The death of an infant isn’t just devastating for the parents, it affects the entire family unit. This article addresses the need for an inclusive approach to family bereavement support. It includes information on talking to grieving siblings in age-appropriate, supportive ways and acknowledges the special grief.
WHEN YOUR BABY DIES
The death of a baby is a terrible loss that affects the entire family. Like their parents, siblings need support. Here are some things that you can do to help your children cope, adapt, and heal:
- Talk to Them This might be your children’s first experience with death. When you talk about your baby’s death, be gentle, but honest. Use age-appropriate words that they understand. Explain what is happening and help them to know what to expect. Gently prepare them for what they might see and hear.
- Include Them While some people think that excluding children will protect them from grief, many families have found that it is helpful for children to be included. Let them see, hold or talk to the baby if they want to and if it is appropriate. Find ways for them to take part in meaningful rituals.
- Invite Their Questions All children will have questions that they need answers to. Let them know that it is okay to ask. And be patient if they need you to answer the same questions more than once. They are trying to make sense of what is happening. When they ask difficult questions, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know” and to ask them what they think.
HOW CHILDREN GRIEVE
Everyone grieves differently. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. How your child grieves will depend on their personality, their age, and their developmental needs. If you pay attention, allow them freedom to express what they are feeling, and follow their lead, your children will show you what they need. However, there are some things that are typical for kids to think, feel, and need. These are things that are common to most children at each age:
INFANTS & TODDLERS Even though very young children have no understanding of death, they are still affected by it. They might not know exactly what happened and why, but they do know that things have changed and that people are sad.
- What They Need Although it can be hard, one of the most important things you can do is to follow your child’s normal routine as much as you possibly can. This will help them feel more secure. Give them extra love and affection. Make sure they are with their regular caregivers whenever possible.
- What to Say Although you might talk to them, remember that most of what you communicate to your baby or toddler will be non-verbal.
PRESCHOOLERS Children at this age are beginning to think about death but don’t really understand it. They might think that death is reversible or temporary. Many preschoolers like to pretend and engage in “magical thinking.” Because of this, they may have trouble knowing what is real or not real.
- What They Need It can be hard for preschool-aged children to figure out how to cope with strong emotions. Be kind and patient.
- What to Say Use clear language. Avoid confusing metaphors like saying that the baby has “passed away,” is “lost,” or is “sleeping.” You may want to explain that when someone dies it means that their body stops working and they don’t breathe or eat or feel anything.
SCHOOL AGE CHILDREN (6 TO 7) While kids this age understand that death is final, they don’t necessarily understand why it happens or how. They may wonder if you and the doctors can fix the baby. They might even believe that they could have done something to either cause or prevent their sibling’s death.
- What They Need Kids this age may ask a lot of questions. And, they may ask the same questions over and over again. Remember that they are doing this because it helps them manage their feelings and fears.
- What to Say Answer their questions. Make sure they understand that the baby’s death is not their fault. Reassure them that the adults did everything they could to help the baby and they will be there to help them, too.
OLDER SCHOOL AGE CHILDREN (7 TO 11) At this age it is normal for kids to seek out their friends for reassurance or guidance. Give them permission to share what has happened with the important people in their lives when they are ready.
- What They Need Older children need extra support coping with their grief. You can help them by giving them ways to identify and name their feelings. While it important to give them permission to think and talk about what has happened, it is also important to allow them to have time when they don’t think about the baby’s death.
- What to Say Kids may think they need to be strong, mature and in control. So, it is important to make sure that they understand that their role is different from the adults’ roles. Encourage them to do “normal kid things.”
ADOLESCENTS & TEENS While young adults understand death, their grief will be different because their social and emotional world is different. They may look to friends, school peers, and adult mentors to help understand their emotions and to get feedback and support.
- What They Need Young people want to feel competent but they may still need some guidance. You can help them find support by identifying friends and caring adults for them to talk to.
- What to Say Try to help them understand what has happened and why. Let them know that you can be available to talk to them when they need you.
No one understands what it’s like to suffer the loss of a baby like a parent who has been there.
Hand to Hold trains and matches parents of babies who have died with fellow parents to provide peer-to-peer support to bereaved families. If you have experienced a loss, you may request a Helping Hand Match at any time. Follow this link for more resources.
Erika Goyer is the mother of three boys. Her oldest son Carrick Michael was born at 27 weeks gestation and weighed 1 pound, 14 ounces. Carrick died soon after his birth due to complications of prematurity. Erika went on to have two more high-risk pregnancies and two healthy sons.