) coordinator.
Primary school children can also carry guilt and an exaggerated sense of their own power. A child may for example be anxious if they had a row with the deceased sibling, or if they said something nasty. If this comes to light, as a teacher you can reassure the child that all siblings fight and that nothing he or she did or said caused the death. It is normal to wish to have done things differently.
All siblings experience jealousy. A child can be jealous of their deceased sibling because of the parents’ focus on that child – particularly if there was a long illness. The child may feel that they don’t matter as much. This is where a teacher can listen, understand, and reassure the child that they too are special.
Families find ways to remember the child who has died and decide what to do with the child’s room, their toys, and their books and how to mark their birthday. A teacher can make themselves aware of special dates and listen to the child about the choices the family has made.
A number of siblings in a family may appear to grieve in very different ways. A six year old boy might want to talk and might have some very concrete questions for his teacher, while his older sister in sixth class might ask not to talk about the death publicly at all. The school can stay in contact with the parents and respect their wishes around how the school acknowledges the death, taking into consideration the different needs of each child. It is important to remember that siblings will have very different understandings of death depending on their age and stage of development.
If the death has been sudden or traumatic, siblings may also have different levels of information about the incident and information may be shared with them over time. It is important to maintain a link with parents so that the school understands what information a child knows and can support them while respecting parents’ decisions.
It can be a great comfort to parents to know that school staff want to be sensitive to their children. It is reassuring when the school ensures that the child continues their interests; parents appreciate that school is a place when things can be normal.
The death of a sibling offers a child a new identity in the family .They may now be the only child, the eldest or youngest. Perhaps they lost a twin and are now alone. This can be very disorientating. While the child is adjusting, the teacher can take care to highlight positive aspects of the child’s life such as friendships, talents, and any hobbies they enjoy.
A topic explored in SPHE is how families change. In time the child can take part in Circle Time or discussions, hear about the changes other families have been through and share some of the ways that they have managed the change in their family if they wish. Introduce this topic gently, and not too soon after a death.