It is important for parents and others involved with the family to help the surviving children cope with the loss of their sibling. These children can possibly be forgotten or overlooked, even though they are experiencing pain as well. Even very young children are affected by the loss of a baby and deal with the loss in their own way.
How Children Show Grief
There are many differences in the way adults and children grieve. Because children may not have the understanding or verbal skills to express what they are feeling, they must work through grief in their own ways.
After one woman had miscarried one of several babies, her little four-year-old son, feeling the need to talk to someone, yet feeling unable to approach his mother, went around to the neighbors explaining that “his baby” had died. When his mother questioned his actions, he replied, “Mommy, it hurts so bad.” Another mother of a five-year-old daughter noticed some of her daughter’s artwork after their second daughter was stillborn. The girl explained that she had been drawing a picture of a “happy house.” When the mother asked, “Is it our house?” the daughter replied, “No, Mommy. Our house is a sad house because you cry all the time.”
Finally, one little boy whose baby sister was stillborn tenderly and insightfully expressed through poetry those concerns typical of a seven-year-old regarding death:
You were like a caterpillar
Who turned into a beautiful butterfly
then went to heaven to be with God.
What’s it like up there, Mary Catherine?
Do you grow when you’re in heaven?
Will you have birthdays?
I’ll never forget you and I love you
As if you were alive and with us.
In all of these cases, the children are working through their grief the best way they know how.
Talking to Children about Death
Children are deeply affected by loss and, like adults, have a need to be heard and assisted in expressing their grief. Death is a frightening concept to many children, and parents need to explain it as simply as possible. Be straightforward and give the facts immediately. If you are not completely honest, the child may come to distrust you at a later time. When discussing death with your children, it is also important to allow for open communication. Listen to them and let them tell you all their feelings, even the angry and ugly ones, without judgment. For everyone involved, talking is the great healer.
Try to stay away from using euphemisms such as “The baby’s just sleeping for a while,” because that may give some children a fear of sleeping or of a sleeping baby. Another dangerous statement to make is “The baby’s gone away.” Many children will wonder if you will “go away,” too.
The best concept to strive for is the truth—as simply as possible. Explain that the baby’s body does not work anymore and that the baby is “dead,” not “lost.” (If the child thinks that the baby is “lost,” he may set about trying to find it.) An approach explaining that “the baby’s body does not work, so he has gone to live with Heavenly Father and Jesus” is probably best. Explain that while you’re sad that the baby won’t be with you for awhile, you will see the baby again someday. Emphasize that Heavenly Father didn’t take the baby away, but that Heavenly Father and Jesus are taking care of the baby until you can be there to take care of it yourselves. Using a picture of Jesus with children may be a helpful tool in showing the Savior’s love for children and reassuring the sibling that the baby will be happy.
Another approach in explaining death is the illustration used with many investigators in the mission field. All that is needed is your hand and a glove. The hand represents the spirit that has been sent to live in the body (the glove). When the hand is pulled out of the glove, only the body remains, and the spirit goes to live with Heavenly Father and Jesus. Have the children note that without the hand in it, the glove is lifeless.
Some children feel like they have been deceived, and that there was never a baby in the first place. One mother explained that after waiting a long time to have a baby because of many complications, then finally having a stillborn daughter, her surviving daughter did not believe that there was ever a baby. This led to many feelings of anger and distrust. In this case, the parents felt it appropriate for their daughter to see and hold the baby. Many parents choose to show the surviving child pictures taken of the baby. Use your best judgment in view of your own child’s special needs.
These are just suggestions and are basic frameworks; you can add to or adjust them to apply to your children and their individual needs. The most important thing is to be straightforward and honest.
The Memorial Service
Allow your children to feel a part of the funeral arrangements and, where appropriate, to attend the memorial service or funeral. With young children (ages three to six), use your best judgment as to whether it would be beneficial to have them attend.
Try to prepare your children in advance for what to expect. Be sure to explain the difference between the spirit and the body so that the actual burial will not be overly upsetting. Go through all of the elements of the funeral so there will be nothing too surprising to the children.
The funeral may be more meaningful if the child is allowed to leave something in the casket for the baby, such as a picture, toy, or other special belonging. This can be a great comfort to the child and will make him feel like he is part of the occasion.
Also, try to accommodate your child’s wishes even if they may not be logical. One family remembers the funeral of their baby and how their surviving daughter was fearful that the baby would be cold. They allowed their daughter to bring a blanket to put on the grave so that the baby would be warm. If gestures such as this give your child peace, don’t hesitate to allow them.
