Even though you are undoubtedly feeling overwhelmed by the loss of your baby, you should realize that your living children experience many of the same feelings and emotions as you do and that they, too, must take the necessary and painful steps to grief recovery. Your living children, however, probably lack many of the life skills that help in resolving grief. The death of their brother or sister may be their first exposure to death or at least to human death. You as parents can serve as both teachers and students in helping your surviving children. The process should begin immediately upon your baby's death, but if you are not up to the task, you should ask a trusted family member or friend to spend extra time with your children and begin the grief recovery process.
As teachers, perhaps the greatest gifts you can give your surviving children are your openness and honesty. These are the keys that will help your children learn to grieve. You can explain your baby's death in words your living children can understand and you can share with your living children your own feelings of loss and bereavement. It is important to refrain from the use of euphemisms (for instance, you should not tell your surviving children that the baby is sleeping or has gone away). Because children tend to blame themselves for all sorts of things, it is also important to let your surviving children know that nothing they thought or did caused the baby's death. If you know what caused your baby's death, you can explain it to your children in simple terms, which will help them understand that they are in no way to blame. If you find it difficult to find the right words to use, there are many excellent books and reference materials that will foster sharing with your children. Of primary importance is that you convey to your living children your unconditional love and let them know that you will not "leave" them.
If you are going to have a funeral or memorial service for your baby, you should explain that the purpose of such a service is to honor the baby and to gather among friends and family. Tell your children who will be there and what will happen. While you should encourage surviving children to attend and to participate in the funeral or memorial service, they must be given a choice and should not be force to participate against their wishes.
As students, perhaps the greatest gift you can give your surviving children is your ability to listen, and you should take the time to do so. Just as your own family cannot make your pain go away, neither can you take away the pain your children will experience. But you can encourage your living children to share their feelings, whether it is through verbal discussion, role-playing, story-telling, picture-drawing, or reading. Your encouragement may need to be subtle since your living children may be trying to protect you or avoid involvement in a topic that causes you pain, but you can and should let your children know that your feelings, like theirs, are okay and normal. You should allow your living children to express their grief in whatever manner they choose and you should let them know that what they are feeling is acceptable. You should also take into account that children, like adults, will have highly individual approaches to grief and may not respond as we expect them to. How your living children respond will depend to a large extent upon their age, their life experiences, and your approach with them. For instance, young children who have had no exposure to human death may quickly change the subject after being told of the death of their sibling, or they may listen to what you have to say, and then resume whatever activity they were involved with without comment. This is not a sign that they do not understand what you have said, nor is it a sign that they lack emotion; it is simply a common way for young children to cope with information they are incapable of responding to at that moment. As they begin thinking about the baby's death and working through their emotions, more interaction will inevitably follow. It is also not uncommon for children not to mention the baby for a while, and then bombard you with questions. This, too, is normal and is a sign that children are continuing to work through their grief.
In addition to an apparent lack of feelings, your children may also exhibit one or more of the following grief responses: physiological changes, regression behavior, fear, "acting-out" behavior, guilt and self-blame, disorganization, loneliness, and similar responses. Also, the grief process in children, like adults, probably will not follow a logical or structured path and you can expect that the feelings your children will experience will differ on a day-to-day basis. These are natural responses for a child and your openness, honesty, receptiveness, and responsiveness will help your children through these behavior responses. If, however, your child seems to have behavior changes or depression even after several months have passed, you should take it seriously. A child who continues to exhibit symptoms of depression may be suffering from clinical depression and an appropriate course of action should be considered. Remember, too, that your living children may experience instances of "re-grief" at various times as they work toward a resolution. Re-grief most often appears around specific dates such as holidays and anniversary dates of your baby's death. Although re-grief is usually not as intense as initial grief, you will need to continue to help your living children toward reconciliation.
THE UNIQUENESS OF CHILDREN'S GRIEF
It is important for adults to have a sense of how children conceptualize death at different ages so they can respond in an appropriate manner to the child's developmental age.
