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Dealing with the loss of a child



Mathilde De Robien - published on 04/29/21

A deceased child can play a special role in the family, one that only they are capable of holding.

When a child dies, the parents’ intense sorrow and mourning can lead them to idealize their lost child. This is a very understandable response — it demonstrates how much the missing child is present in the parents’ hearts. But in some cases, this can lead to the parents making unfounded comparisons in which the idealized lost child is “better” than their surviving children and can show up in comments like “Your sister would never have done that” or “Your brother would surely have succeeded.”

There can be many hurtful phrases, impossible to verify, putting a brother or sister who died too soon on a pedestal. If this kind of talk becomes frequent, it can cause the siblings deep suffering.

Some families freely evoke the name, life, and memory of a missing child, while others keep silent, out of modesty or sadness. These reactions are very personal and specific to each family, but it’s important to avoid excesses. 

Sometimes, “either the illness or death is talked about non-stop, and the brothers and sisters are buried under a flood of words, so to speak, or it’s not talked about at all,” notes Nago Humbert, a specialist in medical psychology and founder of a hospital palliative care consultation unit in Montreal, quoted in Muriel Scibilia’s book, Sortir de l’ombre, les frères et sœurs d’enfants gravement malades. He says,

Both attitudes are equally pathological. They hurt those who remain. There is no question of erasing the child who has died, because they existed and exist in the life of each family member. Nor should we give them more importance than they had before they became ill or when they were still alive.

How, then, can we avoid excesses that could harm the development of our living children? How can we preserve and cherish an accurate memory of the absent loved one?

The trap of idealization

The temptation is great for parents to idealize the child they’ve lost, to compare them to their other children, to project what kind of life he or she would have had if he or she had lived. Yet this response has consequences for the development of the siblings of the lost child.

When the idealization is too present, too pressing, “it becomes impossible for the brothers and sisters to rise to the level of such an ideal,” warns Nago Humbert. The risk is that they come to suffer from an absurd but nonetheless immense feeling of guilt. They feel guilty for not measuring up, guilty for not fulfilling their parents’ expectations, and even guilty for living when “the best,” “the brightest,” “the nicest,” has died.

As a result, the surviving children may experience low self-esteem, and feel a desire—necessarily doomed to failure—for perfection to match an ideal sibling. “It’s up to us to make the brothers and sisters feel less guilty, to put as much normality as possible in an abnormal situation, not to neglect the positive contributions of the deceased and to avoid making projections about what he or she could have become,” emphasizes Humbert.

Don’t make the deceased a taboo subject, but don’t make them an oppressive presence either.

“A very loving protector”

Strengthened by the hope of the afterlife, some Christian families with a child in heaven see him or her as a loving protector of their home. They invite the siblings to pray regularly to ask their sibling to intercede for them before the Lord.

For example, when Charles de Foucauld’s sister, Mimi, lost her seventh child after only a few hours of life, the blessed hermit wrote to her from Nazareth,

Your other children will be able to count, as you do, on a very loving protector. Have a saint in your family—what a strength!

It’s a beautiful way to give a special role in the family to a deceased child, one that only they are capable of holding.

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