Supporting siblings through a stillbirth

Information and advice on supporting children when their sibling has been stillborn

Siblings are likely to be greatly affected by the death of your child, especially as they are also likely to get a sense of your deep grief. They will have been expecting to meet a baby, and it will come as a great shock.

Children sometimes hide their sadness to protect their parents. Studies have identified the three most important ways to help children who have lost a sibling:

  • Recognise and acknowledge the child’s grief.
  • Include the child in family rituals.
  • Keep the memory of the baby alive in the family.

Try to be as open and honest about the situation as you can be. Children are often much more disturbed when they sense something is wrong but don’t know what it is.

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’ll 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.

What you tell your children depends not only 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.

Younger children

Younger children can take things literally so using euphemisms can cause confusion even though it might seem easier for you than explaining that the baby has died. Choose your words carefully. Describing the baby as ‘sleeping’ 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 might 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.

Children will often not respond at the time but then mull facts over and ask questions days or weeks later, often in seemingly random situations. Answer them again honestly and openly. Do not be afraid to show your emotions; likewise let them cry.

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.

Again 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.

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

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’re 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.

Older children

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 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

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 the stillbirth 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 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 at 38 weeks (Read Keith's story here)

You may decide to bring your children to the baby’s funeral, blessing or commemoration. 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 met their sister and knew who she was.' Dom, who lost his daughter Ella at 38 weeks

Coping with day to day

In the first few weeks after the loss, the practical involvement of a grandparent, aunt or close friend may be invaluable. Someone needs to keep the practical aspects of life under control, such as going shopping and cooking.

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 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.

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 it’s a good idea to explain this to 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 learn what works best for you and your family over time.

'We talk about Rhianna so much. She is very much part of our family. Each year we celebrate her birthday. This year she would have been four so my son chose a princess balloon for her. Rhianna gets Christmas presents from immediate family. Things like plaques, snow globes, angel statues and Christmas decorations. 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 at 28 weeks (Read Kerry's story here)

'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 at 29 weeks (Read Rachel's story here)

More information

Ask the hospital, library or your child’s school for story books, which can help children make sense of what has happened to their sibling.

Read more about stillbirth

Last reviewed on September 8th, 2017. Next review date September 8th, 2020.

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