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Helping children cope when a sibling is ill

Photo: Kathryn Daniel

Dominic and Vincent are fraternal twins, co-conspirators and confidants.

“They were never apart. They always wanted to do everything together."

Their mom, Jennifer la Rocca, said that sweet constancy stopped last September when Dom was diagnosed with leukemia. His first night in the hospital was traumatic.

“Vinnie didn't want to leave. He bawled his eyes out."

The pair had just started kindergarten.

“When he had to stop going to school, he was upset about it because he wanted to go to school with his brother."

Jennifer said she and her husband saw the toll the sudden separation had on the twins.

Treatments and side effects caused chaos for the routine oriented family. They made a huge effort to stay on schedule.

“We wanted to keep things as normal as possible."

That meant daily visits, a lot of just "hanging out", even some hospital sleepovers. Their teacher also helped tremendously.

“She would put the laptop on Dominic’s desk for Vinnie, so they could do school work together."

Erin Contreras is a child life specialist at Sacred Heart Hospital. She helps patients understand their illness and upcoming medical procedures.

Contreras said the siblings of a chronically ill patient are often afraid.

“They have questions too about, 'is it something that can happen to me?'"

Long-term stays can bring on envy.

“There’s sometimes jealousy of well, ‘I wish I had that because mom and dad spend all of their time with you.’"

Which turns to guilt.

“Is it something because I got mad at him and said I don't like you any more, or I don't want you to be my brother anymore, is it something I caused?"

Contreras said families should answer such complicated questions honestly.

“We talk a lot about that with parents and including them, this is the reality of the life we're living right now."

Siblings are included in every special event held on the third floor from parties to superhero visits.

It's been a year and Dom is doing well. They’re back in school, together.

Jennifer said their relationship has changed, for good and bad. Vin has become more independent, with a cost.

“He lost a lot of that connectivity with Dom."

Jennifer see signs of it returning. In the meantime, the family savors their renewed time together.