The death of a child must be one of the most unthinkable and unbearable experiences of life, and the ramifications and fallout can be felt across generations.
As a psychotherapist, I have on many occasions sat with an adult as they unravel the impact the death of a sibling had on them and their family in their childhood. Sometimes the impact was explicit and obvious, and on other occasions, rather more subtle or hidden. This could be due to the adaptive nature of children, who make any family change the new norm, or because the adult child believed they had no right to grieve due to being too young, or even “their parents were the ones who lost a child.”
The death of a child is the most devastating experience a family can go through. Families that lose a child are more likely to experience loss of employment, get divorced or endure mental health issues. It has torn many families apart and left others in a suspended state of ruin. It alters the structure and landscape of the family and it is a terrain none of us want to traverse. Yet must be navigated by all member’s of a family if thrust upon them.
Unfortunately we are a grief fearing society and when we feel such intense pain, we want to escape it at all costs. So rather than lean in and turn towards each other for love and support, some may isolate and numb in an effort to make the pain go away. Our best support; each other, may become our hidden torturer; ever reminding us of our unbearable loss. For example, I have often heard how alcohol use became more prevalent with a parent after the death of the child. A parent’s antidote for grief, and the bereaved child feels the double loss of the sibling as well as the alcohol- absent parent. As the years go by, the “problems” between the couple are attributed to the alcohol and the gap between them grows, sidestepping the real problem of the missing, missed family member as well as the emotional needs of the surviving children. The cone-of-silence fully entrenched and the disconnection becomes the norm.
Children grieve too
Luckily, things are changing and we are now recognising children grieve as adults do, even if it looks a bit different. Thankfully it t is less common to hear of families banishing all photos of the deceased child off the mantelpiece, to never refer to the deceased child again, as happened to a friend of mine as a child of the ‘70s’. Children live in the present moment and may not be able to articulate their bereavement like an adult can, the evidence may present itself within their play or in more symptomatic ways*.
Some children may feel they are not entitled to grieve and that their parent’s grief must be greater than theirs. Grief is grief and always an individual journey yet children take their cues from their parents. If a parent hides and supresses their grief, a child may feel compelled to do the same. Children are more likely to understand and move through their own grief by seeing their parents grappling with their own: talked about in an age appropriate way without overwhelming a child, may help everyone to move through this difficult time. It is also important to keep talking about the loss, into the proceeding years. When children don’t have these conversations they can be prone to fill in the gaps, making up stories and assumptions that may not be true.
Losing a child is a major family event, which impacts everyone. This is true even if the death happened before the child was born or when the child was too young to remember their deceased sibling. The death of a child can influence bereaved parents caregiving. They may become more cautious and anxious in their parenting. The arrival of subsequent children may also carry a burden of anxiety and hope. Adult children who grew up in this situation may feel a need to live a life that is enough for themselves as well as their deceased sibling. In some cases it is as if the parent pours all the love (and/or fear) for the deceased child into the subsequent child. My mother grew up the eldest of three, with the middle child dying hours after birth. There was an eight- year- gap between my mother and her youngest sibling. Her parents blatant favouritism and mollycoddling towards the younger sibling, bordered on emotional neglect for her.
Children who have a deceased sibling can carry a form of survival guilt, having thoughts of “maybe it should have been me” or “I have to live a life for both of us” or “I cant complain because at least I’m alive” or even “I bet Mum/dad wished it had been me who died”. I have sat with clients who have carried the belief since they were children that their sibling’s death was somehow their fault, that maybe their parent were distracted by caring for them and this led to their siblings death. Children try to make sense of their world and don’t always get it right; a parents’ withdrawal due to grief in some experiences may feel like a form of punishment. Again if we don’t talk about it, then the child can make anything up! I worked with a young woman whose twin died a couple of months after birth. She carried an almost paralysing expectation on herself to live life for the two of them. She had no idea how this might look, and would vacillate between an overwhelming expectation of living an extra meaningful life and the unreality and failure of this expectation, alongside the belief she had no right to complain about her lot in life as she was lucky to be alive. She felt she couldn’t talk to her parents about her deceased twin, as she had no right to feel the confusing emotions that she did. She reasoned, they lost a baby and she was just a baby, so how could she carry any grief around this loss? She couldn’t articulate her feelings and would choke up, and was unable to speak, even if she wanted to talk about it. Her grief had no words because her loss happened when she was at a preverbal stage of development, however her felt-body sense of this loss was very much alive in her. Once this was normalised and validated, an opportunity to talk with her parents arose, and she found they too had long wanted to have this conversation with her.
Include all of the Family
We need to talk about our dead family member at all ages and stages of our lives. The grief may never go away, but we learn to live with it. We can enjoy our life and our maturing family at the same time as we cradle the memory of a deceased child. When families don’t talk about the lost child, the surviving children can make up stories about the event, and an unhealthy emotional protection racquet where everyone colludes in silence, can ensue. Its normal to feel bereft at such an event. It’s normal to feel sad ever after when thinking about the loss. Just because someone dies doesn’t mean that they are no longer a part of our family. This is as true for someone who has lived a rich life of 80 odd years as a member who drew but one breath. Children need to know their whole story. Lets keep our families whole and acknowledge them all.
*Some ways children’s grief may show up