Advice on helping children understand baby loss

Jenni Thomas OBE, founder of Child Bereavement UK, shares advice on helping children understand the loss of a baby and how to support them in grieving for their sibling.

Alongside writing about her own experiences of talking to her children about death, author Georgina Lucas spoke to Jenni Thomas OBE, founder of Child Bereavement UK, for advice on helping children understand the loss of a sibling.

  • Like adults, children experience grief when someone close to them dies. Their ability to express grief will depend on their biological age and cognitive ability. At 3/4/5, they may think the person is coming back – gently explaining that when someone dies their body doesn’t work anymore, they can’t come back, they have died. 
  • Continuation of routine, as much as possible, provides stability and reassurance – staying in the home they know, doing the same things as ‘normal’, seeing and spending time with friends, family, people they love and can trust.

Use real words, gently. It’s best not to describe what part of the body doesn’t work anymore as the child may then be afraid that their heart/brain will stop working, keep it general and don’t say too much.

  • Tell the child everyone did everything possible to help before the death. Try to avoid blaming anyone medical (even if you feel it strongly) as it can be very scary – the child needs to trust they will always be looked after if they are ill. 
  • If a baby has been born, it can be helpful for a child to see their dead sibling, if they want to. Try to avoid ‘telling’ a child what they must do (e.g. touch/kiss) in case they don’t want to and then are left feeling guilty. 
  • Prepare them if they want to see them – ‘when you see your little sister/brother she/he will be in a cot/bed/dressed in a babygrow/dress and her eyes will be closed, her/his lips may be blue and she/he will not move, if you touch her/him she/he will feel cold.’
  • It’s helpful to remember the impact of the emotions children have seen and felt – they will know how important a baby is, even if they haven’t spent time with them. They will know how much he/she is loved.

As they grow, their sense of loss grows with them. They may miss a sibling they spent moments with or didn’t meet, as they understand the role that sibling would have played in their life.

  • The death of a baby sibling is often a child’s first experience of grief. Letting them see extreme emotions helps them to understand that sadness/anger/grief are ok and it isn’t up to them to make their caregivers feel better. I remember one child saying to me, ‘mummy just screams, but daddy says it’s because she hurts so much, and we give her a cuddle.’ 
  • Telling children how we feel can be more helpful than asking them how they feel. Honesty is so important. 
  • Children are unlikely to stay with painful feelings for long, they experience them, but need to move on. Young children may relate to sad feelings in their body – a headache, a sore tummy.
  • It is complicated, but the memories and emotions surrounding a dead sibling are very precious. Remember, children can cope with a lot as long as they know they are loved.