Sibling Responses to Childhood Cancer
Siblings are often forgotten victims, unintended casualties of the war against childhood cancer.
Parents are consumed completely with the welfare of their child with cancer, and have little energy to share with their other children.
Even very young brothers and sisters can experience intense emotion: anger, worry, sadness, fear, jealousy, guilt and love.
Their responses are cultivated by feelings of being abandoned.
Often left with relatives or neighbours at a moment’s notice, brothers and sisters can feel they have no one to confide in or turn to for help.
Family life is often manipulated beyond all recognition by cancer, causing brothers and sisters to feel very angry. Anger may arise from being left with relatives or neighbours, or feeling that house rules suddenly don’t apply to the child who is sick, while they are expected to do more to help.
Children worry about what is happening to the family life they are use to. They worry about whispered conversations they aren’t supposed to hear, about what happens to their sibling in hospital (especially when treatment causes side effects), and whether their brother or sister will ever get better.
Siblings grieve for the life they have known and lost: going out, spending time together, energetic play with their brother or sister who is now sick. Young children especially find it difficult to project into a future beyond treatment, when family life can begin to recover.
Cancer destroys a child’s innocence. They feel exposed by the realization that bad things can happen to their family. Young siblings especially believe they or their parents will become sick too. They may become fearful of the world around them, like the dark, animals or loud noises.
Siblings are often intensely jealous of the gifts, treats and constant focus on the sick brother or sister. They may complain of headache or tummy ache, or “act out” in attempts to gain attention.
In their egocentric view of life, young children often imagine they somehow caused their sibling to be sick. They also feel guilty about their (natural) anger, or for coveting the gifts and attention lavished on the sick child. Some children feel guilty that they did not become sick instead.
Cancer causes potent feelings of love. Despite their squall of emotions, siblings feel deep devotion to their parents and sick brother or sister.
Siblings feel powerless to help as they watch their much loved brother or sister receive injections, lose an eye and/or hair, feel sick and tired. These feelings of love and helplessness are greatly increased If they are old enough to understand that cancer can kill.
Siblings see how much their parents are struggling and feel an intense need to protect them from further heartache. This often means they do not share their own feelings. However, this only increases the destructive power these different emotions hold over the child.