Helping Siblings Cope | Counseling | Therapy

Helping Siblings Cope

Dr. Erica Goldblatt Hyatt , LCSW, DSW — Therapist

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October 13th marked the annual observance of Sibling Loss Awareness Day. Often called the "forgotten mourners", siblings--especially children who lose a brother or sister--may not always have their grief acknowledged, validated, or supported during the immediate and long-term aftermath of a loss. Though nobody's fault, often the needs of grieving siblings are neglected as family and community scramble to support parents as they grieve the loss of a child. In this process, siblings may feel overlooked, and their loss may feel invalidated. The creation of Sibling Loss Awareness Day allows a space to honor these forgotten mourners and let them know that their grief experience is important.

Because the loss of a sibling is parallel to the process that parents experience losing a child, it can be useful for helping adults and supports to be aware of what sibling grief can look like. For elementary school-aged children, symptoms of grief are often somatic, meaning that they are expressed as a physical ailment. It may be common to see children missing school due to stomachaches, headaches, an overall sense of feeling sick, and even more frequent and common colds and flu as the immune system can take a hit as a result of loss. Children may not find the words to express sorrow, anxiety, or confusion, and may need the help of a trusted adult like a teacher, pastor, or friend's parent to help connect feelings coming from the body to feelings of grief. Young children can benefit from drawing "feelings faces" to identify facial expressions that correspond with bodily sensations, or even complete "body maps" in which they use colors, doodles, and other representations to show adults where, physically, the loss is manifesting in their bodies. If the loss was sudden or especially traumatic, play therapy can be helpful to create a language for children to process their grief. It is important to address magical thinking with younger children and to explain that nothing they said or did is responsible for the death of a sibling. Using clear words that cannot be misinterpreted, like "died" instead of "went to sleep", is important to help create an understanding that bodily death is irreversible. This can also help to open up a discussion about how memories and love endure beyond physical death, and you may wish to seek creative ways to help memorialize a brother or sister that died.

Tweens and teens may display symptoms of grief differently than their younger counterparts. While no one teen grieves the same way, there are some common reactions to look out for. For example, girls are more likely to internalize their grief by withdrawing inward and experiencing anxiety and depression, manifested in tears, moodiness, social isolation, irritability, and bodily pains. Boys may be more likely to externalize, demonstrating symptoms of grief that look like behavioral disturbances, truancy, getting into fights, and inattentiveness. It's important to note that boys, too, can internalize, just as girls can externalize. Adolescence is also a time of self-searching and experimentation, and some teens may be drawn to more extreme explorations such as substance use, risky sex, theft, and destruction of property. While few teens take this response to the extreme, it is always useful to connect these behaviors to grief and explore if such "acting out" is related to the experience of loss. Many teens can also experience ambivalence about the death of a brother or sister. Sibling relationships are complicated: siblings are our first playmates and enemies, objects of jealousy, and disciplinarians. It is not uncommon for siblings to yell words of hate or even "I wish you were dead!" during heated moments. Tweens and teens may feel overwhelmed by guilt or confusion, sometimes feeling relieved that their sibling has died, and other times jealous of the attention the sibling and their death has garnered from parents, family, and community. Some may feel compelled to "take care" of their parents and others may try to emulate habits and traits of the sibling that died to ease the pain of the loss for others around them. Being a teen is complicated, and so is grief. My book, Grieving for the Sibling You Lost, is written especially for this age group and is the only self-help book available on this topic. It provides concrete exercises as well as downloadable worksheets for teens to explore and express their grief, as well as an introduction to loss and tools and tips to help cope. Teens value trusting and authentic relationships, so if you have a grieving teen sibling in your life, it is important to reach out: take them for coffee, a trip shopping, a walk in the park: anything to spend one-on-one time where you have an opportunity to tell them that you love and care about them, and let them know that you are there to support and listen. Finding local support groups where teens can find peers who are going through the same types of losses can be infinitely valuable, too.

Sibling Loss Awareness Day is only one day of the year that focuses on these forgotten mourners, but you can make a difference in a grieving sibling's life every day. Showing up, showing love, and creating compassion is a necessity. Instead of calling grieving siblings out for their behaviors and responses to loss, call them in: talk to them about what they're going through, and help them find words, pictures, songs, and more to express their grief. Creating a safe space for a grieving sibling to cope will forge an enduring bond, and help that child process, learn from, and grow from their grief experience.

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