Left Behind: The Grief of a Young Sibling

{Note: We are not experts in this area. This is our story – our only experience to draw from. I believe that the death of a sibling is a unique and devastating event for each family. The cause of death affects grief. The birth order affects grief (was the child the firstborn, youngest, etc). The age of the child that died affects grief (was it a miscarriage, still birth, infant death, young child, etc). The age and personalities of the siblings that are left behind affects grief. There are so many factors that influence the grief journey for siblings. There’s no formula or method to navigate the journey. But these are some of the things that our family has found to be helpful in our particular situation up to this point. So I humbly share them with you. And I welcome your insights and experiences too.}

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The three of us were enjoying our nightly family cuddle time a few days ago, when Caleb quietly asked, “Mommy, may I snuggle on your chest like baby Evelyn?”

My heart swelled with love for my precious little boy. My firstborn. The very one who brought me into this beautifully chaotic and holy world of motherdom. I pulled him close to fulfill his tender request.  But even as he saturated my arms with his stout toddler frame, I felt an undeniable emptiness too. My daughter’s absence became acute in the darkness of his room, echoing loudly in the wake of his sweet question. Only three of us were there instead of four.

Helping Caleb grieve the death of his little sister has not been easy. We’ve tried to be somewhat proactive on our end, while also taking his cues to talk about her when she’s on his mind.

Since he’s only two years old, life is very concrete. He doesn’t talk about Evelyn all the time because she’s not here with us. For all he knows, it’s normal for a sibling to live in a special hospital and never come home. From time to time he asks about her when we’re driving in the car or playing at home. Our typical response is, “Baby Evelyn’s body stopped working. Now she lives in heaven with Jesus. She’s not sick anymore.” That’s basically it. It varies a little depending on the situation. But as he gets older and his mind begins to understand the complexities of sickness and death and heaven, we’ll share more.

But for now, these are some of the things we do for our toddler to keep it concrete and simple:

  1. Have a prepared response that the child can remember (like what I mentioned above).
  2. Read an age-appropriate children’s book about heaven that helps spark short discussions.
  3. I made a Shutterfly book especially for Caleb. It’s all about Evelyn and him. Pictures, words, memories, and a simple story line. It’ll be a precious keepsake for him as he grows older. But in this present moment, it’s a helpful tool to keep her memory alive and talk about her when she comes up.
  4. Watch a video of our family that was taken the day before she died. It’s a treasure to us. It captures some of the few moments that the four of us were together during her 20 days. Caleb loves to watch it over and over and over.
  5. We have pictures of Evelyn in our home. There’s one on the fridge. There are a few included in gallery displays on our walls. It’s not over-the-top. But it’s enough to show that she’s a part of our family and always will be.

I’ve heard of other families baking birthday cakes on the child’s birthday. Or letting balloons go on their birthday/death date. It seems that there are a lot of thoughtful ways to grieve and heal and hope and remember. I’m sure the conversations and tributes will change for us over time.

I’ve tried to be careful that I never force Caleb to talk about his sister. He has never shed a tear over her death. And that’s okay. Some day he probably will. As I see it now, God’s mercy abounds in Caleb’s life because when he thinks about Evelyn, it only brings him joy. He giggles and squirms when he sees her pictures and videos. He’s filled with uncontainable delight at the thought of his baby sister.

But as a general rule of thumb, if I can’t remember the last time we talked about her together (maybe it’s been a few weeks), I might bring it up gently – put the feelers out, if you will. For example, I’ll suggest reading his Caleb & Evelyn book before nap time. If he’s interested, great. If not, that’s okay too. We move on.

Above all, my prayer for Caleb (and our other children who will never meet Evelyn this side of heaven), is that her life and death will cause them to trust God more deeply. I pray that they will see God’s goodness and mercy through her life. I pray that they will see the peace and hope that Christ brings in the darkest of circumstances. I pray that when they’re sad, they will run into the arms of Jesus, our Friend and Savior and Shepherd, who will quietly weep with them and comfort them with his love. I pray that they feel confident taking their doubts and questions and uncertainties to our Heavenly Father, who can lead them in his perfect truth.

One day we will all reach the absolute fulfillment of this promise: “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy” (Psalm 126:5).

Until then, we will pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us as we help our children handle their grief in all of its stages and waves, and point them to the One who can truly bring them the comfort they need.

2 thoughts on “Left Behind: The Grief of a Young Sibling

  1. Sarah, I remember you reading excerpts from your prayer journal to us during teacher devotions. God has blessed you with a gift of writing and a sensitive heart to your child’s needs. I pray that this site will touch many families as they cope with a death of a child. May God’s mercies fall on them like rain!

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