Losing a child is a tragedy. It affects the entire family. Often, as we are lost within our own pain, we may forget about the other children in the family and that they are grieving as well.
Often as parents we have a strong desire to protect our children from the pain of this world. We would rather see them smile than cry. Therefore, we may not talk about death at all, or we use ‘safe’ words to protect them from the reality and finality of death.
How do you tell your child that their baby brother or sister has died? It is always best to tell them the truth. Using words such as ‘sleeping’ or ‘gone away’ creates confusion for them. It is best to use the term ‘die.’ It eliminates the fear that if they go to ‘sleep’ they may 'go away' too. Young children think in a concrete manner. It is most helpful to approach them from this perspective. If the child is at least 4 or 5 years of age you may say to them that their baby brother or sister has died because of SIDS. Be sure to reassure them that no one and nothing is at fault for the death of their sibling. Share with them what you have learned about SIDS, and how it is not preventable, in their terms; that nothing could have stopped their brother or sister from dying.
Should your child participate in the funeral services, or should they stay with other relatives? This is ultimately a personal decision. It will depend on the age of the child whether this will make a difference in their grieving process. Younger children, whom do not understand what death is, may not benefit from attending the memorial or funeral service. However, if the child is 5 or older, they may benefit from attending the services. Often, it is suggested that they go to view the baby’s body during the off hours. This should occur with a primary caregiver. Take the time to experience grief at this level; it allows for a foundation of healthy healing. If there is a way for them to participate in the service, whether it is drawing a picture or sharing a favorite memory, this will also be beneficial for them.
Let’s take a few moments to discuss how a child may be affected by the death of their baby brother or sister.
What is my child thinking? You may wonder how your child processes the death of their sibling. The New York Chapter of Compassionate Friends has provided a great guideline from their experiences.
According to their research children who had lost a sibling felt the following:
- A part of themselves died and now they were all alone
- Very angry at everything
- That their childhood had died too
- Angry and sad that their family life, as they had known it, was over
- Terrified that they would lose someone else
- Angry at “how” it happened
- Wonder why did it happen to them, and how they fit into the family structure now
They may also struggle with the death of their baby brother or sister. This is what they said:
- Most people thought my parents were the only people suffering.
- I was afraid to cry in front of my parents because I didn't want to upset them.
- People thought I should be over my grief in a week.
- I felt guilty when I felt happy about something.
- People ask me how my parents are doing and not bothering to ask me how I am doing.
- People say I shouldn't feel as bad as my parents do.
- My parents got to go to meetings but there was nothing for me.
- My parents think I don’t care.
- People tell me they know exactly how I feel.
- When things don't go right, I think about my brother/sister and things just get worse.
- My parents tend to get overprotective of me.
- I feel like everyone is always looking at me and talking about me.
- It’s hard to concentrate at school.
Finally, they may have a hard time talking to their parents because:
- I don't want to upset them.
- I would rather grieve by myself and keep it to myself.
- I don't get along with my mother that well.
- My dad never mentions it and so I don't either.
- If I only say a little bit, my mom keeps pushing me to say more.
- They don't know how I feel.
- I think they will start to cry.
- They tell me she's with God and that makes it okay for them but not for me.
Children will ask a multitude of questions during this time. One may be: “Where did they go?” This may be difficult for you to answer, depending on your religious affiliation. If you do not participate in a religion, think of what you may say if your child asks you about Heaven. Those who are religious, your children will find great comfort and strength in knowing that their brother or sister is in a safe place. However, they may also become fearful of the complex concept of Heaven. If needed, consult your religious leaders for added direction.