Children often have behavioral changes while grieving. These changes can include dependency, aggressive behavior, and impaired learning ability. Be patient and loving and assist the child where necessary.
There are certain specific difficulties and behaviors you may expect to see in some form or another with a grieving child:
[2. Patricia L. Papenbrock and Robert F. Voss, “How to Help the Child Whose Parent Has Died,” in Children’s Grief (Redmond, WA: Medic Publishing Co., 1988), 7.]
Physiological difficulties. There may be eating and sleeping disturbances, bowel and bladder difficulties, and body distress, such as stomachaches, headaches, or rashes.
Regression. Children may return to a behavior that has been given up prior to the death, such as thumb sucking, inability to tie shoes, excessive clinging to you or a favorite possession, and temper tantrums. Children of all ages regress under stress.
Fears. Normal fears may intensify. Examples include fear of the dark, of going to sleep, of going to a new place, of your leaving, or of the child himself being taken away.
Imagined guilt. Fantasies leading to guilt feelings are common. Some children are sure that they must be responsible for the death or that they could have prevented it in some way.
Emotions. There may be periods of sadness, anger, outbursts, anxiety, crying, and boredom. In older children, there may be problems at school, such as poor grades, problems with classmates or teachers, or other signs of inappropriate behavior. Some children become rebellious as they show their anger at the world and at God.
As your children demonstrate their various struggles and difficulties, try to be patient with them and give them the time and the space that they need to grieve. Be sure to welcome people outside of the family who may be able to help in some way. Other family members and friends can be a great asset at this time when you are so overwhelmed with your own grief.
Here are some additional suggestions to help your children at this difficult time:
1. Pray with your child.
2. Talk to your child about Heavenly Father’s love.
3. Have family home evening lessons on pertinent subjects, such as Heavenly Father’s love, being worthy to live with Him again, the Atonement and Resurrection, the Creation, and so on.
4. Listen to your child’s comments and questions.
5. Encourage your child to express emotions verbally or by drawing, writing, actively playing, etc. Do not be alarmed if you find your preschooler play-acting the death or the funeral. This is a way young children try to understand what has taken place.
6. Allow the child to participate in family rituals, such as going to the cemetery—but don’t force or require participation.
7. Cry with your child.
8. Allow the child to give the baby a gift or participate in making a memorial to the baby, even after the funeral.
9. Allow the child to have a “cuddle toy”—such as a stuffed animal or doll, special toy, or blanket—if desired.
10. Even if you are consumed by grief, try to spend time each day with the child as a reminder that you care about the living child too.
11. Try to maintain your usual schedule. This will give your child some stability in a world that has been turned upside down. Although it could be tempting, try not to send children away for extended periods of time. They need to learn to adjust—now.
12. Reassure the child of your love. He or she may need more touching and holding than usual.
Remember that death intrudes on a child’s typically quiet and peaceful life, taking away a certain amount of their innocence. Many children are afraid that they or another loved one may die as well. Try to lovingly address their various fears and behaviors, and assure them that you will all work through this difficult time.
The baby’s grandparents and siblings have special needs and desires. Grieving parents need to try to be sensitive to these needs and remember that there are others besides them who are grieving. If all generations involved in the tragedy can be mindful of one another, many unhappy feelings can be avoided. Indeed, some very special blessings can result from a sorrowful situation.
For more comfort and beautiful insights, read Gone Too Soon: The Life and Loss of Infants and Unborn Children.
They are gone too soon—precious little ones lost through miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death. However brief their lives, they are not soon forgotten. And the pain of their loss is very real to parents and family. This book is a tenderly crafted message of comfort and counsel for those who have lost—or for those who know someone who has lost—little children.
Author Sherri D. Wittwer, who knows the poignant reality of such a loss, writes from a Latter-day Saint perspective of special gospel insights that can bring comfort and aid in the healing process as well as strengthen faith in the Lord. Wittwer draws on her own, as well as others’, moving experiences and reflections as she discusses the grieving process for parents and siblings and the spiritual resolution that makes acceptance possible. She portrays the pain, disbelief, anger, acceptance, and finally the peace of those who have endured this difficult trial. With them, you’ll come to understand the kindness and mercy of a loving Father in Heaven who has promised a special place in His kingdom for those precious “angel babies.”