It is important to be honest and tell your children what has happened and to answer their questions truthfully. Some of the things that are said to children, with the best and kindest of intentions, can have different implications and are best avoided, such as:
- “Gone to sleep” – can give children the fear that they too may not wake up, and they may be afraid to go to sleep.
- “We have lost your sister/ brother” – can leave a child searching in the hopes of finding them again, like looking for a lost toy.
- “The doctor has taken him/her away” – can leave children fearful of visiting a doctor again.
- Suggesting that a baby has ‘gone to heaven’ or ‘to live with God’ may be confusing for a young child unless the family share a religious faith which they themselves find comforting.
Each child will have their own way of working through their grief and should be encouraged to express their individual feelings. Like you, they will have questions to which there may be no answer, but will need a truthful explanation as far as their age and vocabulary allows.
There is no age at which a child is too young to know what is happening. A young child may not understand, but needs information, love and support.
Children, like adults, can suffer a wide range of emotions, including sorrow, anger, disbelief, and even guilt (it is surprising to many parents that their older toddler or child may worry that their jealous feelings, or a fight over a toy, for example, caused the death). It is important that children are reassured that it wasn’t anybody’s fault that the baby died.
Siblings may regress in their behaviour, becoming clingy, reverting to thumb sucking or bedwetting, or complaining of headaches or stomach aches. They may not speak about their feelings and by holding back, and even attempting to be extra good and helpful, may cause adults to assume they are unaffected. This is never the case.
Try to include siblings in the events and ceremonies which follow the death, as exclusion is likely to leave them feeling anxious, bewildered and alone.
You may need help in deciding how to prepare your children to attend or participate in the funeral or memorial service.
You may like to talk this over with one of our bereavement support helpline advisers.
Ways to help children
- Talk to your children in a straightforward way, giving honest information in simple language.
- Encourage your children to talk and express their feelings, and be honest about your own.
- Listen to your children, and do not dismiss their thoughts as superficial, or deny their stated feelings.
- Try and welcome their questions. Some questions may be painfully direct, but if the child has asked, it’s because they want to know the answer, and they can cope with it.
- Repeated questions need patient listening and repeated answers (which should remain consistent). Children may ask the same question repeatedly to several adults to check out a puzzling or distressing situation.
- It is right to say “I don’t know”, if that is true.
- Share tearful times. Children will not be frightened by your tears if they know why you cry. It gives them permission to do the same.
- Be patient with children when they are angry. It is normal to be angry.
- Share memories of the baby by looking at photographs and remembering events. You might like to put together a memory book or box.
- Maintain usual routines as much as possible: bed times, story times, playtimes, walks and meals. If you cannot manage this at first, enlist a relative or other loved and trusted adult to keep the children’s routine as consistent as possible.
- Keep the children in your home, rather than sending them away to relatives or friends, as far as possible.
- Talk to their playgroup leader or school teacher and explain what has happened. Discuss with them how they will handle the news, and support your child(ren) in the school or nursery.
It is important for your children to express their feelings, and, if very young, they may do this through their toys and through play. If your child’s reactions worry or puzzle you, seek advice from your family doctor or health visitor or perhaps talk things over with one of our bereavement support helpline advisers on 0808 802 6869. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.