The death taboo: talking to children about lost siblings
When our baby daughter Lydie died 10 years ago, several close friends had tragically lost babies before and could guide us as bereaved parents – but they hadn’t been through it with older children asking what happened to their baby brother or sister. I searched desperately for ways to help explain to my 3-year-old son George, which in turn would support us as a family in our grief.
My child was grieving too
No one of a professional capacity had called to check in with how either of us were coping, so it was down to me and my husband to find a way forward. My baby, George’s sister, had died. While crushed by my own grief, I wanted to protect George from that pain.
He was grieving too; being so young didn’t make his grief any less valid.
I remember his wishes to visit Lydie and take her toys in a rocket, the pictures and paintings he made for her, his confusion when I used language he couldn’t understand. The questions George asked were often very direct, and painful for me, but I had to answer.
When my younger son Henry got older, he started to ask the same things. Even though he was born after Lydie, he’s still her brother and very sad that she died. At school, he wanted to tell his friends about her; he wants people to know he has a sister, as well as the brother they’ve met.
How children think and feel
I spent hours at the kitchen table writing lots of notes, not just about what had happened but also how children think. For example, below the age of 5, we simply can’t understand what being ‘dead’ means. Such young children just can’t recognise that death is not reversible. The brain is only able to deal with such complex ideas later, at around 8 or 9 years old.
Young children don’t understand that life functions stop when someone dies. They’ll be confused if told a dead person is sleeping, and this could make them fearful of going to sleep or seeing anyone else asleep – as it did for George when he was 4. They might also be confused as to how one person can be in a grave at the same time as being in heaven.
‘Magical thinking’ is when young bereaved children feel so much guilt, they believe their actions or thoughts are directly responsible for someone’s death. Perhaps they were jealous about the new baby spending more time with the family and didn’t want a sibling; they might worry that thinking this caused the baby’s death.
It’s really, really important that we explain to our children that the death was not in any way their fault or responsibility.
Little ones can also sometimes appear to be less affected by the news of a death than an older child. They might seem upset one minute and fine the next, or ask a very direct question then promptly go out to play. But they’re not fine, they are still grieving.
Explaining death to children
I found a few children’s books that vaguely touched on the idea of death, but not in the unique context of baby loss – so over the next few years, I created the book I wish I’d had. ‘Where are you Lydie?’ is a true story of our family loss, the conversations we had and continue to have, and how we choose to remember our daughter. It helps raise the concept of death with a young age group and provide a safe space to explore their emotions.
The inside cover has some examples of questions George asked: “Won’t Lydie be lonely in heaven? What will she eat? Can we send her some toys to play with? Will she be cold?”
The book isn’t just for bereaved siblings, but all those around them: the parents and grandparents, other family members, teachers and carers, friends and peers. I wanted the book to be bold and meet grief head on. However, writing about death doesn’t mean there can’t be an uplifting message of hope. I believe this whole experience has taught my sons that something good can come from something so desperately sad.
When I watched the first few pages of the book being printed, I filmed it on my phone to show my family at home later. It was a huge day for us, and we were all very emotional. The boys really want to help other bereaved siblings too, George especially bless him, and Henry showed the book to his favourite teacher which was a huge thing. I’m incredibly proud of them both.
Why it matters to break this taboo
As a nation, we tend to shy away from death in general. It’s expected to come in old age, for a pet or grandparent, but very tragically sometimes it happens much earlier. It’s terribly sad, and naturally people don’t want to talk about sad things, but the death of a child happens to thousands of families every year.
It takes a lot of courage as a newly bereaved parent to reach out and talk to someone about it. Where do you start, how can you possibly find the words?
It’s really important to create a safe space for bereaved children to talk and grieve, however painful we might find this, so they don’t have problems later in life from shutting away their feelings. Young children think differently to adults, and what may be difficult for us to discuss isn’t necessarily for them. The more we talk to our children, the more we raise awareness as a society – and the more we do that, the more we can make sure there’s support available if and when it does happen.
Find out more about Emma and her book at www.emmapoore.co.uk.