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Question of the Month
How do I/should I tell my other children about our loss? If I have another baby, should I tell him/her about their older sibling who died?

Ann DouglasFrom Ann Douglas . . .

It's never easy to talk to children about death, but most parents who have experienced the death of a baby feel that it's very important to be open with their children about what has happened.

When our daughter Laura was stillborn six years ago, my husband and I made a point of including our three living children (who were then 8, 7, and 5) in the funeral preparations. They each picked out some flowers for Laura's bouquet and wrote her cards saying that they would always love and miss her.

We continue to honor our baby's memory as a family and have always included our youngest son (who was born 11 1/2 months after our daughter was stillborn) in our rituals of remembrance. (Ian made his first visit to Laura's grave when he was just two weeks of age, in fact.)

While it's never easy to get the dialog started, the conversation that you have with your children about death may be one of the most important conversations you ever have. Here are a few important points to keep in mind:

  • Convey the facts about the death of a loved one as truthfully as possible. While parents sometimes try to sugarcoat the truth in the hope of sparing their children pain, there's a solid body of evidence to show that children find it easier to cope with the death of a younger sibling if they are given as much information as possible as soon as possible. If you don't have all the facts right away (e.g., the cause of stillbirth is unknown), admit that to your child and then follow through on your promise to pass along more information if and when it becomes available.

  • Share your own feelings first. According to Russell Friedman, co-author of When Children Grieve, children may not feel safe enough to express their own feelings about the death of their baby brother or sister if their parents bottle up their own feelings, put up a brave front, or simply wait for a child to initiate the discussion. "Parents need to go first," he stresses.

  • Understand that a death in the family may temporarily heighten your child's fears. Some children become very possessive or protective of their parents after a death in the family has occured. Other children take the opposite approach, withdrawing from those they care about most because they're afraid of losing someone else that they love. If you are concerned that your child is becoming depressed or otherwise having difficulty coping with your baby's death, you might want to ask your child's pediatrician for a referral to a child therapist who specializes in grief and bereavement.

  • Be prepared for some blunt -- even disturbing -- questions. Your child isn't being morbid when he asks if the baby who died can come back to life. He's simply trying to understand what death really means. Your best bet is to answer as truthfully as you can, but to try to add a few words of gentle reassurance: "Baby Sarah can't come back to life, but she will be a part of our lives forever because we will always love and remember her."

Educate yourself about the grieving process. You'll feel better equipped to support your children throught the grieving process if you have some sense of what to expect. The following books and booklets are packed with valuable tips on supporting a child who is grieving:

  • When Children Grieve by John W. James and Russell Friedman (Quill, 2002, $20.95). Contains practical, age-specific advice on helping children to deal with grief.

  • Helping Children Cope With Death by the Dougy Center for Grieving Children (Dougy, 1999, $15). Explains how children grieve and what parents can do to help children of various ages to cope with their feelings about the death of a loved one.

  • When Terrible Things Happen: A Parent's Guide to Talking With Their Children by Lewis A. Leavitt, MD (2001). Contains valuable tips on talking to children of various ages about natural and manmade disasters. The text of the booklet is available free of charge online at the Johnson and Johnson Pediatric Institute web site.

Ann Douglas

Marilyn HeavilinMarilyn Heavilin

My personal opinion is it is best to tell your children. Families should not be built on secrets, including information about siblings who have died.

At our first meeting of our local chapter of The Compassionate Friends, several men from a sponsoring mortuary were in the group as observers. Suddenly one man blurted out, "I just realized that I was raised by bereaved parents!" He then went on to tell that he knew his parents had lost a child before he was born, but since it was before he was born, he didn't think it would affect him. However, that night at the support group, he realized his parents' loss of a child had affected him profoundly.

Your subsequent children will also be raised by bereaved parents, and it is important that they understand some of your reactions. Bereaved parents tend to be more protective of their children. We also can be more fearful about their well-being. Our values may well be different from other parents. Money and things may not matter as much to us; and even children's accomplishments may have a different value.

