When a baby dies, hearts break. It somehow seems wrong when the young die. With them go the dreams of their family for the future they imagined.
Processing your emotions
We are grateful to those who seem to understand. We know they won’t turn away from us, even if we say things that might be too hard to hear. Children feel the same way, too. But children often can’t ask for what they need. They usually depend on adults, especially their parents, to lead the way.
This material was written to help you explain miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth, or newborn death to your living child or children. It is a gift of understanding you can give them. If you choose, it can also be a way to help your baby live in their memory.
When pregnancy ends in a miscarriage, stillbirth, or newborn death, others may not act as though your baby has died. Many people will be unsure of how you feel, or may not even know you were pregnant. They may think it’s best to say nothing. And there may be no funeral or memorial service for your baby.
But you may feel like any other parent who has suffered the loss of a child. You may also feel just a little sad, or perhaps not very differently at all. There is no right way you should be feeling. Your living children may also express their feelings in many different ways.
Talking About Your Baby
Should you talk to your children about the baby and death? You may doubt how much they can understand at their age. You may fear that it will be upsetting. You may be tempted to say nothing at all, especially if this was an early pregnancy loss.
If you are grieving, your children will probably sense this, even if you try to hide it. But they don’t have the experience to understand grief. They may be frightened by changes they sense in you and your family routine. If very young, they may not know how to tell you this. They may say nothing at all.
Your child may have looked forward to the new baby. In the same way your feelings for this baby grew, your child may have felt excitement, tenderness, and a little worried. They may wonder, am I still a brother or sister? The connection your child feels to this baby might be very strong.
You also know that past experience your children have with loss. You may have helped them with the loss of a pet, moving away from friends or family, or the death of a grandparent. While hard, these life lessons help children grow into strong adults. You can use those past experiences to help them now. Like trees in a storm, they may bend in the wind, but will not break. They learn that with time they will start to feel better, even though things will always be different.
You may be grieving so deeply right now that helping anyone else seems impossible. You may only want to think about your baby now. You may fear losing control if you try to talk about the baby. You may find yourself trying to “protect” your child (or yourself) from the harshness of death.
Children may fear losing their parents more than anything else. If your grief keeps you silent and withdrawn from the world, your children may feel that suddenly, the parent he or she knew before is gone. They have no way of knowing that this separation from you will not be forever. Your child may even worry that you may die.
How one grieving mother explained the death to her preschooler:
“I want you to know that I am sad because the baby died. When people feel this sad, it helps them to cry. I wish the baby didn’t die, and because I can’t do anything about that, it makes me feel angry, too. But I am not angry or sad because of anything you did. I know I will feel better, but it will just take some time.”
You can let your child know that you are very sad about the baby and that you will need a little time to feel better. This lets them know they are not alone with their emotions. You can tell your child that even though grieving is very hard, it is also a natural healing process. Although you are the best judge of your children’s needs, you may need some extra help right now. You can ask a relative or close friend to be available to your child during this time. You might share this booklet with them, so they feel more comfortable talking with your child about death. Professional resources (your doctor, a nurse, a counselor) are available to both you and your child.
Explaining Death to Children
Some of the ideas children have about death come from television or movies, where people get hurt but magically reappear. Children, especially the very young, easily believe in magical endings. They also believe in magical causes of death. They may think something they said or thought or did caused the baby to die. They may have had mixed feelings about this new baby. Even adults will question everything they did or thought during the pregnancy, trying to find a reason why. Usually, adults can tell themselves they know these things didn’t really cause the baby to die. But children can’t do this.
Some of your children’s ideas about death might come from words they hear adults use. Explaining that the baby “went to sleep and didn’t wake up,” or that the baby “was taken to heaven to be an angel,” might make children afraid that this could also happen to them. Using words like the baby “went bye-bye” or was “lost” might make the child think the baby would be coming back, or would be found.
A grandmother told her grandson:
"When you die, your body stops working. You cannot see, or hear, or think, or feel anything. It can’t be fixed. It is forever. You can’t die and then come alive again. So it is very different than being asleep.”
When you talk with your children for the first time about the baby’s death, you may only need to say a little. Don’t over-explain. You can tell if they’ve heard enough by their behavior.
Begin by saying that the baby has died. You may need to explain this to young children. Tell them as much as you can about why this happened in simple words they can understand.
Talking a little about how you and other people might act about the baby’s death helps your child understand grief. Children often want to protect their grieving parents. To spare them any pain, they will not talk about their own sad or scary thoughts.
Sometimes they do this because other adults have told them to “be a little man” or not to bother their parents during this time of sorrow. Your child may also feel the baby is a forbidden subject if you do not talk to him about what is happening. By mentioning some of your own feelings, you make it safe for them to talk about what they’re thinking too.
If possible, talk to each child separately. Ask them a few questions to learn what ideas they already have about death. When you think they are understanding what death means, you may choose to add any personal beliefs about what happens after death.
Age Makes a Difference. Click below for age appropriate guidelines for talking to your children.
When Children Grieve
Your child will feel better if you stick to his or her normal routine. This would not be a good time to make major changes, such as moving to a new home, or changing schools or daycare arrangements.
Many adults are amazed to see children go back to normal activities so soon. Children are not able to grieve for long periods of time and need frequent breaks from their sadness. It does not mean they are uncaring.
Play is the way many children work out their feelings. Sports and other physical activities are good ways to release intense feelings. Younger children may act out their feelings in imaginary play. You can learn what they are thinking by watching this play, or by playing with them.
Drawing, keeping a journal, writing stories, poems, or a letter to the baby are other ways children may express themselves. Older children may like to perform or listen to music. Many books about grieving are available for children of different ages. Whatever your child enjoyed doing before the baby died should be encouraged now.
Your child may not say much at all about the baby. You will probably learn more about how your child is feeling by noticing any changes in behavior. It may be difficult for them to be around pregnant women or babies for a while. Frequently, children will demand more attention. They may be disobedient or disagreeable. This happens more often with preschool and school-age children. Continue to keep the usual limits you set for their behavior.
A teen wrote this to his mother:
“I went to buy you a card today. It was a birthday card for the baby you didn’t get to bring home. We talked a lot about my sister, but that was a long time ago. I was worried that if I sent you this card, it would make you sad again. But I think I know how you will feel. You will be glad because I remember her, too.”
Less often, children may have nightmares, lose their appetite, or have other physical problems. Usually, their behavior changes will right themselves over time.
As children grow up, they will think about the baby in new ways. They will also know more words to ask for the information they want. They may continue to bring up the subject of the baby from time to time, asking questions that you thought you had already handled. It is just a sign that they are growing in experience and understanding.
Additional Support For Children:
The Sesame Street website has a section that supports grieving children and families. The website includes developmentally appropriate tips, videos, children's stories, and a guide to help your family communicate with one another, express emotions, and begin the process of moving forward.