How Children Grieve the Loss of a Sibling

A girl plays chess alone next to empty chair

Losing a child is a devastating and life-altering experience. Not only are the parents and extended family members of the deceased significantly affected by the loss, but siblings of the deceased are also dramatically impacted. When a child dies, the well-being of the parents is often everyone’s primary concern, and it seems that few studies have looked at how children grieve the loss of a sibling. Understanding the coping strategies they use and exploring their emotional state during the grieving process can provide an important contribution to the study of grieving.

Maru Barrera of the Department of Psychology, Hematology – Oncology Program at The Hospital for Sick Children and the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Toronto in Canada recently led a study looking at how children grieved the loss of a sibling to cancer. The data Barrera collected was gathered from parental reports and was based on children of all ages.

Several themes emerged from the study. First, Barrera found that although the death caused various reactions, the majority of the respondents were able to process their grief and continue on with life when assessed 18 months after the death. For young children who did not fully understand death at six months after the loss, they gained significant awareness about the permanence of death at the 18 month follow-up. Behavior problems were not elevated in this group, but parents did note that these young children pretended to engage with their deceased sibling during play time, expressed concern for the well-being of their parents, and were able to verbalize their emotions of grief, sadness, and depression.

The older children and adolescents were less willing or able to verbalize their grief. The parents reported that these children acted out more and engaged in risk-taking behaviors that could be part of the normal developmental process of adolescence, but could also be attributed to their grief and loss. They did report adolescent children had more dreams of their siblings, wanted to be physically close to their siblings’ possessions, and had aspirations to enter a field or dedicate their life’s work in honor of their deceased siblings. Communication among parents and older children was strained and lacking, but again, Barrera is unsure whether this was due to the overwhelming grief of the parent and child, or was the result of the normal pulling away that occurs during adolescence. Overall, these results provide insight into the ways in which children of various ages process grief and adjust to the changes that the loss of a loved one creates. Barrera said, “Finally, these findings offer important guidance for the development of bereavement support services for this population.”


  1. Barrera, Maru, Rifat Alam, Norma Mammone D’agostino, David B. Nicholas, and Gerald Schneiderman. Parental perceptions of siblings’ grieving after a childhood cancer death: A longitudinal study. Death Studies 37.1 (2013): 25-46. Print.

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  • albie

    March 11th, 2013 at 11:35 PM

    I lost two sisters early in life. one when I was just three and the second one when I was 5 years old. each of them lives for only a couple of weeks after their birth. although I missed them dearly after they were gone it did not affect me to a point of concern. and this was because I was too little I suppose. any older and it could have impacted far worse. my parents told me they would come back to us when I was much older (of course make believe to please the little me).

    what would be the right way for a parent to put this across to a little child who is too young to understand death? could it save a child from trauma?

  • Robin

    March 12th, 2013 at 4:06 AM

    We think that just because some kids don’t want to talk about it that this means that they are fine, that they don’t need any kind of counseling because if they did they would be crying all the time or talking about it.

    But most kids don’t have the words to express their grief without some guidance and they will tend to keep all of that inside of them. That is why it is so critical to get them talking, keep them talking, and allow them to have a very safe way to be heard and express the grief that they are experiencing on the inside.

  • Douglas

    March 13th, 2013 at 4:02 AM

    Information such as this could be very helpful for those who counsel children after they lose a sibling or other family member. Not all children are going to do things the exact same way but at least it provides them with some general ways that kids tend to go through the stages of grief and maybe how to better help them as they have to deal with all of the raw emotion and turmoil that a death in the family inevitably brings.

  • Susan Paganie

    March 17th, 2013 at 9:06 PM

    I find that in dealing with sibling loss, most adolescents are reluctant to talk to their parents about their overwhelming feelings of grief. This is done to protect the grieving parent from more hurt. The child sees the parents devastation and does not want to be the cause of more pain. Friends seem to rally round for a short time after the loss but then either become uncomfortable with the emotions or with draw from their friend because they don’t know how to help. This causes the child to experience further loss in a world that already feels more lonely and changed due to their siblings death. I can see how these issues would endanger the child to act out or even engage in risk taking behavior to help deal with their pain. Studies like the above can bring to light the unintentional maginalization of a grieving child and find more ways to help them to heal.

  • Christina

    October 15th, 2013 at 8:27 AM

    My boyfriend and his 9 year old daughter lost 4 year old boy (son/brother)in a tragic accident. The daughter lives with us full time now. She hasn’t cried much, but she does often refer to him and acts like he is there playing with her at times. She reprimands a teddy bear she received at the funeral and says it’s her brother. I figured this is normal behavior, and counseling is helping her too.

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