For example: In a normal household, a teenager's first accident will be traumatic, but a non-bereaved parent may tend to be very upset if the car is damaged. A bereaved parent may be so relieved that the child is not hurt that damage to the car is almost insignificant. At our house the response has become, "It's only money!"

Each family will have to make their own decisions about how much to tell subsequent children, but it is important to realize that you no longer belong in the "normal" or "regular" parent category, and I think it's helpful to explain that to subsequent children.

Much love,
Marilyn Heavilin

Sherokee IlseSherokee Ilse

Yes, yes. Do tell your present children and those yet to come. Family secrets are unhealthy. Family communication and unity can be built and enhanced when such real life issues are dealt with in a straightforward manner. Your children will grow up, they will ask questions and either feel included in such important matters or feel excluded. Personally, I have always taken the approach of including my children and trusting they could handle it and they always did.

Many parents believe they can keep this from their children, that they are too young to notice even what is going on. There is nothing further from the truth. Kids are perceptive and they listen. They sense your mood has changed, they know you are crying, they feel that something is going on, even if they don't ask. Without being told what has upset their household, they may conclude that something they did has upset you. Or if they do know it is about the baby they may come to believe that the baby wasn't that important, after all no one is talking about him/her with them. Their magical or wishful thinking may come into play and imaginations may run wild. You can help keep this under control by sharing what has happened in an age appropriate manner.

Deciding you will tell your children is step one. Now you need to seize the moment and plunge in or plan it carefully (but be prepared for the unexpected questions or comments from your children, since they are not predictable.) There will be many opportunities.

What you tell them will depend on their age. In my booklet, Sibling Grief, co-authored with Linda Hammer Burns, we point out that children receive and think about this information differently depending on their age. Be careful not to over do it in your answers to their questions or to tell too much if they are at the end of their listening or understanding. There are numerous books that lay out the understandings of the child according to their ages. For instance,18 month to 5 year olds enjoy magical thinking and will likely offer to go to heaven and get the baby, or offer a way to get you a new baby. Children who are 5-8 years old may understand guilt which means they may feel guilty for having ill feelings about the baby, sharing you, their room or things with someone else. Rarely will they tell you they feel guilty however, so you will need to bring this and other sensitive issues up as you try to determine what is on their mind and what thoughts are bothering them. Keep in mind that guides to how children think at each age are only that, guides. Each child is unique and may not quite fit the developmental patterns.

Here are some words that might help you get started. Just remember that you need to find words that work for you, words and thoughts that come from your heart, since your children know you and will respond best when you are yourself.

As you know, we were expecting a baby soon (or our little girl/boy was recently born at the hospital). We have so many hopes and dreams and plans for this baby. S/he is really special to us, as are you. Some days were hard, and sometimes we and maybe even you had doubts about this baby. Did we really want to share our time, your room or our things with someone else. These are all normal feelings. Through it all however, there was love in all our hearts for this baby. Well, something very sad has happened. Our precious baby has died. Remember when our pet ______ (fish, dog, cat, hamster....) died? They stopped breathing and moving and we had to bury him/her. Well it is like that. Our baby died and we don't know why right now. Nothing we did caused him/her to die. And nothing you thought or we thought made this happen. It just did. In our imperfect world things like this happen every day to someone. Sadly, today it happened to us. What are you thinking about what we just said? What do you wonder about? What questions do you have, because I have lots of questions?

If you have faith in God you may want to bring it up in your early conversations. But first try to get an idea of what they are thinking and wondering.

This type of open discussion where you show your vulnerability, that you don't know everything may help your child to be open and show his/her concerns or worries or questions. However, you know your child best. Some children can talk and share openly, some cannot or will not. Think of how your child best copes. Maybe she prefers to draw rather than talk. Or maybe he prefers to play things out (puppets, stuffed or live animal play). Do not expect answers and questions to come easily to a child who has not been good at speaking openly prior to know. When someone is drowning that is not the time to teach them a new stroke. They will need to keep the old survival techniques for now. So seek ways to bring their feelings out through other means than words.