BIRTH TO ONE YEAR
- Up to 6 months: There is no ability to conceptualize death.
- 6 months to 1 year: Separation/loss can be felt, if only knowing "something is different."
ONE TO TWO YEARS
- React to the absence of their caregiver, no ability to understand the meaning.
- May respond with displeasure, irritableness, crying, physical illness.
- Sense something is wrong and respond to the emotional state of those around them.
TWO TO SIX YEARS
- Death is understood as reversible/temporary.
- Dead persons or animals are broken and can be fixed, asleep and can be awakened.
- Quite interested in death, often want to see and touch dead things.
SIX TO NINE YEARS
- A developing, clearer understanding of death.
- Interest in the physical and biological aspects of death.
- "Magical thinking" - belief that thoughts can make things happen. (Including their own actions caused the death)
- Death is often thought of as a person. (Ghost)
- Come to awareness of own immortality.
- Try to make sense out of what they are feeling. May ask pointed questions.
NINE TO TWELVE YEARS
- Concept of death expanding to adult concept.
- Awareness of possibility of own death.
- Curiosity about details of how person died, biological changes.
- Strong tendency towards denial.
- Increased interest about after death - what happens, where do we go?
TWELVE THROUGH ADOLESCENCE
- Death is viewed abstractly and more subjectively.
- See themselves as immortal, death is something that still happens to others.
- Death is often romanticized - even suicide.
- TV has accustomed them to believe you get over death easily.
CHILDREN GRIEVE DIFFERENTLY
- A child mourns intermittently. Participating in play is a child's world, even when grieving.
- An apparent lack of feeling does not mean the child is not grieving.
- Cognitive development affects a child's ability to integrate loss and its irreversibility.
- Children are at the mercy of adults to help or hinder their grief.
- Children don't want to be different from their peers. They may resist open grieving.
From 1998 NACFLM Conference. Presenter: Judy Clark, M. Accd., M. Ed., L.P.C.
Wolfelt, A. (1990). Picking Up the Pieces: A Child's View of Grief: Service Corporation International.
Author and date unknown. The Grief Experience (chapter 8, Children's Grief).
Pererson, R. (date unknown). Handout: The Surviving Children.
As your living children work through their grief, you may want to consider telling their caretakers, teachers, and others with whom your children have significant contact of your loss. Depending upon your family's individual dynamics, your children may decide to talk freely to friends, teachers, and schoolmates about their little brother or sister.
TEN THINGS PARENTS CAN DO TO HELP THEIR SURVIVING OR SUBSEQUENT CHILDREN
- You need to take care of yourself. If you don't, your surviving children will try to take care of you. This is true whether they are 2 or 20, and they will inevitably fail in their efforts.
- You need to build a strong marital relationship. You children don't need another loss.
- Each child needs time alone with you. This says that they are unique and important. You don't need to take them to AstroWorld or the zoo to achieve this. Taking them individually with you to the grocery store or when you are just getting gas can give them the time they need alone with you.
- Have open and direct communication with them, but remember listening is more important than talking.
- They need boundaries, limits, and consistency. They need security. Let them know about any changes in routine. They have imaginations too, and will worry if something is different and they haven't been told why.
- They need support. They need to be recognized for themselves. They need to be loved for themselves. A part of them is going to be wondering if you would be so upset if they had been the one who had died instead. Let them know that you would.
- Give them choices. Empower them by allowing them to control parts of their own environment. Give them two choices, either of which is okay with you - "Would you rather have hot dogs or grilled cheese for lunch?" or "Do you want to watch Sesame Street or The Lion King?"
- Look for meaning and purpose in their siblings' death.
- Not reasons
- Not excuses
- Not blame
- You need to model appropriate expressions of anger. Children learn by watching. Let a little off at a time.
- Respect them as individuals. Let them grieve in their own ways.