It is natural as adults to want to protect children from emotional situations. When you’re grieving, even if you try to hide it, children will know something is wrong. A child may feel they are to blame for their parent’s sadness. Being open about your feelings can help your child to understand what has happened.
Death can be confusing to adults and even more confusing to children. Younger children can be quite literal. A child may have been upset about sharing attention with a new baby. They may think that they caused the baby to die.
It’s important to explain things in simple language they understand. Try not to use phrases like “the baby was sick”. They may fear the next time you or they are sick something bad will happen. If you say the “baby has gone to heaven” without explaining what heaven is they may wonder when the baby will come back. Tell your child the baby died and explain what death means. Often they’ll ask the same questions over and over again. Be patient and gentle and answer the questions as they come up. Try not to overwhelm them with too much information. Children will let you know by their questions and actions when they’ve heard too much.
Include your children in remembering the baby. Children sometimes create ideas in their heads about what the baby looks like. Show them the pictures you had taken and talk about the baby. A photo or their own drawings can help with these ideas or images they had. If you’re comfortable with it you may wish to have siblings view the baby. If they’re old enough to understand, ask if they’d like to meet their sibling and say goodbye. This can take place either in the hospital or at home. If your child isn’t ready to, or doesn’t want to see the baby, let them know that is okay too. If siblings don’t want to see photos of the baby, wait until they’re ready.
Anything that seems important for your family, include your children. Children should be welcomed to take part in the various memorial services or your own rituals throughout the year. Help your child create something tangible to remember the baby by. They might want to help give the baby a name, or draw a picture. As a family you may choose to plant a tree, or release a balloon or light a candle.
It is important to try and keep to your child’s usual routine especially around mealtime and bedtime. They may switch back to previous behaviours like thumb sucking, wetting the bed (if trained), or not listening well. This is normal. Keeping to routine can help these behaviours happen less over time.
Often children will take breaks from their grieving. They may look like they’ve forgotten the baby. Then days or months later start talking about the baby. They may also try to make sense of what has happened through play. This is normal and should be encouraged.
Remember to be gentle with yourself and your children. The baby that died will always be a part of your family. It will take time for everyone to figure what that part or role will be.