By Mariel Emrich, Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School
In the United States, in 2007, approximately 10,000 children under the age 15 were diagnosed with cancer and 1,545 died from the disease. Cynthia A. Gerhardt, principal investigator in the Center for Biobehavioral Health at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital conducted a study with colleagues by interviewing 40 families that had lost a child due to cancer. The study, which was published online November 3, 2011 in Cancer Nursing, was designed to follow the way in which siblings and their parents grieved over the death of their family member. The siblings were asked to describe how they had changed since the death. The parents were then asked their opinion on how their son/daughter had changed mentally and physically.
Limited research has been done showing the differences between a child's and a parent's view on how a child reacts to a sibling's death. Additionally, this study was done within a year of the death, whereas most comparable studies have been done many years after.
Most parents answered that their surviving child had experienced changes in relationships and other personal changes in the time since their sibling died. However, the majority of participants in this study noticed that their child had either changed positively or negatively -- but not both. The most common change was greater maturity. Interestingly, the children answered differently than their parents. They said that after their sibling died, they were more compassionate and their life priorities had changed.
The study also showed that surviving siblings appeared to become more motivated after their loss, either because it made them realize that every second of their life is meaningful, or because they wanted to act in memory of their sibling.
Dr. Gerhardt has suggested that parents should have direct communication with their children. As this study showed, each child grieves differently and the views of the parent and the child about how the child is responding to the loss differ.
The study showed that most children confronting the loss of a sibling tend to feel guilty about things they have done in the past. Some children also feel guilty that they survived over their sibling. The researchers recommend that children that have lost a sibling should cope with it by talking to family members, seeking other means of support, forgiving themselves, and finding ways to remember the sibling.
Additionally, since parents are grieving the lost of their child, the survey shows that they sometimes forget how hard of a time their other child is having. The researchers suggest that the best way for the parents to help is to focus their attention on their surviving child because children need extra support in a difficult time like this.
Researchers want to make parents understand that it is natural for positive as well as negative effects to arise from the grieving process. In order to make the best of a terrible situation, families may recognize that some positive changes can occur when a child experiences the loss of a sibling.
Mariel is currently a sophomore at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York City. She loves learning about science and particularly enjoys genetics, cancer research, radiology and forensics.