Most parents worry about how their other children will be affected by their sibling’s death. You may be concerned about discussing and explaining the death, especially if you don’t have a reason for why it happened. It is also understandable that you want to protect them, especially when children are very young and may struggle to understand the concept of death.
But it is important to tell your children about the death of their sibling as soon as possible, ideally by someone close to them. Children are often more able to understand what is going on than parents expect. They will be much more disturbed when they sense that something is wrong but don’t know what it is.
Try to be as open and honest about the situation as you can be. Just like adults, children are individuals and will react in different ways.
Studies have identified the 3 most important ways to help children who have lost a sibling:
- recognising and acknowledging the child’s grief
- including them in family rituals
- keeping the memory of the baby alive in the family.
Explaining what has happened
You may find it too difficult to talk about your baby’s death at first. If you’re worried you won’t be able to get the words out without breaking down, ask a relative or someone close to your child to talk to them for you. They will need to explain that you’re too upset to talk right now, but love them very much and will talk about it when you’re ready. Try to also remember that children sometimes hide their sadness to protect their parents.
What you tell your children depends on their age but also on past experiences of death and any religious beliefs. With children of any age, it’s best to use simple terms – if they want more details they will ask. If your family has a religious belief, you may have your own way of explaining about what you believe happens after death. You may want to speak to your religious leader about the best way to support your children. They may have questions about what will happen to the baby. These questions may be challenging, but it is best to answer them as honestly as possible.
You could also try asking the hospital, library or your child’s school for story books, which can help children make sense of what has happened.
Younger children can take things literally so using euphemisms can cause confusion even though it might seem easier. It is best that they understand that their sibling has died. At this young age, they may not understand that death is permanent. You may need to explain more than once.
Children will often not respond at the time but then think about everything and ask questions days or weeks later, often in seemingly random situations. Try to answer them again honestly and openly. Do not be afraid to show your emotions and let them cry if they want to.
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 at this time.
You may also want to prepare yourself for your child to tell other people about what has happened. Some people have told us that they were surprised to hear their child telling friends, family or even strangers that their baby brother or sister had died.
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.
Child Bereavement UK has lots of helpful resources about discussing the death of a sibling.
Things to avoid saying
It's helpful to try to avoid using the following phrases or ideas to explain what has happened:
- Describing the baby as ‘sleeping’ or ‘gone to sleep’. This might make your child frightened of going to bed.
- Using words like ‘lost’ or ‘gone’. This 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. This might also be confusing.
- Describing the baby as being an ‘angel’. This may cause anxiety later if you tell your child that they are ‘being an angel’ in the future.
- Talking about ‘being taken away by the doctor’. This can make children scared of going to the doctor in the future.
- Saying that they have ‘gone to heaven’ or ‘are with God’. Unless your family share a religious faith, this can be confusing for children.
Children’s reactions to death
Smaller children (under primary school age)
They 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 than usual or look for security from a favourite toy or comforter. They are also likely to communicate some of their fears and emotions through play.
Primary school age children
They 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.
They may experience 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. They need to know that it’s ok to be sad and show their emotions and 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, 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
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 after your baby’s death and explaining how you’re 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 meet their sibling and say goodbye, 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. Read Keith's story.
You may decide to bring your children to the baby’s funeral, blessing or commemoration, if you choose to have one. 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 met their sister and knew who she was."
Dom, who lost his daughter Ella
Coping with day-to-day life
In the first few weeks after your baby has died, the practical help of a grandparent, relative or close friend may be invaluable. Someone needs to keep managing things at home, such as going shopping and cooking. You may find this particularly tiring or difficult after experiencing such a trauma.
Routine is comforting and reassuring for children and may make them feel safer at this difficult time. Try to keep rituals going, such as bedtime stories or bath time.
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 notify your child’s GP just so they can take this into account if they are poorly.
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, please get in touch with your GP. They will be able to support you.
Keeping your baby’s 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 it’s a good idea to explain this to their school or childcare provider.
"Being part of our conversations shows Heidi is part of our lives, part of our hearts. She is such a special baby; she alerted me to something being wrong and because of that Lydia is with us today. I will tell Lydia all about her sister and we as a family will never ever forget her."
Rachel, who lost her daughter Heidi. Read Rachel's story.
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 work out what is best for you and your family over time. Your child’s grief and understanding may change over time as they get older and develop a greater awareness of what the loss means for them and their family as a whole.
"We talk about Rhianna so much. She is very much part of our family. Each year we celebrate her birthday. Rhianna gets Christmas presents from immediate family. We have a corner in our lounge with her photo and date of birth. The boys write her letters and leave them here. Over the years, I’ve created scrapbooks and I take photos of Rhianna’s grave, just as I take photos of my two boys."
Kerry, who lost her baby Rhianna Lily. Read Kerry's story.