Life without Gigi Bryant: How losing a sibling can affect the other children

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It’s been nearly one month since the tragic helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and eight others, but Vanessa Bryant and her three daughters are still reeling from the loss.

During a public memorial service Monday, Vanessa gave a touching speech about her daughter, known as “Gigi” by close friends and family.

“Gianna Bryant is an amazingly sweet and gentle soul. She was always thoughtful,” she said.

“She was Daddy’s girl but I know she loved her Mama…she was one of my very best friends.”

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Vanessa Bryant discussed how Gigi loved to bake, along with her passion for basketball. Both Kobe and Gianna were enthusiastic about teaching others new skills, especially when it came to athletics, said Bryant.

“We loved each other so much, I miss her so much,” continued Bryant. “I miss her cleverness, her sarcasm, her wit … Gigi was sunshine, she brightened up my day everyday.

“I miss looking at her beautiful face. I knew I could always count on her to do the right thing,” she said.

Gigi leaves behind her sisters Natalia, Bianka and Capri, who are 17, three years and seven months old, respectively. For the remaining Bryant sisters, said registered social worker Laura Bloom, Gigi’s death will likely have “lasting effects.”

“The loss of a sibling is very traumatic,” Bloom said. “Left unaddressed, it can lead to long-term mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression .”

The death of a brother or sister can be uniquely painful, often leading to a form of “disenfranchised grief” where the pain felt by the remaining children “gets lost or isn’t as recognized” as that of the parents, said Bloom.

It can also create problems because children are naturally prone to seeking acceptance from their parents. This means they may be “at risk of dismissing their own feelings of grief in order to remain helpful and connected with their parents,” Bloom said.

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“They may act in ways they feel will help ease their parents pain, while suppressing their own. These coping strategies may temporarily help them through this time of grief, but in adulthood, become unhelpful … and even harmful.”

The emotional toll

Surviving siblings frequently continue to fear the loss of others throughout their life, said registered psychotherapist Joshua Peters.

“Commonly, this leads individuals to avoid taking risks or they may struggle to cope when faced with change,” he said.

“… Early exposure to this type of trauma, when not resolved, is an indicator of later mental health disorders and suicidality.”

It can also be difficult for surviving siblings to learn a new role within their family dynamic.

“The death of a child means a radical change in family roles for parents, children, and other members of the extended family. It can sometimes be a struggle to restructure these roles and this oftentimes causes distress and instability within the family unit,” he said.

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“This instability can persist into adulthood where people may continue to struggle to define the role they play within the family. Conflict can occur between family members who are competing for the same roles or responsibilities.”

An experience of loss can be worsened when the loss is ambiguous — much as it was with the death of Kobe and Gigi Bryant.

“Unfortunately, we may never find out why this tragedy occurred or the exact cause,” said Peters.

“This ambiguity often means that individuals are unable to experience closure and as a result the grieving process in longer and more painful.”

Behaviour can say it all

Depending on a child’s age, they may not have the vocabulary to express their emotion, and will, therefore, act out how they are feeling.

Donna Kutzner, a certified educational therapist in Edmonton, said if kids are having a hard time talking about their feelings, asking them to draw out emotions might help.

“If is stuck in there, the healing doesn’t happen,” she said.

If a kid is reluctant to talk, said Fardous Hosseiny, parents should pay attention to changes in their behaviour. He’s the former national director of research and public policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Common emotional reactions include fighting, denial, mood swings, self-blame, fear of being alone, and regression to early childhood behaviours, he previously told Global News.

Hosseiny also said to watch for physical complaints, like stomachaches or headaches, which kids commonly cite when they are experiencing emotional upset. These behaviours can be part of the normal grieving process, but pay attention if they do not subside or get worse.

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“It’s common for emotions to be expressed and repeated over time,” he said.

“You’ll see it in little spurts here and there, but if a child completely shuts down, then that’s when it would be wise to get professional help.”

How parents can support children

“A lot of adults feel unequipped or ill-prepared to support children,” Hosseiny said. “This is especially true when the person who is dying or has died is close to the child or family.”

So how do you talk to a child about losing a parent, a grandparent or even a friend? It is important to start with honesty, Hosseiny says.

“Usually a parent’s first instinct is to protect the child or youth from the grief by withholding information,” Hosseiny said.

“We think if we hide this information from them or don’t tell them anything that we’re actually protecting them, but it’s quite the opposite.”

Hosseiny said that by telling children the truth and not shielding them from the reality of loss, it helps them understand and process their difficult emotions. Honesty allows them to understand what is going on around them, and try to make sense of it.

“The truth gives an explanation for your own tears and pain, so being open and emotional can help your child mourn,” Hosseiny said. “If you hide information, it can cause kids to feel mistrust, and then they’ll be reluctant to turn to you for support in the future.”

Adults may feel inclined to use words and phrases to describe death that are less direct, like “passed away” or “crossed over.” While these phrases are well-meaning, Hosseiny said these terms are not helpful for children.

“Research shows that using realistic words to describe death helps the grieving process,” he said.

“Make sure not to use any euphemisms, because that can lead to a lot of confusion, like, ‘She’s in a better place,’ kids might think she went somewhere great, or, ‘She left us,’ kids could think someone left them to get away.”

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Many adults want to put on a brave face for children who are experiencing loss, but it is important for them to show that they’re experiencing emotion, too.

Hosseiny said adults should be prepared to talk about their own thoughts and feelings when they ask kids about how they’re holding up.

“Understand that the way your child is processing may be different than the way you’re processing, so let them express their feelings,” he said.

“Let them walk you through it, and then express your own emotions. If you need to cry, cry together.

“It’s healthy to be healing.”

— With files from Global News reporters Olivia Bowden & Laura Hensley

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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