Category Archives: Grief

Too Young for Powerless—Cancer Through the Eyes of the Siblings

Comfort to sibs pix

“Scary”, “hard”, and “difficult” are words that youngsters frequently use to describe the feelings they have about cancer treatment of a sibling.  Watching a sibling lose weight, lose his hair, be hospitalized, etc. engenders fears of death that children left to their own devices are ill equipped to work through.  Siblings also often feel guilt, powerless, loneliness, anxiety, depression, anger, and jealousy.  Unable to understand what “cancer” even means—they know their sibling is sick, but they may not be able to understand why their brother or sister is getting so much extra attention, gifts, and invited to special events focused on them meanwhile their own feelings may be unintentionally discounted.

If these feelings are left unattended the sibling without cancer may end up with issues of their own.  They may stumble in their academic achievement or suddenly show misbehaviors.  Some siblings after the death of a sister or brother may suddenly also get “sick” often and need to stay home close to Mom or Dad—perhaps unconsciously wanting to be cared for and safe.  Siblings may also have trouble at school or in social settings when adults or other children express kind sympathies (adults) or awkward questions (children) that the sibling has no idea how to respond appropriately.

Sephora siblings week

During cancer treatment, or in a time of bereavement, a sibling may become super responsible and take on the role of caring for their distressed and often overwhelmed parent—a role that may be dearly appreciated during a crisis but shouldn’t be left in place for a long time afterward—as children need to be parented versus having this role reversed.

Mom and cancer kidChildren also want to believe that their parents are powerful versus powerless in the face of challenges and they may suddenly move into crisis finding their parents cannot prevent the suffering or death of their sibling.  These feelings of fear that a parent isn’t as strong as the child hoped may lead to inexplicable outbursts of anger or blame—words that a bereaved parent may not be equipped to hear in their time of grief.

Childhood cancer, treatment, and sometimes the death of a sister or brother, are extremely challenging events for a sibling to face.  When cancer strikes a child, a lot of things happen and fail to happen for the siblings at home—despite the best wishes of their parents who want all their children to thrive.

As parents support their sick child and literally engage in a life and death medical battle to save the child with cancer they may unintentionally overlook the emotional and even physical needs of their other children.  Healthy children may witness the physical and emotional pain of their loved one as well as the distress of their parents—often all without a good support system around them.

Good and loving parents may be too overwhelmed to explain things properly and children who are too young to understand concepts like “cancer” and “death” may find themselves floundering in a sea of anxiety for which there are not adequate supports in or outside of the family.  If the cancerous child is hospitalized out of town, parents may literally not be present to help the siblings work through their own adjustments to this very difficult challenge.

Children with cancer clearly suffer and may even die, but the overlooked siblings also suffer—from anxiety and sometimes even posttraumatic stress—with these issues displaying as nervousness, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and avoidance which all need to be addressed—lovingly in the family or also with professional help depending on the need.

While the challenges of cancer, death, and bereavement, if the battle is lost are substantial, parents should recognize that their other children are also going to be deeply affected.  They can take steps to mitigate their other children’s suffering by turning to other family members, teachers, clergy, and even professionals to ask them to offer much needed support.  Siblings will need opportunities to sensitively talk with their parents and perhaps even with a grief counselor about what death means, if the cancerous child is likely to die, what the suffering is about and how to deal with a grieving and overwhelmed parents.  While it isn’t easy they will ultimately need to find healthy ways to grow through and beyond this difficult time in their lives.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School. This is the second in a series of blogs for Donna Speckhard’s initiative My Truth in 365 – A Virtual Journal Project on Pediatric Cancer.  Check out her site at and please donate to the cause….!Finding-Courage-Healing-in-Story-Telling/cke9/B75436BB-E716-4D13-BF7A-447C9F84E58B

Finding Courage & Healing in Storytelling

Journaling picture

The human mind likes to categorize events. When we have new experiences our brain searches for matches in order to help us formulate the proper response. Particularly when we have previously encountered danger the brain gives these events high priority and quickly activates if there is a match—to warn us to take caution if there might again be danger—to fight, flee or hide if necessary.

Our mind’s system of pattern matching also helps us to make sense of new experiences—placing the memory of new ones alongside others like it.

But what about if we encounter something completely new—a threat we never expected could strike us?

What if it’s childhood cancer and we have neither a match for that in our past experiences nor any expectation of cancer striking one of our young and beloved family members?  What then?

The mind, when confronted with any serious threat to life or limb, or witnessing of such a threat to others, goes immediately into high alert and tries to find a way to categorize it. But if there is no pattern match and the emotions are horrifying enough we either: freeze in numb dissociation, flee in attempts to get away from the bad news and events, or we put up a fight.

This project is about journaling via film and it’s an opportunity to address all three of these responses and help us to shift out of the ones that are no longer working for us.

Fighters will tell about how they are putting up the good fight and give courage to others who are also in the battle. But when the fight becomes overwhelming and loss looms too near they may also need to move through the painful stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and ultimately acceptance.

When death occurs there are again the painful stages of grieving and accepting loss.  Parents and siblings need to talk through how hard it is to face letting go of dear attachments and while still honoring and remembering, finding a path to slowing filling up the gapping hole that is left behind.

Life constantly requires us to let go but this is so hard when it’s letting go of one’s own child. Telling our stories can help to share the burden, to put words to this overwhelming grief and to find ways to rebuild when one just wants to withdraw and give up.

Those who have taken flight or who are numbly frozen in place—having fallen into depression, grief, avoidance, alienation or a numb dissociative state can find their way back into relationship by talking through their experiences and listening to others. By doing so they learn that they are not alone, that others understand, and that they can draw courage in community. They will find words for what they’ve been feeling and in doing so work through the confusion of being emotionally overwhelmed by a threat and potential or actual loss that seems too large to bear.

Traumatic news and traumatic bereavement often causes us to feel like we are experiencing life in little snippets of horrifying news and experiences. Narrating the journey can help us pull those snippets together into a coherent story that we can then search for answers to make sense of it, share with others, mull over and eventually come to peace with—no matter the outcome.

By telling our stories we will find our way through this experience, place it in the context of the human community and hopefully make friends, encourage each other and honor the ones who are in the battle and those who have moved beyond it.

Recently, a young person in the Washington, D.C. area succumbed to a type of childhood cancer. In the wake and aftermath of that person’s death the school’s counselor expressed concern that that there weren’t more parents of classmates seeking grief counseling for their children who were also deeply affected. Perhaps the parents felt a stigma, were overwhelmed with other priorities, or simply didn’t see the need.  But the truth is—when cancer strikes, whether a death occurs or not—it impacts more than just the family. It also causes a ripple effect of concern, confusion, sadness, and even horror through the ranks of classmates—close friends and acquaintances alike—who may be too young to make sense of this difficult experience.

Life continually challenges us. Journaling is one approach and outlet to advance healing within families and classmates as well. Telling our stories and finding community and coherence by doing helps us to stay centered and heal from the things that are so silently piercing our hearts.

Pick up your journals and i-pads and join us on a healing journey!

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School. This is first in a series of blogsfor Donna Speckhard’s My Truth in 365 – A Virtual Journal Project on Pediatric Cancer!Finding-Courage-Healing-in-Story-Telling/cke9/B75436BB-E716-4D13-BF7A-447C9F84E58B