Here are a few quick tips for reaching out to siblings when their brother or sister becomes terminally ill.
1. Be honest keeping in mind the age of the healthy child seeking the information. For a very young child, simple yet honest answers will do. Older children need more concrete answers as well as an honest approach. . Although some children will ask more than a parent may be ready to explain, keep in mind that the older the child the more experienced they are at gaining outside information. Their peers, the Internet, books, and other well meaning friends will be a source of easy but not always true information. It is important that they can trust that you are giving the facts.
2. Include the siblings when a change in status occurs. Again, remember age appropriate inclusion. It may not be appropriate for young children to visit an intensive care for instance, or to be told of every test being done. Yet older children may need to come visit to see for themselves just what is going on. They will welcome being included when their brother or sister is undergoing something painful or scary. Keep in mind it is also not appropriate for a sibling to hear scary news from outside sources regarding their sibling. It comes better from a parent.
3. Avoid Promises that you may not be able to keep. If you promise a cure and the sibling gets sicker, you have broken a trust and it maybe difficult to regain. Instead, offer hope at a cure for example, but be honest about other possibilities that you cannot control.
4. Keep true to your family values. Include your religious and spiritual practices throughout the illness and treatment. This teaches the other children the importance of your family values. It gives them something to believe in when you are not there. If you pray daily, encourage the siblings at home to pray together even if you are not available.
5. Plan special time alone with each of the other healthy children. Sometimes it's almost impossible to carve out time for the children at home when you have one ill in the hospital. Fifteen minutes in the hospital cafeteria may be the extent of the time you can find, but I encourage you to make the effort. The healthy children at home need to feel that they are thought of, missed and loved. And I know from experience, you as the parent of a sick child, need a break. A simple good morning or bedtime phone call adds to the feeling of belonging and being important. These short visits and conversations keep you all connected and refreshed.
These,by far, are not the only things you can do to help your children deal with the terminal illness of their sibling. I will address other activities you can explore at a later time. You can also reach out to your pastor, the hospital chaplain, or the hospital social worker for more resources. Remember, whatever you are dealing with, your children at home are also dealing with. Stay connected.