You have just been told your baby has died or will die. You can’t believe it; you are devastated, confused and unsure how you will cope. To add to all of this, if you have other children you now have to break that news to them as well. Our primary instinct as parents is to want to protect our children from any hurt and spare them any pain, but children should be told as soon as possible that their sibling has died. They should also be told as honestly and as clearly as possible, and although it may hurt you to use the word dead it is less confusing for the child.
Children are very good at picking up on something not being right, they may not know what it is, but they know that things are different. They can also sense when something is being kept from them so don’t hide anything important from them.
Be careful also with the words you use, as children can be quite literal, so saying something like “the angels came and took your brother/sister,” may make them afraid that the angels will come and take you, them or someone else close to them as well.
Very young children will often seem to completely accept what you say, and appear unworried about what has happened even to the point of continuing on with their play. They will however come back to you at different times and ask further questions. They can only accept what they can deal with at that particular time and may continue to ask questions many months later.
When children ask questions, try to answer them as honestly as possible. It may be exhausting for you, but they will want to know and understand. If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell them honestly. Even if they ask again and again, it is better that you are truthful with them rather than give them an answer just to stop them asking.
Remember as well, that children may be feeling guilty and may feel that they caused their brother/sister’s death. They may have been jealous of a new baby coming into the family, and all the preparation that goes into a baby’s arrival. They may have wondered how you could share your love and time and wished that the baby would go away. These feelings may be very hard for them to accept, they may feel slightly glad that the baby is gone, yet upset that they won’t have someone to play with, fearful that they may have caused the baby’s death, and when they see you upset they may even wonder if you would be that upset if they had died. These are all very difficult issues for grieving families to have to deal with and sometimes the child may wish to talk to someone else about these feelings, for instance an aunt or uncle, grandparent, or maybe older cousin or teacher. They are not pushing you out they just don’t want to hurt you anymore.
The easiest way of dealing with other children is to keep them involved. They will be worried about their mum, if she is still in hospital, so they should be brought in to see her. Also this is the only chance that they will have to spend time with their sibling, so maybe they could come and see the baby and even hold him/her. If you worried about their reaction, show them a picture of the baby first to gauge their response. Take photographs of them together and of the family as a whole. Some parents buy identical teddy bears, one to be buried with the baby and the other for the older sibling. Maybe your child would like to draw a picture that s/he could give to the baby as well. Also get the child involved in the funeral, even if it is buying flowers to lay on the grave, blowing bubbles or releasing a balloon. The child will feel that s/he is an important enough member of the family to be given a job on this special day.
If your child is in school or nursery, it is important that their teacher is informed as to what has happened. Some teachers will talk to others in the class about what has happened and can help your child settle back into school. Your child may also display some behavioural issues in school and it is important that the teacher is as fully informed as possible.
Try not to use your child as a crutch. Often your child is the only reason you get up in the morning, but sometimes they may feel that they are becoming the adult and taking care of you, which may increase their anxiety.
It is also important that you show and explain your emotions to your child “Mammy is crying because she misses your baby brother” is much more preferable to covering up your upset. It lets your child know that it is ok to cry and be upset and even angry, that sometimes things happen which make you sad and that that this is all part of life. It is likely to help your child to be more open about his/her feelings too.
Sometimes it is easiest to talk to your children about their feelings when doing something that they enjoy ie drawing, role playing, or playing with dolls. This is also a good way of getting their feelings out in the open; you might find that children choose this way themselves of dealing with and talking about their grief.
Children’s reaction to grief may include the following:
- Regression: acting like a child younger than their years for example thumb sucking, wetting the bed, looking for comforts that they had grown out of.
- Temper tantrums: angry outburst, exaggerated emotional response
- Anxiety: heightened fears about death, being apart from their parents
- Sleep disturbances: nightmares, fear of the dark, not wanting to go to sleep alone
- Clingy behavior: separation anxiety.
- Overly good behavior: afraid they will upset Mammy or Daddy
- Physical upsets: tummy pains, headache
- Not wanting to go to school: or not wanting you to go to work
All these may be more common depending on the age of the child. The following explains how children of different ages grieve and how you can help them.
How toddlers and younger children express grief:
- Thumb sucking
- Clinging to adults
- Exaggerated fears
- Excessive crying
- Temper tantrums
Helping the grieving younger child
- Allow them to talk about their loss, and answer their questions as honestly as you can.
- Keep to their routines as much as as possible.
- Be patient with their play and help them in their play. It can be a great opportunity for talking.
- Be patient with regressive behaviors such as thumb sucking
Older Children may express their grief in the following ways:
- Problems at school and with learning
- Lack of concentration
- Sleep problems (nightmares, fear of the dark)
- Aggressive behavior and anger
- Physical symptoms (stomach problems, headaches etc)
- Mood swings
Helping the Grieving Older child
- Explain everything to children. Something significant has happened in their life and they are no longer so sure of themselves.
- Again keep to their routines as much as possible. Children feel safe when their routine remains the same.
- It is easy to let children get away with naughty behavior when you and they are grieving but try to encourage them to let you know how they are feeling so that you can work through it together.
- Get them to express themselves creatively, through play, music, drawing and games.