Support for siblings after a neonatal death
Children, especially older children, will probably be greatly affected by the death of a baby brother or sister. 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. It may help to:
- recognize 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 feel more anxious when they have a feeling that something is wrong, but don’t know what it is.
Explain what has happened
You may find it 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 down, 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 can.
If you want to talk but start to cry, try not to worry. Just explain that you are crying because you feel very sad. Even younger children will understand this.
What you tell your children depends on their age, any 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 guided by your child’s questions, which will give you a sense of their understanding. It’s ok to not have all the answers for them and to say you don’t know. If children feel like their questions are being avoided, they may fill the gaps with frightening or anxious thoughts.
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. And 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 ‘in the clouds’ can be confusing for them. 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. Younger children may not understand death is permanent and you may need to explain more than once.
Be honest and reassuring
Some children may not react at the time, but then ask questions days or weeks later, in random situations. Answer them honestly and openly. Do not be afraid to show your emotions. 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 in some way.
They may worry that you will die or your partner will die too, especially if their mum is still in hospital. Reassure them that this is very unlikely to happen and that they can always talk to you about anything they feel anxious about.
Children’s reactions to death
We all grieve differently, including children. Reassure your child there’s no right or wrong way to feel, whether it’s sad, angry, worried or numb. Try to be empathetic and non-judgemental, Whatever their response, try not to take it personally. You cannot fix how they are feeling but you can listen and support them.
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 will probably 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. They will probably 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. 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 teenagers may find it difficult to talk about how they feel with their parents. You could encourage them to talk to another adult close to them, someone at their school or college or even contact a helpline if you feel they would find that helpful. See below for relevant organisations.
If your child doesn’t want to talk, it might help to start a conversation while doing an activity. YoungMinds has suggestions for activities.
If you’re worried about your child’s reaction or behaviour, get in touch with your GP.
Showing your 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 the same. Explaining how you are feeling can help them process this without blaming themselves. You can say that you are sad because the baby has died and that it’s natural to cry when you are sad.
Explain to younger children that you’re not upset because of them. They need to be reassured you’re not crying because of something they’ve done.
Coping day to day
Involving a grandparent, aunt/uncle or close friend in the first few days after the loss may help reassure children that their lives are still under control.
Try to keep a routine
It’s comforting and reassuring for children to have routine and may make them feel safer at this difficult time. Try to keep rituals going, such as a bedtime story.
Let the school or nursery know what’s happened
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.
Make room for yourself
Looking after children can be demanding at the best of times. Give yourself permission to find support and take time for yourself to process what has happened.
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 your children, get in touch with your GP. They can help you manage your symptoms.
Including your child
While you’re 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, Owen, 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.”
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 Ella was.”
Keeping your baby’s memory alive
You may want to mark anniversaries of your baby’s death together as a family. Siblings will probably more sensitive around this time as they will sense how you’re feeling. It can help to tell their school or childcare provider.
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 find out what works best for you and your family over time.
Read more about remembering your baby in the future.
More support and information
- Child Bereavement UK provides specialised support, information and training for everyone affected when a baby or child dies, or when a child is bereaved. It also runs an online forum for bereaved parents.
- The Compassionate Friends is run by and for all bereaved parents.
- Cruse Bereavement Care provides support, information, advice, education and training to help anyone who's been bereaved to understand their grief and cope with their loss.
- The Lullaby Trust provides specialist support for anyone after the sudden death of an infant.
- Petals provides specialist counselling after baby loss.
- Sands is run by and for parents whose baby has died, either at birth or shortly afterwards.
- Winston’s Wish supports children and families after a parent, brother or sister has died.
YoungMinds. A Guide for Parents: Grief and Loss. https://www.youngminds.org.uk/young-person/my-feelings/grief-and-loss/