As part of Baby Loss Awareness week from 9th–15th October, childhood bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, shares how you could support a child who’s grieving a stillborn sibling.
Expecting the arrival of a baby sibling can be an exciting time for a child as they anticipate the arrival of a new member of the family. The news that this new family member won’t be arriving as planned can be devastating for the whole family. Breaking this news to children expecting to be an older siblings can feel such a difficult task for parents and carers, especially as they will also be coming to terms with the news themselves.
Parents and carers may also find themselves in a position of wanting to explain to their child that they were a twin and that sadly the other twin was stillborn. At Winston’s Wish, they recognise how difficult these conversations can be, and have outlined below some ways that can help make the conversation feel more manageable.
You know your child
Firstly, there is no rule book on how to deliver this news to children. Parents and carers know their children and the levels of understanding they have. Whilst Winston’s Wish can offer some advice and guidance to parents and caregivers, those caregivers know their child best, and we encourage them to trust their instincts as to what feels best.
Children know when things aren’t right
Children know when something isn’t right and they can pick up on these things, if they were aware of the pregnancy or not. Being open and honest about what has happened can prevent confusion and promote trust for the child. Children are very imaginative and when they sense something different or don’t understand things properly, they’ll create their own answers and narratives which can cause them to worry.
The idea of a new family member can also be a little nerve-wracking for a child, and they could have developed feelings of jealousy or concern about the new arrival regardless of their age. This could make it easy for children to start to believe their thoughts have impacted the death of their sibling. Being able to clearly explain to the child what happened to their sibling means that the child can ask any questions about anything they don’t understand.
Be aware of your own emotions
Having these conversations with your children certainly isn’t easy, particularly if you are coming to terms with the loss of your baby. If you feel it would be too much for you, asking a family member or other trusted adult to the child could help break the news. You could ask them to explain that you’re also finding it very sad and difficult, but reassure the child they’ll be able to talk to you. Letting your child see and understand your feelings about the loss of the baby, can help children to understand their own feelings, and know that it is ok to show they are upset.
Knowing you can support each other as a family may help them too. It’s important for the young person to know you are not upset because they’ve done something wrong but you are sad the baby has died. Reassure them it is ok to feel however they feel.
Chose simple language
As children get older their understanding of death develops, but very few children may have little to no understanding of what death really means. Using clear simple language such as ‘died’ can feel blunt but prevents confusion for children, as children can take phrases like ‘gone to sleep’ with their literal meaning, and may start asking questions like ‘When they will wake up?’. Although young children will not know what the word ‘died’ mean, giving them this language means you can start to explain death to them, and they can start to adjust to the news that their sibling won’t be coming. You could explain the baby’s death as their heart stopped beating and they stopped breathing, which means they are not alive anymore. Choosing the right language can also prevent future worries for a child.
They’ll maybe ask questions
Children like to ask questions and you may find they ask the same thing a few times as they build up their understanding of what death means. Answering the questions honestly and knowing it is ok to ask will help them process their feelings. It’s understandable if a question triggers your own upset, let them know you’re sad -and that’s ok. Reassuring your child that wants to answer their questions even though you’re sad may help them feel connected and allow them to explore their emotions too. You may also find that they jump through emotions from being sad to asking to play very quickly, and that is normal. Winston’s Wish explains this switching through emotions as ‘puddle jumping’.
Explore your emotions together
Exploring feelings together with children can help them understand it’s ok to cry and be upset or angry. Validating however they are feeling will help them continue to express their feelings without hiding them away. Sometimes children worry or feel guilty that their own feelings have caused bad things to happen. It’s good to reassure them that nothing they have said or thought has caused the loss of the baby. They may also need more love and affirmation than normal to remind them that they’re loved as a child and that the family’s sadness is no reflection of their love for them.
Finding creative ways to help children express their emotions can be useful. Things such as drawing, painting, gardening or play can allow them to release some of their feelings without the need for words.
Maintain a level of consistency
Another way to help children at these difficult times is to try to maintain a level of routine in their lives if that’s bedtime, or what they have for breakfast continuing a sense of ‘normality’ creates a safe and certain environment in a time with a lot of change.
If you’d like help in supporting a young person who’s experienced the death of an unborn or very young sibling, Winston’s Wish is available to help. Winston’s Wish supports children and young people up to age 25, and the adults supporting them. Their freephone helpline is open 8am–8pm Monday–Friday on 0808 802 0021 or visit the website on to find resources to help.
If you’d like support for yourself following a stillborn birth or neonatal death Sands are there to help you. You can call them on their helpline at 0207 436 5881 visit their website.
If you’d like support for yourself following a miscarriage The Miscarriage Association are there to support you. Visit Miscarriage Association for support.
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