Helping children through sibling loss

Successful support for the siblings of children who have died should be continuous. Julie Griffiths reports on a hospice in Wales that provides long-lasting and honest therapy for bereaved children

(Picture caption: Rhys Whatty and mother Clare who have used Ty Hafan’s service since Rhys’s sister died, aged four)

Successful support for the siblings of children who have died should be continuous. Julie Griffiths reports on a hospice in Wales that provides long-lasting and honest therapy for bereaved children

Project details

Project name: Tŷ Hafan’s sibling bereavement groups.

Aims and objectives: Children coming to terms with the loss of a sibling.

Numbers of service users: About 25 each session, split into three age groups.

Cost of project: Several hundred pounds per group including the cost of lunch, materials and equipment for making memory prompts. Sessions are free to participants.

Timescale: Sessions run three times per year.

The death of a child is traumatic and overwhelming for parents. Often support is needed to minimise the damage this can cause parents and the dead child’s brothers and sisters.

Welsh children’s hospice Tŷ Hafan helps families in this situation by running bereaved sibling groups three times a year. Lynne Doyle, sibling support co-ordinator at Tŷ Hafan, says it is a valuable opportunity for bereaved young people living in a society that is uncomfortable about death, particularly that of a child. For many, it is hard to find a chance to talk to others about their lost sibling because it makes people so uneasy.

Taboo subject

“Children dying is a taboo subject so we always say to the group that all of them are here because they have a brother or sister who has died. Children love that honesty and the knowledge that they are not the only child in that position. It gives them permission to speak about what’s happened,” says Doyle.

An added benefit for participants is that they are among peers who are unconnected to their family which can feel liberating for the young people involved.

Doyle explains that some children may have feelings that are accompanied by a sense of shame – because when their sibling was alive, they were bitter about the amount of attention given to the sick child or resentful that the family did not go on holidays and day trips like friends’ families.

“When the child dies, they may feel a sense of relief that they have their parents back and they feel guilty about that. It doesn’t mean the child doesn’t love their brother or sister but it’s very difficult for a child to work out those feelings. It helps to know that all of those feelings are fine and a lot of others feel the same,” says Doyle.

The sibling bereavement groups have been running for several years but became more frequent when the sibling support co-ordinator post was created. As well as running groups for bereaved children, Doyle runs sessions for all siblings, including those whose brother or sister is still alive. She also provides one-to-one support for those who need it.

The bereavement groups, which run for a day, are split into three age categories: 4-7 years, 8-11 years and 12-18 years. Participants are involved in various activities such as creating memory jars, which they can take home, painting their sibling’s name on a pebble, and creating personalised picture frames and candles.

Opportunity to talk

Children are also given the opportunity to talk about their sibling as well as play games to lighten the mood. When young people become upset, the group takes the lead from the individual. If he or she wants to stay in the room, their wish is honoured. Likewise, those who prefer to have time out are accommodated.

Sometimes, participants are there for a sibling they have never met.

“The child may have been born a year after the sibling died but the family still need support. The sibling is still part of their life and still affects the family in a big way,” says Doyle.

She describes one girl who never knew her sister. The girl writes messages to her sister in which she talks about seeing photos and marvelling at how much they look alike. The girl often expresses a wish that they had known one another.

There has been no evaluation of the sessions to measure outcomes but Doyle says that participant attendance speaks for itself. Children return to the groups over many years. Grief can go on for a long time and it can change. For others, returning to Tŷ Hafan is a form of therapy in itself since it is a link to their lost sibling.

“This building is quite important to them because they would come and spend time here. They feel that connection and like to look at photos on the wall to find their brother or sister then get excited when they find them,” says Doyle.

Helping children cope

● Always be open and honest and never skirt around the issue of death. Children feel more comfortable knowing what’s going on so that they can deal with it.

● Be direct and do not use euphemisms. This can be confusing for them.

● Allow children to talk freely. Accept their feelings no matter what they are.

● Let children set the pace. If they do not want to talk, you cannot make them. Instead, make it clear that you are there to support them whenever they need it.

● Be aware of your own feelings about death and keep calm. If you are anxious or uncomfortable, it will be apparent to the children and they are less likely to talk.

Source: Lynne Doyle, sibling support coordinator at Welsh children’s hospice, Tŷ Hafan.

Combating isolation among bereaved children

Rhys Whatty has been attending bereaved siblings groups since the death of his four-year-old sister, Bethan.

Rhys’s mum, Clare Whatty, says that he feels that Tŷ Hafan was one of the few constants during a time of upheaval and adjustment.

“We had a constant stream of professionals in and out of our house when Bethan was here and Rhys was very involved with all of them. When Bethan died, it all stopped. His view was that Tŷ Hafan was the only one that did not forget him,” says Clare, a former social worker.

The groups also give him the opportunity to meet other children like him. Clare says that he is the only child at his school to have lost a sibling. “He loves being with children who have been through the same thing. He says the children understand him and know what it’s like,” she says.

They also help him to come to terms with new issues that crop up as he gets older and develops a greater understanding of what has happened. Rhys was just six when his sister died. Now 11, he has different questions from those he had a few years ago and the sessions help him to recognise and address them.

For example, the family were not present when Bethan died at the hospice because her passing was sudden and unexpected. Clare explains that he came back from a recent group feeling angry that he had not been with his sister and asking why this had happened.

“Different things emerge as time goes on,” she says.

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