What to Expect
If you have experienced the unexpected or sudden loss of a child under age three, a stillbirth, or a miscarriage, The Massachusetts Center for Unexpected Infant and Child Death would like to offer you the following information and resources. You should not have to feel alone and The Center would like to help. If at any point, you feel overwhelmed by this information and would prefer to communicate directly with us, please Contact Us.
If your infant or young child died unexpectedly, most likely an autopsy will be required. This is done in almost all cases in Massachusetts. We recognize the difficulty of this situation, but autopsies are important to understand if there were any underlying causes for your child's death. Please know that your child will be treated respectfully and the process will not prevent you from having a memorial service of your choosing.
Due to the post-autopsy process, it may take up to one year for you to receive the results from the autopsy. It is also important to note that the results and death certificate are typically not sent automatically and you will not be notified when they are done. A written request must be completed to obtain this information. Here at the Center, we can help you navigate this process. If you would like to discuss this process further, please contact us.
The infographic to the right has been designed to summarize information to help you better understand what to expect with the death and autopsy process. You may click on the image for an enlarged version. The image is in PDF form and may be saved and/or printed if you wish.
Planning a Service:
If possible, it is important for both parents to participate in the funeral service. When an infant dies, the mother may still be recovering in the hospital. In the case of the death of an older child, circumstances could make it difficult for both parents to be physically present for several days or longer. Every effort should be made to postpone the service until both parents are able to participate. If it is impossible for the mother or father to see the infant or baby prior to the funeral, a family member or friend videotaping the service may be particularly appreciated by the parent unable to attend.
If a decision is made not to hold a funeral service, as is the case with many stillbirths, a later memorial service can happen to facilitate both parents’ grief process and illustrate to relatives and friends the significance of the baby’s death.
The funeral does not need to take place in a funeral home. It is possible for it to occur in a church, your home, or another locational that may be comfortable for your family.
Depending on the age of the child, some parents are left with few memories or mementos. A service in which friends, relatives, teachers, or classmates are given an opportunity to express fond thoughts about the child may become a meaningful tribute.
How the funeral home can help
When a baby, infant, or young child has died, often the parents are young and have not given their own funerals any forethought, much less their child’s. Special consideration in the cost of the funeral home’s services will help lessen the stress on the parents. A funeral director can also help as a middleman by negotiating lower costs for plots and grave markers on behalf of the family. Many cases have been publicized where the funeral home did not charge for its services as a way of helping the family.
Suggestions from bereaved parents
Ask funeral directors to outline all options available to parents. You are not expected to know all the appropriate questions to ask.
Consider seeing your child prior to coming to the funeral home. Many family members feel the need to do this, to prove the reality of their child’s death. Seeing a birthmark, mole, or even a small scar may be all that is needed to prove that the child is indeed theirs.
While it is okay if you decide not to view (or touch) the body, many parents who have made this decision have regretted not having viewed their child. This visual memory may help in the months to come as the child’s death becomes believable. Consider waiting another day to make up your minds. Or have a friend, who could verify that it is indeed your child, view the body. Seeing and saying good-bye to the physical body are important and help in the initial aspects of grief.
While parents can be involved in laying out the child, you may feel pressure to believe you must do this to be good parents. This is not the case. Autopsy or other visible wounds can be traumatic to parents. On the other hand, in the case of a stillbirth or infant death, this may be the only opportunity to parent their child. Remember, whatever you decide to do, should be what is best for you.
Dressing your child
Your child should be dressed as he or she would have wanted. Anything from blue jeans, to a baseball uniform, a first communion dress, or a rock concert T-shirt would be appropriate, providing it was a favorite of the child.
Ask to keep a lock of your child's hair, and think about whether there is a special blanket with which to cover your child.
Personal expressions from the family, such as “good-bye” letters, family pictures, mementos, toys, or drawings can be very meaningful when placed in the casket.
Make the service as personal as possible. Be creative in your ideas. A memory table containing the child’s favorite possessions could be a special tribute to that child.
You may want time alone with your child before bringing in other family members, ask the funeral director for this time prior to the service.
Helping other family members
Surviving children are often considered the “forgotten mourners.” Suggest ways to include them in the planning of the service, as well as the service itself. Young children might want to place a drawing or a toy in the casket. Older children may have suggestions for music or poetry that would make the service more personal and meaningful for them; or they may want to say a few words in remembrance of a special sibling.
Grandparents not only feel the painful impact of the death of their grandchild, but also experience an immense feeling of helplessness at not being able to take the pain away from their own child. Remember to include them as well.