When Children Talk About Loss

The New York Times recently addressed a difficult topic: when a child dies, how does their death impact their siblings and family in the short and long-run? The author of the post, a professor of pediatrics, noted that as devastating a child’s death is for a parent, the loss felt by a sibling must be even more unbearable. After all, siblings often share more time together than with parents, and have shared much of their young lives together at school.

 

According to the article, a sibling’s untimely death can have numerous physical and mental health repercussions for living siblings and families. Living siblings might also primarily be affected by the same disease or disorder that caused the first death, exacerbating existing health problems, and raising risks of long-term health, social, and behavioral problems.

 

This phenomenon is the main subject of a recent study in JAMA Pediatrics, referenced in the New York Times article. Researchers who followed children in Denmark and Sweden from 1973 through 2013 found that the children who lost a sibling before age 18 were 70 percent more likely to die in the decades following the event. The death of a sibling is not a causal factor for increased mortality, but it is definitely a part of the picture. Of course, another factor that could lead to increased risk of death after that of a sibling is the emotional damage of grief, and the difficulty of coping with that grief.

 

This means that support for bereaved siblings needs to be a priority for family members and healthcare professionals. It’s important for major publications like the New York Times to report on findings from the medical community that might be difficult subject matters. Similarly, it’s important for family members and parents to have conversations about loss in order to help children cope with grief and to build resiliency.

 

“Family resilience” is found in at least one academic paper on the subject of recovery after the loss of a child. This study had two findings that are especially relevant: families that viewed the grieving and recovery process as a challenge to overcome, and families that felt community support were related to the family’s grieving and recovery process, adapted better than families who did not have a strong community support. The interaction between a bereaved family and the rest of society can be an indication of how well-equipped everyone is to deal with loss.

 

Other ways people are dealing with the impact of loss in the family is to open doors for conversation. For example, Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, wrote an article in The New York Times a couple of months ago after the sudden loss of her husband. In order to foster resiliency in her children, and to support them in their remembrance of their father, Sandberg is determined to keep open communication a constant. This approach would transform hardship into a growth opportunity, with the goal of resiliency.

 

We may all know people in our lives that have experienced loss. If more people knew about these findings, then support systems in schools and other community settings can work with families to have a positive impact on children’s lives as they overcome loss.