Helping Siblings Deal with “Survivor” Guilt

A month ago my 8 year old entered a residential treatment facility. Three weeks and 6 days ago, my 9 year old began to feel horrible about it. No matter how hard things had become at home with her little sister’s behaviors, her absence brings anxiety. Partly because said 9 year old has challenging behaviors of her own due to a shared traumatic foster care history. And partly because she just doesn’t know what to do with the new peace at home.

Questions and worries circulate in her mind every day:

  • Should she grieve the absence of her sister?
  • Is it okay to feel good that she’s gone for a little while?
  • Can she play with her sister’s friends in the neighborhood?
  • Will her sister get mad at her for being happy?

My 9 year old has a gnarly case of survivor guilt. We all do in our family, if I’m real honest.

She’s not grieving death, but a kind of death. A death of the familiar. A death of what has been our family dynamic, whether good, bad or otherwise.

How can I help my girl get through this season? How can any of us help the siblings of our kids with special needs to feel okay about being okay when their sibling isn’t?

Listen… to what she says and doesn’t say… and do it often. When she first gets home from school works best for us. We eat a snack together and I just sit as she talks. A few prompts help to have on hand too (as any parent of a tween can attest!) to draw her out and let her know I care about her experience.

Mention… my own feelings and challenges with the issue. Talking her through some of what I’m struggling with normalizes the struggle for her. And by taking the burden of bringing up the topic on my shoulders, it frees her to address it as she needs to.

Extra TLC. Time together, an outing here and there… maybe more often than at other seasons in our family, gives common experiences, builds positive memories, allows me to model how to have fun and live life in the midst of the questions and grief we’re all feeling. It gives her a place to play and take her mind off things.

Support from counselors – Survivor grief isn’t anything new. Counselors are trained to help ask the right questions, provide helpful experiences and give a safe place for our kids to explore feelings around grief-inducing family situations. We’d do it if we went through a divorce with our spouse, so why not when our kids experience a “divorce” of sorts from their experience or expectations of a sibling?

Overall, recognizing what’s happening, and the feelings they’re feeling, keeps us connected with all our kids – especially siblings of our kids with special needs. It helps them build their own muscles in dealing with challenging relationships throughout life.

Share your expertise: What kinds of things have you found helpful in supporting siblings of your special needs child in your own family?


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