Children, especially those who are older, are likely to be greatly affected by the death of a baby sibling. Supporting them through their grief and sadness is important.
How to support a child after the death of a sibling
It’s very important to be open. If your child gets a sense that you are hiding your sadness, they may also hide their sadness to protect you. Studies have found that there are three important ways to help children who have lost a sibling:
- recognise and acknowledge the child’s grief
- include the child in family rituals around the death
- keep the memory of the baby alive in the family.
Try to be as open and honest about the death as you can be. Children can be much more anxious when they have a feeling that something is wrong but don’t know what it is.
Explaining what has happened
You may find it really hard to talk about your baby’s death to your other children. If you’re concerned you won’t be able to get the words out without breaking into tears, ask someone close to your child to talk to them. They can explain that you’re too upset to talk right now, but that you love them very much and will talk about it when you are able to.
What you tell your children depends on their age but also on past experiences of death and whether you have religious beliefs. With children of any age it’s best to use simple terms – if they want more details they will ask.
Be careful with words
Younger children can take things literally so using euphemisms (an indirect word instead of the actual word) can cause confusion. Describing the baby as ‘sleeping’, for example, might make your child frightened of going to bed. While words like ‘lost’ or ‘gone’ might make them worry about losing you or give them the impression the baby might be found or come back.
Talking about the baby being in the sky or clouds could also be confusing. Likewise, describing the baby as being an ‘angel’ may cause anxiety later if your child is then described as ‘being an angel’ in the future.
It is best that they understand that their sibling has died. At this age they may not understand death is permanent and you may need to explain more than once.
Be honest and reassuring
Children will often not seem to react much at the time but then think facts over and ask questions days or weeks later, in random situations. Answer them again honestly and openly. Do not be afraid to show your emotions, and let them cry and be upset too.
Explaining that the death was nobody’s fault is very important. Most children will at some stage blame themselves for the death of their baby brother or sister.
Reassure them and tell them they’re a wonderful brother or sister because they are thinking about the baby, or helping you put flowers on the grave, or however it is they are helping you.
They may worry that you will die or your partner will die too, especially if their mother is still in hospital. Reassure them that this is very unlikely to happen.
Children’s reactions to death
Very young children will be sensitive to the changes in the atmosphere and mood around them. They might show their feelings through challenging or unusual behaviour, such as bed wetting or tantrums. They may be clingier to you than usual or look for security from a favourite toy or comforter. They’re likely to communicate some of their fears and emotions through play.
Primary school age children
Children who are 5 or older are likely to have a better understanding of what death means. You may find that they cope by focusing on other things and distracting themselves through play. They may even be a bit silly and make jokes about what’s happened. This is just a coping mechanism and doesn’t mean they don’t understand or care. Although they may behave as though they are not deeply affected, they are likely to think a lot about what has happened and have questions for you that will come up at different places and times.
Older children and teenagers
Older children may have complex and conflicting emotions. Some may feel the need to be more independent or stay strong for you or take on more responsibilities at home. You need to let them know that it’s ok to be sad and show their emotions and tell them they don’t need to look after you.
As with children of all ages, it’s important to listen to them, give them your time and take an interest in what they’re doing, even if you’re very distracted.
Some teens may find it difficult talking about how they feel with parents. You could encourage them to talk to another adult close to them, or even contact a helpline.
If you’re worried about your child’s reaction or behaviour, get in touch with your GP.
Showing your own emotions in front of children
Don’t be afraid to cry in front of your children. They need to know that it’s OK to show emotion and that it’s a normal, healthy way of coping with grief.
Your children will sense that things are not normal and explaining how you are feeling can help them process this without blaming themselves.
You can say that you, as parents, are sad because the baby has died and that it’s normal to cry when you are sad. Explain to younger children that you are not upset because of them. They need to be reassured that you’re not crying because of something they’ve done.
Including your child
While you are creating memories of your baby, include your child if possible. Depending on their age, you could ask them to draw a picture or write a letter for their sibling. They may want to choose a teddy to add to your memory box or to place in your baby’s coffin.
You may want to ask your children if they’d like to say goodbye to their sibling, either in the hospital or at home, if you decide to bring your baby home.
“Olivia asks more questions about her baby brother as she gets older. She often speaks about him as if he’s still with us. She seems frustrated that she never met him. One day we might show her the photos we have.”
Keith, who lost his son Owen
You may decide to bring your children to the baby’s funeral. Be sure to explain what is going to happen beforehand so that they know what to expect. It might help to have a relative who can look after the children so you can concentrate on the funeral itself.
Some parents might not want siblings to come to the funeral. Perhaps instead you could involve them in a memorial, lighting a candle or even planting a tree.
Try to be led by your children. Trust them to know how they’d like to be involved and understand that they will have their own way of grieving.
“Our daughters came to the hospital, gave her pictures they had made and kissed her and said goodbye. We felt it was very important that they knew who she was.” Dom, who lost his daughter Ella
Coping with day to day
The practical involvement of a grandparent, aunt or close friend may be invaluable in the first few days after the loss to reassure children that their lives are still under control.
Routine is comforting and reassuring for children and may make them feel safer at this difficult time. Try to keep rituals, such as a bedtime story, going.
Make sure people involved in your child’s care, for example the school, childminder or nursery, know what has happened and how you’ve explained their sibling’s death. You should also tell your child’s GP if they are going in for an appointment.
It’s normal for parents to feel more protective towards their children after losing a baby. But this can also be difficult for children to understand and accept, especially older children. If you feel overwhelmed by anxiety about other children, please get in touch with your GP.
Keeping the memory alive
You may want to mark anniversaries of your baby’s death as a family. It’s likely that siblings will be more sensitive around this time, sensing your feelings, so tell their school or childcare provider about it.
Many families decide to keep their baby’s memory alive through talking about them, celebrating special dates and including them as part of the family. You will learn what works best for you and your family over time.
Ask the hospital or your child’s school for story books, which can help children make sense of what has happened to their sibling.