Whether your first child was healthy and you lost a subsequent pregnancy, or your first pregnancy ended and you had subsequent healthy children, it is natural to want to have a discussion with surviving children about the sibling they lost. In earlier times, children were much more exposed to the concept and practice of death, as multi-generational households, wakes, and home funerals exposed them to death as a natural part of life. More recently, however, parents have felt a need to protect their children from the potential pain and anxiety that learning about death can cause. And yet, even at a young age, children develop an awareness of the finite nature of all things. In Staring at the Sun, the renowned author and psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom (2008), has noted,
Children at an early age cannot help but note the glimmerings of mortality surrounding them--dead leaves, insects and pets, disappearing grandparents, grieving parents, endless acres of cemetery tombstones. Children may simply observe, wonder, and, following their parents' example, remain silent. If they openly express their anxiety, their parents become noticeably uncomfortable and, of course, rush to offer comfort... (p.3)
As parent who has lost a child during or soon after pregnancy, the birth or existence of a healthy child may cause complex feelings of relief, resentment, guilt, and confusion. Why should one child live, while the other dies? How do you, and should you, create a sibling relationship between a deceased child and the one who lived? How do you talk about babyloss with young children? Should you at all?
The answer is, undeniably, Yes. Children have the right to know about deceased siblings, though you reserve the right to limit or withhold the information as you see fit, and according to your own beliefs and practices. Many grieving parents that I have worked with have expressed a desire to keep the memory of the baby they lost alive, and to help surviving siblings contribute to that legacy. Most of these parents have young children, usually elementary school-aged. Because of their unique developmental status and needs, talking to children about babyloss does require some important reminders. They include:
- Do not use metaphors for death. When you talk about death, do not use terms such as "went to sleep" or "passed over", as young children see the world in literal terms. Thus, they may worry that if they, too, go to sleep, they could die, or they may see passing over as a physical process that anyone can achieve. They tend not to understand metaphors about death, and require Concrete information.
- Concrete information includes referring to what happens to human bodies when they die. Explain to young children that death means the body no longer works. Lungs that expand with air no longer inflate, and hearts that beat lie still. A person who is dying does not show any signs of life or movement. They do not talk, blink their eyes, or respond to cues. For babies that were growing inside of a mother, this process is the same. Babies that have died will never grow up, kick inside their mother's bellies, or sleep in a crib. Though this can be very painful to talk about, it is important that a child understand the difference between being alive and being dead in the physical sense. This does not mean removing spiritual or religious beliefs from the conversation, only pointing out to a child what death looks like in the physical world. If your family has ever lost a pet, you may refer to that experience, as well as what you did with the remains of that pet. Burying bodies in the ground, or creating ashes from bodies to spread somewhere special or keep in the house, can be discussed as well. Many parents shy away from discussions of how we dispose of bodies, but children are naturally inquisitive about these processes and tend to be more open minded at a young age about funerary rituals. This post by babyloss mother and artist CarlyMarie Dudley explains how to explain cremation to very young children in a sensitive and thoughtful way.
- Do incorporate spiritual beliefs if you have them. If your family ascribes to a religious or spiritual system, include your understanding of afterlife or the meaning of life in the discussion with your child. Read supporting texts from religious doctrine or refer to teachings from your denomination. Be clear to separate the death of the physical body from the death of the spiritual body, soul, or non-corporeal elements of life.
- Don't provide too much information. Answer children's questions directly, but do not offer more than what they are asking for. Most young children will listen and have very few questions, and perhaps even go off and play, seemingly unaffected by learning about their deceased sibling. Others might ask some questions. A common one is, "Will I die like my sibling?" or "Will you die too, Mommy?". It is important to be truthful: "Yes, everything that lives must die", while also ensuring the child that dying young is not common, and there will always be somebody to take care of them.
- Encourage a bond with a deceased sibling. If you feel comfortable, involve your child in a special ritual or activity that helps them remember and stay connected with their brother or sister. This can involve drawing a picture of what they imagine that child looks like in heaven or what they would have looked like on earth, had they lived. They may plant a tree in a memorial garden, or find a special day to celebrate the sibling by doing a fun activity or craft. Maintaining a sibling bond throughout childhood can help your living child(ren) create meaningful connections to the baby you lost.
- If you ended a wanted pregnancy, choose words wisely and keep it simple. There is no need at this time to tell your child that you had an abortion. You may tell your child, "Little brother was so sick that he could not survive outside of mommy's tummy. He died before you were born". As you get older, you can work with your therapist to decide what words you would like to use to describe ending a wanted pregnancy; however, most children cannot understand the complex decision-making process around abortion in this case. It can be useful, however, to think about how you might frame abortion as a decision of love and compassion as they grow older. Usually as children enter their teenaged years, you can begin to share more details of the story that involved "making a decision for baby brother to have a peaceful end of life while he was still inside me, instead of being born into pain and suffering."
- Look for some child-friendly books. Some that I recommend are We Were Gonna Have a Baby, But We Had an Angel Instead, Something Happened, and No New Baby. I also highly recommend The Invisible String, that expresses the enduring nature of love beyond life and death, and across different types of relationships. Though I haven't reviewed all of the recommendations on this page, What's Your Grief has compiled a list of workbooks for children aged 3-9, written by experts in the field of bereavement. In particular, Alan Wolfelt, PhD, is a renowned grief educator known for his approach to companioning, instead of "treating", grief.
So, what does this look like in practice?
Here is a sample script of what talking to your child about your babyloss might look like:
Mother: Bobby, I want to tell you about your little brother. I know you were so excited to have a baby brother, but we are all very sad to say that baby brother has died. When someone dies, that means their bodies no longer work. They cannot eat, sleep, or breathe, and are very still. For baby brother, that means he will no longer be inside of Mommy's tummy, and you will not see my tummy growing bigger or see him kicking from inside my belly. It's very sad, but instead of having a baby, we will now have to find ways to remember and miss baby brother, and keep thinking about him, even if he won't be here with us.
Bobby: Will we have another baby instead?
Mother: Daddy and I don't know about that yet. Right now, we are feeling very sad about baby brother, and we want to take some time to think about him and make sure that you are feeling ok about his dying too. Sometimes it can take some time to understand that dead means never seeing a person on this earth, and that can be hard. But even if the person is not here with us, we can remember them, and find special ways to think about and celebrate them, so that they always stay in our hearts and important to us.
It can be helpful to practice what you might say in advance, while also understanding that talking to young children means that you need to be ready for anything, including improvisation. You might want to have your partner or another trusted family member with you during the conversation. Give yourself permission to cry! Showing your child that you feel sad about what happened can help them understand that expressing emotion when someone dies is healthy and important. If you don't cry, that's fine too. That shows your child that grief can be expressed in different ways. As long as your conversation happens with love and clarity, there is no wrong way to talk about it.