When I Lost a Daughter, My Children Lost a Sister

Helping kids heal after sibling loss.
When my seven-year-old adopted daughter, Ruth, died without warning in her sleep from complications related to cerebral palsy, I was devastated. Not only had I lost my smart, funny, beloved daughter, my surviving children had lost their sister. Their grief compounded my own, and I worried about how Ruth’s death would affect them long-term—particularly as Ruth had died in bed with her same-age sister.
A recent article in The New York Times highlighted the enduring effects of childhood sibling loss. In the article, Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University of Medicine, discussed how families that lose a child often struggle with social deprivation and poor health. Even a decade after losing a child, parents (especially mothers) face an increased mortality rate. But such loss may be hardest on children, Carroll said, with preteens exhibiting higher levels of depression and anxiety and adolescents being more likely to show attention problems and anger.
Unthinkable as it may be, between 5 and 8 percent of American kids will experience the death of a brother or sister during their childhood. In addition to the emotional and psychological impact, sibling loss actually raises a surviving sibling’s risk of early mortality. A study by JAMA Pediatrics, which focused on children in Denmark and Sweden, found that those who’d experienced the death of a sibling before age 18 were more than 70 percent more likely to die during the course of the nearly four decade study than those who had not lost a sibling. (The elevated risk was highest in the first year following a sibling’s death, in part due to genetics as many children died of the same disease as a sibling.)
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