I was almost exactly four-and-a-half years old when my sister died.
I don’t remember it happening, but it’s nice to think that the memories I do have of her are my own, not just ones I created from dusty home videos.
She had incredibly long legs, and the most amazing curly black hair that was always short because the cancer treatments kept making her bald. She loved to laugh and ask lots of questions, even when it annoyed people.
Oh, and she slept with her mouth open, just like me.
It’s not much, but those little things connect me to her. We didn’t look alike. In fact, we looked about as different as two half-siblings could look. Her dark skin and dark hair were a legacy of her mother, my blonde hair and skin from mine. When she died, I became something unenviable, the last surviving daughter of my family, a lonely girl among five boys.
There’s not much you can tell a four-and-a-half-year-old about death that they’ll really understand, which makes talking to them about the death of their sibling something of an extended process. Myself and my three-year-old brother, played as normal while around us our family trembled, crumbled, and tried to carry on.
Looking back years later, I am grateful for my parents for the way they approached talking about death with me. They didn’t sugarcoat it, but they also made it easy for me to grasp and put up with my many annoying questions in my quest for understanding.
Having come out into adulthood and survived the death of a sibling, I thought I might share some things I’d learned along the way.
Beware Of Literal Meaning
As any parent will know, kids take things literally. That’s why it’s important when you’re talking to them about the death of a sibling that you define the words that you say. My parents told me that my sister had died of cancer, the thing that had kept her sick for such a long time. Cancer, they said, was a sickness, but it wasn’t like the flu and I didn’t have to worry about catching it.
This comforted me, but when a well meaning woman at church told me that it was “just her time”, which at almost 13, it definitely wasn’t, I took it very literally. As my 13th birthday approached years later, I was awashed with panic that resulted in me literally making myself sick with anxiety.
Your kids should understand, in age-appropriate terms, what has happened to their siblings, but be careful how you put that across. Words like ‘sickness’ and comments like ‘it was their time’ can freak kids out. Depending on what happened, you’ll need to figure out the right way to tell them. If it was an accident, tell them as much.
If there was a stillbirth or cot death, be cautious with terms like they’ve “gone to sleep”, which can cause sleep phobias, and the word “lost”, which can lead smaller kids on frantic searches for their sibling.
Make Love Clear
In the weeks, months and years following the death of a sibling, families struggle at all levels. Parents who have other children must, in some cases, put aside their grief to go on with their lives as carers, and in the midst of this, it can be easy for forget the easy-going way that life used to be. However, one of the most important things to remember is the love that holds you together.
Kids can be full of fear and uncertainty following the death of their sibling, or they could appear totally unaffected by what has happened. Each child will deal with the experience differently, and it’s important for parents to understand that.
While one child struggles openly, a child that appears not to be bothered could be struggling internally and need just as much attention and affection.
Helping your kids to talk about what they’re going through is a really important part of recovery, and getting the help of a counsellor or psychologist is absolutely ok, and highly recommended.
Be Patient With Questions
To children, death can be something of an abstract concept. Often kids associate death as something that happens to old people, so when their own sibling passes away, it can be hard for them to comprehend what has happened. They might ask a lot of questions, including the same question over and over again. My older brother, who was nearly 8 at the time of my sister’s death, asked my parents every day for months when she was “coming back from the hospital” despite being told over and over again that she was not.
This is hard, because parents are in the middle of an enormous process of grief themselves, but being patient with kids as they also come to terms with that has happened is important too. Be open and honest with your kids, telling them that it is really difficult for you to talk about it, but you want them to understand.
Keep Memories Alive
Memories are an amazing thing, and it is my belief that we are only really gone forever when there is nobody left who remembers us. This was the approach that my own family took with my sister’s death, with us often talking about her and taking time to remember her life on her birthday and the anniversary of her death.
Hiding your child’s life might seem easier in the short term to avoid setting off an emotional reaction, but burying your feelings only makes them more overwhelming when they do arise. Taking time to show your emotions, sad as well as happy, when you remember the life of your child is essential, not just for you but for your kids as well.
My entire life I classed myself as having five brothers and a sister. It didn’t matter to me that she wasn’t here with us, because she had been here, and her life had mattered.
Photographs of her around the house, a ‘memory garden’ in our backyard, and trips out to the cemetery to celebrate her life and spend time with her, were just a part of growing up. Death is never going to get easier, but being able to look back fondly on the time you had does make it less difficult to bear.