All Ages > Am I Still a Big Brother or Sister?

By Joanne Caccitore, MSW, Fellow in Thanatology
MISS Foundation CEO and Founder

"How many brothers do you have?" they ask her.
"I have three brothers," she says.
"Wow! And how many sisters do you have?" they ask again.
"I have one sister. But she's in Heaven taking care of us," she replies proudly.

Those are words that made my eyes fill up with tears when I heard them. My daughter, then six years old, has fearless strength I often envy. Her "matter of fact" attitude about her younger sister's death and her raw honesty filled me with a Mother's pride. I knew her outlook was healthy, despite the often-astonished looks she would draw from unsuspecting inquisitors. How do you help children through the grief process toward a healthy reconciliation after the death of a sibling?

In retrospect, I tried to assist my sons and daughter to deal with the sudden death of their infant sister. The most difficult aspect was discussing her death and explaining what "death" is. I was very cautious about specific terminology. Honesty is the best response. I never associated death with sleeping. I told them that their sister died, explaining that when you die, you do not ever come back on this earth. I told them that they would not see her again. This may be a good opportunity to open dialogue about spiritual beliefs. Use discretion when discussing God and death. Avoid telling the children that God took the baby. It may create feelings of anxiety or anger toward God. Encourage questions and communication. Children may be too frightened to ask without assurance. Keep your answers honest and simple.

We shared an 'open emotion' policy. I allowed myself to cry, wherever and whenever I felt the need to. I set a standard for them. My openness validated their feelings of loss and despair. It reassured them they could come to me when they felt overwhelmed. I cried many times in front of them: And then I would let them see me laugh again. The expression of sorrow is nothing to be ashamed of. I encouraged them to cry, yell, punch a pillow, and accompany me on a walk or anything else they felt would help them through the difficult time. On several occasions, they were able to draw a picture or write a letter to their sister.

Another helpful idea for siblings is to offer them a 'special' remembrance token of their sibling for them to keep. It is a tangible reminder of a love that will never be forgotten. Every Christmas, our children choose a special ornament in memory of their sister to hang on our tree. It is engraved with her name and the year. They know we have not abandoned her memory, nor will they. Reassure your children they are still a "big brother" or "big sister." Reassure them they always will be. Make time to reminisce together. Cheyenne's pictures still hang on our walls. They are a permanent fixture in our home. She is a significant part of our family. I want them to know their sister. Children have a simple gift of discernment in grief. Everyday, I strive to become more and more like my children.

Note: If your child experiences:

  • Extended periods of depression in which he or she loses interest in daily activities and events
  • Inability to sleep, loss of appetite, prolonged fear of being alone
  • Acting much younger for extended periods of time
  • Withdraws from friends at school
  • Sharp drop in performance or refusal to attend school

These are warning signs which indicate that professional intervention may be needed. Please seek a therapist who specialized in grief and trauma.

Author Biography

Joanne Cacciatore is the founder of MISS and the author of the book Dear Cheyenne. For more information please see the MISS site at

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