The death of a baby brother or sister can have a profound effect on other children in the family. The best way to support your children is to be as honest as possible with them and to provide reassurance that they are safe and loved.
"When we were told our baby had died, my first thought was 'How will we tell the kids?" Donna
"I was totally unprepared for the amount of grief my children showed they were really, really upset." James
"I held my little brother and went to his funeral. It was really sad. I wanted a brother to play with." Nathan aged 6 years
"I wrote a poem for my sister and put it in her coffin. She looked cute." Sarah, aged 11 years
Parenting your living children
Just as it is important that you are able to grieve in an open, healthy way, your living children need to be able to do the same. Sometimes though, you may feel unable to look after yourself, let alone your surviving child or children.
You may feel guilty if your child is comforting you, and worry about them even more than usual. You may be extremely anxious and worried about their safety, and over-react to minor illnesses or incidents. You may feel distant from them and angry that they are alive while your baby is dead. You may find no comfort from them being around, or they may give you huge comfort.
These confusing and conflicting emotions may make you feel like you are not being a good parent. Be assured that you won't always feel this way - it's simply part of your own journey of grief.
Remember to look after and get support for yourself so that you can help your children. Try to maintain as much routine as possible so your children feel safe and contact your child's carers or teachers so that your child is well supported when away from home.
Your children's peers will need to be told about their friend's situation. Use the same explanations as your child received. Ask a friend or relative to help you with this if needed.
Your children can be involved in the funeral or memorial service and any other activity surrounding the death of their brother or sister as much as they are able and as much as you are able to allow them. Children can, with appropriate support and love, cope with seeing and holding their dead sibling. They can be involved in creating memories and can participate in the funeral or memorial service. Their family now includes their brother or sister who is no longer living.
You may be feeling overprotective of your child, but in the end you cannot protect your child from this grief. You can only offer them love and understanding, and ways to help them express their grief.
Understanding your child's grief
Have all your children together when breaking bad news. Some children may express their grief openly, or not seem concerned at all. They, like you, will be experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions and older children may try to hide their own feelings in order to protect you.
Death is when the body stops working
The way your child understands the death of their sibling will change over time. It is likely they will ask questions about death, which you will need to answer as honestly as possible. If you use words like 'soul' or 'spirit' you will need to explain them. Any words they may not have heard before, such as funeral, grave, and coffin, will also need to be explained. Talk to them about feelings and about sadness.
In the weeks, months and years to come, they are likely to ask more questions about their sibling's death, so be prepared to listen and repeat your conversations if that is what they ask of you. Try to explain why their brother or sister died and reassure them that it was not as a result of anything they did.
Our baby died because they were very sick, or for reasons we don't understand yet.
Don't tell them half-truths, or that their brother or sister 'went to sleep' or 'was taken by Jesus', as these can lead to further fears and distress. Just as you talk to them about what has already happened, be sure to tell them what will happen next. This way you can both prepare for new situations.
Children need to know that the people around them are going to be sad and may cry. Otherwise they may be confused and feel they are responsible for the sadness. You can also talk about the other feelings they may have such as anger, guilt and fear.
Take time to listen to your living children and validate their beliefs and opinions. Guide them to try some different ways they can express their feelings (drawing, making a scrapbook or writing poetry) and try to involve your child in the creative ways you honour your baby's memory (keeping a special journal or making a special memory box for example).
Your living children may also start "acting out" or behaving out of character as they try to make sense of what has happened and try to get your attention. Do what you can to let them know they are loved and understood.
Consider the age of your child
Children have a different understanding of death at each developmental stage. It may help to use different language and explanations, depending on the different ages of your children.
Pre-school aged children
Very young children may experience the following:
- They will sense that things are different in the family.
- They may react to the emotions of their parents and siblings and have a sincere (and possibly confronting) curiosity about death.
- They may become fussy eaters and have sleep difficulties.
- They may be more irritable and clingy and their behaviour may regress.
- They may not understand death, but they will understand sadness.
- They may not stay sad for long, and can sometimes appear unaffected by the death of their sibling.
- They have to ask many times when their brother or sister is going to come home.
- They may assume that they are responsible for their sibling's death, or that someone else will die.
Mummy and Daddy are sad because our baby has died
They may have some understanding of this statement without feeling they are the cause of the sadness.
Try to maintain the child's normal routine - you may have to ask family or friends to help you. Comfort them, hug them and play with them as they try to make sense of what has happened. Follow their lead as they play and give them the opportunity to ask questions and tell you about anything that is worrying them.
Reassure them that someone will always take care of them and encourage them to be comfortable talking about their sibling's death.
Primary school aged children
Bereaved school age children may experience the following:
- They are beginning to understand the finality of death and may be very curious, asking detailed questions.
- They may fear other deaths - their parents, other brothers and sisters.
- They may be angry and connect death with violence (they may use words such as 'killed').
- They may feel responsible for the death of their brother or sister.
- They may show more of their feelings and need to know where they can get support.
- They may 'act out' their feelings, rather than talk about them.
- They may have a physical reaction to their grief, struggling with eating, sleeping and learning.
It is important to reassure your child that grief is okay and a normal process. Be open and let them know that you are feeling similar things and that it is normal and natural to feel this way.
As children get older, they may need more detailed information about the circumstances of their sibling's death. Ask your child what they are thinking about or imagining, and you will be able to address any misunderstandings or fears as they arise. The death should not be a taboo subject.
Bereaved teenagers may experience the following:
- They may see the death of the baby in the context of their own future and may express a wish never to have children.
- They may need more time to themselves. They are trying to mature but also have childlike needs.
- They may withdraw and become destructive.
Give your teenager opportunities to talk about their grief and be heard. If they do not want to talk, respect that choice also. Answer their questions truthfully, and if you don't know the answers, say so. Share your understanding of grief and allow them to experience their emotions in a safe, consistent environment. Be aware of danger signs (depression, violence, drug and alcohol abuse) and personality changes, seeking professional support if needed. Do your best to demonstrate healthy grief for your teenager.
You may find that the people around you have many opinions regarding your children. You know your children the best and remember that you have the final say in how your children are treated. Your children are a part of your family and need to be included in family matters. Ask the people around you to respect the decisions you have made and the explanations given to your children.