What Do I Tell My Surviving Children

Riley Children's Grief Team

Many parents express worry about how to tell their surviving children of their sibling’s death. Please know that you likely do not have all the words and certainly do not have all the answers, and that’s ok. What children need to know is the truth in age and developmentally appropriate language, and that you love them and will be there to support them.

How much information you share will likely be dependent on your child’s age and development. Keep in mind that Dr. Alan Wolfelt shares, “If you are old enough to love, you are old enough to mourn.”

The New York Life Foundation identifies the following four concepts that are important for children to understand about death:

  1. Death is irreversible
  2. All life functions end at the time of death
  3. Everything that is alive eventually dies
  4. There are physical reasons someone dies

You can use these concepts to help guide the information you share with your child. More information about these concepts can be found on this resource from the New York Life Foundation.

Here are some additional suggestions:

  • Children should be informed of their sibling’s death by a close, supportive adult. Ideally, a parent or perhaps a grandparent, godparent or another close family member.
  • If the child was not present at the time of death, they should be told as soon as possible and before anything has been posted online on social media.
  • Be honest and use developmentally and age-appropriate language.
  • Keep it simple. Answer questions with as much information is needed to answer that particular question; you do not need to share every detail.
  • Ensure you have time to answer any questions your child may have and to provide comfort.
  • If possible, share the information in a calm, quiet environment.
  • Avoid statements that minimize the child’s grief such as “Your brother/sister wouldn’t want you to be sad.” or “I know how you feel.
  • End the conversation by sharing how much you love your children and will be there to support them.

Additional Resources: