Coping with grief after losing a sibling

November marks Worldwide Bereaved Siblings Month
Posted at 11:18 PM, Nov 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-17 00:01:15-05

MICHIGAN — November marks Worldwide Bereaved Siblings Month, and as we head into the holidays, feelings of loss may be even more prominent.

According to Ele's Place, 1 in 12 children in Michigan under the age of 18 will experience the death of someone important in their life, such as a parent or sibling.

"We like to say that grief for a child is a whole-body experience," says Karen Ketterer, program director with Ele's Place West Michigan.

Ele's Place is a healing center for grieving children and teens, and offers peer-to-peer bereavement groups. They have four locations in Michigan, including Grand Rapids.

When it comes to kids and death, Ketterer says many people try to avoid the subject, but adds it's the opposite of what parents and adults should do when it comes to children who have experienced loss.

RELATED: 'It's like a grief purgatory': Anger, lack of closure persists for many who lost family to COVID-19

"A couple things we say: 'Always tell the truth to kids.' So that can be really difficult, depending on the type of death that they've experienced," says Ketterer. "A lot of times, we feel that protective thing towards our kids, we want to protect them from the details, or we want to protect them from the pain. But again, if they're not part of the conversation, then they are left to grieve alone."

Ketterer suggests telling kids what happened in an age-appropriate manner, and to also avoid using euphemisms like "passed away" or "lost."

"To little kids, especially, that doesn't make sense. 'Well, if we lost grandpa, then we need to go find him.' So they're very concrete thinkers," Ketterer tells FOX 17. "So we say use the word death or died, and then give them a short explanation of what that means."

Ketterer also encourages adults to allow kids and teens to ask questions and even give them the opportunity to be involved in the memorial arrangements if possible; these are gestures that can help them avoid channeling grief in unhealthy ways like drinking or drugs, and also from becoming a "forgotten griever."

"When a child experiences the death of a sibling, we often call them the 'forgotten grievers,'" explains Ketterer. "So there's a few reasons: first of all, because people are focused on the parents and making sure that they're okay. [And] the other reason that siblings sometimes get left behind is because the parents are involved in their own grief so deeply, that sometimes they have trouble also supporting their surviving children through grief."

While the loss of a sibling at a young age can be traumatic, the devastation doesn't go away when the deaths happen in adulthood.

RELATED: Districts investing in grief support to help students cope with COVID-19 loss

"There's just... there's no escaping it. You cannot turn it off, and now he's not here," says Korin Primmer about her brother, Kenny. "He's everywhere that I look. I wake up in the morning and my first thought is, 'He's gone.'"

Kenny died from injuries he sustained in a car crash in October 2020. He spent five days on life support before he passed away at the age of 39.

Kenny was one of four siblings, and while his sister, Korin, looks back fondly on the memories shared with him, she continues to struggle with the void he left behind.

"I'm so shocked. I'm just... I'm shocked at the pain. I'm shocked at the actual physical pain that I feel," says Primmer. "The emptiness is the physical. I can feel a physical emptiness in my heart."

As we get ready to head into the holiday season, which is often associated with family and being a joyous time, Psychology Today shares some tips of how to deal with grief during this time, including:

  • Setting boundaries: it's okay to skip out on ceremonies and traditions that may stir up painful memories.
  • Focus on what you can control, like decorations and holiday shopping.
  • Look ahead at events like Thanksgiving and plan on driving yourself or having a friend take you, so you have a way to leave if it gets to be overwhelming.
  • Find a way to honor or memorialize the person you lost through things like photo albums, donating to their favorite charities, or eating their favorite food.
  • Allow yourself to feel a range of emotions.
  • Ask for help when you're struggling.

"We all grieve in different ways. We all get better in different ways. So I think it's important to keep your mind open when it comes to different ways of coping," says Primmer.

"Life is feeling all the feelings, not just being happy," remarked Ketterer.

RELATED: Blossoms of Joy helps a mother through grief journey

Follow FOX 17: Facebook - Twitter - Instagram - YouTube