Talking to your child about infant loss

Infant Loss is a Family Event

The death of a baby is a deep loss. Parents who have lost a baby to miscarriage or stillbirth are struggling to cope with their grief. And often these parents have young children who were looking forward to having a little brother or little sister. Even in their time of pain, parents need to find ways to answer their surviving children’s questions about death and help them cope with their emotions.

Parents Set the Emotional Tone

In general, children will follow their parent’s lead about how to feel. If the miscarriage was early on and the parents did not yet keenly feel an attachment to the baby, then the children in the family will most likely follow suit. However, if the parents express a keen attachment to the lost baby, then the children will most likely sense these feelings and share similar feelings. Remember children have a different capacity for and experience of strong emotion than adults.  A child will usually cycle off of a strong emotion quickly and cycle to playing, only to come back to the strong emotion later.

We Were Gonna Have a Baby, But We Had an Angel Instead is the most lovely book about infant loss for children that I’ve read. I think it’s helpful for adults, too. I know I cry whenever I read it, and I’ve read it many times.

 

I wrote a review of the book, it’s here, if you’d like to read it. 

Be a Model of Self-Care

Even if it seems impossible, take care of yourself. You are a valuable person and your life is valuable. You are your child’s first teacher. Model self-respect and self-care through a hard time and they will learn resilience from you.

Children Experience Strong Emotions, Including Grief, in Small Spurts

Because of their developmental phase, children sustain strong emotion in smaller spurts than adults. They will feel sad for a bit and then need to change to a different feeling. Parents shouldn’t blame their child for being insensitive if he or she goes off to play instead of focusing on their lost sibling.

How Children Understand Death

Depending on their age, children are capable of grasping the concept of death in different ways. The table below summarizes the different ways children understand death at different ages. Remember that all children are individuals, and these concepts may overlap the age ranges somewhat.

3 -5 year old children:

Believe that death is temporary and reversible
Are very concrete
Think death is like being alive but under different circumstances

6- 8 year old children:

Mostly understand death is permanent
But are concrete in thinking that death can be prevented if one is careful
Think that death might be contagious

9-12 year old children:

Understand the permanence of death
Might make jokes about death to distance themselves from it
Might mistakenly feel they have caused the death

What to Say:

Keep the explanations clear, honest and simple. Depending on the age of the child, the emotional and medical explanations can be more detailed

Say something like:

Simple facts:
Our baby died because the cord that gives her air & food got a kink in it and she couldn’t get any more air and food. So her heart stopped working. Sometimes this happens and no one really knows why this happens.

Release feelings of blame:
It was not anyone’s fault, certainly not your fault.

Acknowledge emotions and assure continued love:
Mommy and Daddy are sad and angry about losing our baby. We may be sad and seem angry sometimes. And we still love you even if we seem sad, it is not because of something you did.

What to Do:

Acknowledge the death as a family
Include the children in any funeral or memorial service you have for the baby. Don’t force them to attend the entire ceremony. Ask another family member or hire a babysitter to take them outside if needed. Accept they will participate to their capacity, not yours.

Encourage emotional expression through drawing and play
Children express their feelings through play, rather than verbally. Often, they release a trauma or highly-charged emotions by acting out the scene using their toy houses, trucks, dolls and blocks. Also, children will often effortlessly express their feelings by drawing. Give your child free access to simple art materials such as paper, markers, crayons, and clay.

Create and perform a family ritual
Process grief as a family by creating a memorial collage or a decorate a memory box in which to put special keep-sakes or message notes

Get back to regular school and social activities
It is healthy to express sad feelings and to acknowledge loss. It is also healthy to encourage resilience, positivity and growth in life. Even if you are feeling very sad, help your children get back to their regular routines.

References:

Davis, D. L. (1996). Empty cradle, broken heart: Surviving the death of your baby. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Books.

Limbo, R., Kobler, K. (2009). Will our baby be alive again? Supporting parents of young children when a baby dies. Nursing for Women’s Health, Aug/Sept,13(4), 302-311.

Schweibert, P. (2003). We were gonna have a baby, but we had an angel instead. Portland, Oregon: Grief Watch.

Trozzi, M. (1999). Talking with children about loss. New York: Perigree Books.

Worden, J. W. (2002). Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy. New York: Springer Publishing Co.

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