Don’t Forget the Siblings: Death of a Child

“The scent of warmed earth, the mold of dead leaves, the angle of sun on my shoulders suddenly floods me with a sharp happiness and I look up to see that the ravens are crossing and circling…I watch as they throw themselves off a branch into the invisible stream. Over and over, they tumble into the air and fly upside down…One raven veers toward me, zipping straight at my face, but I do not flinch as its wings brush through my hair. I call out my sister’s name in the wildness of the moment. Then I turn and watch the raven swerve rapidly over the tops of the pines, until she plummets down the cliff again, laughs, and disappears.”

In The Painted Drum, Louise Erdrich takes the briefest of moments to mention a sister who died. Her connection with the earth, sky and wild ravens is vividly depicted and explored, while her sister is confined to only a few sentences. Erdrich’s writing mirrors what can be a common sibling experience with the death of a child. The loss is so massive and consuming to the parents and community it is easy for the impact on the other siblings to get lost in the pain. The seemingly harmless phrase, “Oh your poor parents, they must be devastated,” is often repeated over and over again to the surviving siblings. Although the intention is not to minimize the loss, children and teens often hear it as such and set aside their own process. As adults years later, they’ll come into counseling and start to unpack their own grief and loss. By then their experience is often buried under anger and resentment and has impacted their lives in unexpected and challenging ways.

Fortunately for us in 2016, we’re surrounded by wise parents who bring their kids immediately into counseling to make sure the grief and loss is processed, and the unique aspects of the sibling experience are honored. Annual rituals, regular dinner table conversations, and open emotional expression all contribute to creating healthy grieving processes for the entire family, and the community surrounding them.