‘When I Was A Child My Sister Died, But Nobody Spoke To Me About It’

For Grief Awareness Week, one writer shares her own story of why talking about sadness is crucial, even with young children

Helen Russell

by Helen Russell |
Updated on

Just before I turned three, something happened in my family that would change our lives forever. My sister died of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), my dad left soon after, and neither of these things were spoken of. For a long time.

Many of us may have been raised with the assumption that ‘what we don’t talk about can’t hurt us’, and for generations, not talking about being sad, sweeping things under the carpet and soldiering on, was seen as a sign of strength. But really, the opposite is true. And learning how to talk about sadness – even with our children – is something we need right now, more than ever.

These days, I’m convinced that we’re all better off if we’re able to acknowledge the full spectrum of our emotions. I’ve spent the last few years researching into sadness and how to handle it - because if we don’t, the consequences can be dire. ‘Those who didn’t feel supported or able to talk about a bereavement in childhood, often feel very lonely and confused,’ says Jenny Poirier from the Lullaby Trust, the charity that raises awareness of SIDS, provides expert advice on safer sleep for babies and offers emotional support for bereaved families.

‘If we don’t accept and process sadness, it can manifest physically,’ adds the child and adolescent psychotherapist Jane Elfer. She explains that pain or illness may be the only way a child can express their feelings. ‘They will have unexplained tummy aches or headaches, for example – and then of course there’s the psychological impact.’ Studies show that bottling things up when we’re feeling sad leads to poorer mental and physical health, both in the moment and longer term.

Unresolved grief is said to cause 15 per cent of all psychological disorders, according to the psychotherapist and grief expert Julia Samuel, in her book Grief Works. When a sibling is bereaved in childhood, there can be a niggling sense that the grief is somehow ‘less legitimate’ – lower in the ‘hierarchy’ than others who may feel the loss more keenly. But death impacts everyone in a family. Samuel notes that bereaved children are more susceptible to addiction and mental health problems in later life if they haven’t properly dealt with their emotions. Which all sounds very familiar.

After decades daubing a bingo card of unhelpful coping strategies, I was lucky and got some (good) therapy. I finally became a mother myself, to a flame-haired boy and white-blonde twins. Seeing them grow, walk, run and absorb the world around them like a sponge (Bob Square Pants), I felt strangely maternal towards my younger self. Aware of what impact my sister’s death had on my childhood.

My first ever memory is the day she died, sitting with my back to the bedroom door, having been told to ‘stay put’, eating digestive biscuits. I listened to doorbells, heard feet on stairs, unfamiliar voices, then crying. No one talked about what happened, so I had to figure it out for myself. And what I figured out is this: when my sister was around, everyone was happy. Now it was just me, and they weren’t. They must, I concluded, have liked her more. It would probably have been better had I gone instead.

‘Children often blame themselves,’ Elfer says. ‘If we don’t tell children the truth about death, they make it up - inventing their own version of what’s happened; their own reality or faulty ideas. So from a really young age, we need clear, concrete and specific communication to avoid misunderstandings.’ Poirier from the Lullaby Trust adds: ‘we communicate with children about how we are feeling, even when we don’t intend to, by our body language and moods and behaviour. So it’s important for children to be told as soon as possible after a loss, ideally by someone they’re close to.’

And we should steer clear of euphemisms, which lead to confusion. ‘”Gone to sleep” can make children worry that they too may not wake up,’ says Poirier. They may be afraid to sleep, resulting in anxieties at bedtime. ‘“We’ve lost them’ can leave a child searching in the hope of finding them again, like looking for a lost toy - or to fear that they too may become ‘lost’,’ she says. ‘And “the doctor has taken him/her away” can leave children anxious about visiting the doctor or fearful of abandonment.’

Instead, we need to be clear, using simple language and real words like ‘death’ or ‘died’ – even when it’s heart breaking. ‘Explain that being dead means that the body has stopped working – that the heart is not beating,’ advises Poirier. ‘Very young children aren’t going to be aware of the permanence of death so you may have to go over what has happened again and again,’ she says. That’s the thing about having difficult conversations: we tend to need to have them more than once. ‘We also need to model a healthy expression of emotion,’ she says: ‘so crying when we need to as adults can show children that it’s normal.’

The idea of getting up each morning to carry on after bereavement may seem insurmountable. But routine can help adults and children alike. ‘We usually recommend staying as close as possible to the normal routine for children,’ says Poirier. ‘If this feels too hard, perhaps a friend or family member can help.’ There will be people who want to help, so let them. As well as the Lullaby Trust, Tommy’s and Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity have helpful resources for bereavement. And having spent the last few years speaking to parents who have experienced stillbirth, lost children in infancy and been near broken by recurrent miscarriage, I’ve been endlessly moved by the sheer scale of the kindness and humanity out there.

My grieving parents each did the best they could with the emotional toolkit available to them. They didn’t get the support they needed and our family shrunk from four to two, in the space of three months, in silence. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We know more now about the impact of death on the whole family and how talking about sadness is crucial, even with young children. As one friend put it after a loss: the first rule about ‘sad club’ is ‘you have to talk about sad club’. So talk. And break the silence.

Helen Russell is the author of How to Be Sad, out now in hardback and out in paperback 20th January 2022**

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