As for telling subsequent children, I will share how I told my children. If you keep your mind open to look for the right time I am quite sure it will come. Once the conversation has been started it will flow and then from that time on, the door has been opened and both of you will be able to more freely bring up the subject of their sibling easier.

When Kellan was about 3 and Trevor was a little over a year they were both struggling intensely over a teddy bear. Kellan cried out asking for a referee (me) to tell Trevor to leave "his" bear alone. This was one of a few toys of Brennan's (he was stillborn at the end of my pregnancy 14 months before Kellan's birth) that I left out for the boys to play with, the rest were packed away. I sat both boys down and began the story . . . "Boys, this is not Kellan's bear and it is not Trevor's bear. This bear belonged to a baby named Brennan; he was your brother. Brennan was born and died before you were both born. If he were here I know he would let you both play with his bear, but he would want you to know that it was his bear. It was given to him when I was still pregnant with him . . . he was still in my tummy. Sadly, Brennan died and we don't know why and we don't have any pictures of him. But we still love him and kept some of his toys for you to play with." The questions were cute, no tears were shed by them, though some were by me. Kellan asked how old Brennan was and why he died. Then later that day he asked, "What was the name of that baby again? Are you sure he would let us play with his bear?" Then over the weeks and months Brennan's name came up over and over. In fact, that year we began celebrating Brennan's birthday with cake and candles and sometimes balloons that we let go. He quickly became part of the conversation, which was comforting for me. And Brennan became a part of Kellan and Trevor's life that first day making me feel more complete as a mother. I couldn't deny my son his right to be a part of our lives forever. As the boys grew I also told them of the two other babies who were miscarried. They accepted it just fine and occasionally we still have conversations of the siblings who live in heaven and in hearts, but not with us on this earth.

Best of luck to you as you tell your children about their beloved siblings. It is usually more stressful for the parents to tell them first time, but I can assure that over time it clearly becomes a stress reliever to have such openness and love expressed over time.

If you wish to order Sibling Grief, you may go to my website and download the order form to send or fax in. www.wintergreenpress.com

Blessings,
Sherokee

Laura Randolph

Children can be amazingly perceptive to our emotions. Explaining to children why Mommy and Daddy are upset can help ease their anxiety. There are books written for all age levels specifically dealing with sibling loss. When it is hard to find words these books can be a solid staring point. Remember that emotional times call for lots of extra love, cuddles and reassurance.

Magical thinking is characteristic of the childhood years and your children may have fears that they are somehow responsible for the baby's death.(i.e. A young boy might have said he didn't want a baby sister and wished she were dead. When his sister dies he may feel that somehow his wishes caused her to die.) These concerns need to be addressed with much love and reassurance. With an older child the death of a sibling may bring up questions about death and after life. Talking about these issues is important. If you are feeling overwhelmed, a trusted friend, relative or member of your religious affiliation may be able to assist you as you help your children sort through this difficult time.

If you have not told your child about the pregnancy you might decide not to tell of the loss, or you may feel your child is too young to understand. Even in these circumstances I would encourage you to give extra attention to your child since children do sense and react to the emotions of those around them.

We had a daughter after we lost our son and have chosen to tell her from the beginning about her brother. We show her pictures of her brother, celebrate his birthday and do something in his memory on his anniversary and other occasions. It is our hope that we are helping her to have a connection with her brother as well as teaching her that death is a part of the cycle of life. In light of our death denying culture, making our son part of our daughter's childhood is unsettling to some, but it is a decision we are comfortable with. We want to assure our daughter that even in death, loved ones are not forgotten.

I wish you peace in making these hard decisions and hope that by following your child's reactions and your instinct, talking with your child can be a point of growth and healing for both of you.

Laura Randolph

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