Helping Siblings Handle Loss

Yesterday was a Labor Day my family won’t soon forget. It was the first weekend (and holiday) since one of our daughters was admitted to a residential treatment facility for mood and developmental issues. Sure, we did the usual Labor Day things: played games, bar-b-qued hot dogs and spent time with extended family. But it rained all day here (odd for a usually mild, dry climate), and that was exactly how I felt inside too – grey and drizzly.

grief as special needs parents

Grief is a normal part of life. How does your family cope?

I didn’t let it get to me, though, because our other kids needed life to go on, even in the midst of their own grief. And their own grief is quite a wild ride! It’s almost dizzying, actually, how fast children can cycle from denial to anger to bargaining (fixing) to sadness.

Even with internal and external rain storms going on, we tried to give our still-at-home kids support as they went through their own roller coaster. Here are some ways we did that:

  • Give them permission to think – and talk with you – about their feelings. The best way to do that is meet them where they are right now. We must recognize the significance of our children’s feelings and help them connect with them (and, ultimately us) in meaningful ways. That will look different for each child, but it’s our job to occasionally bring up the subject. Statements like “It’s your birthday. I wonder if you’re thinking about your sister right now?” or “Yeah, I feel sad when I look at her empty space at the table too.” We do that in our house and it gives our kids permission not to ignore the loss (even it it’s only temporary) or feel guilty for the grief that comes up, even much later.
  • Help them recognize their grief feelings and behaviors. Things like chronic aches and pains. Changes in diet. Changes in friends. Anger and aggression. Set limits with things that damage people or property, but beyond that, give them words for what they feel so they can learn to choose those instead of challenging behaviors. When my girls rage or bicker incessantly, it’s my cue to start observing their behavior out loud with statements like “Wow, that was a big reaction to something not so big. I wonder what’s behind that? I think I’d be sad (or mad, or frustrated, or hurt…) about… (whatever you suspect it is)”
  • Teach your kids to recognize grief signs in their bodies. As an adult, you may recognize tense shoulders as symptoms of emotion, but kids will simply feel yucky. Share where anxiety lives: head (thoughts, headaches), stomach (changed appetite, nausea, pain), heart (increased heart rate/breathing), shoulders (tension). Live your own feelings “out loud” as you go through your day so they see it modeled. Things like “That guy just cut in front of me on the freeway – that scared me and made me mad. My heart’s really racing!” The more we model, the more they adopt those healthier ways of coping.

Our typically-developing kids grieve losses often as siblings of children with special and often demanding needs. How do you help your “special siblings” handle their grief in your family?

If you’re going through a particularly tough season of grief in your own family, I’d love to help. Click here or here for recent posts I’ve done on grieving well.


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