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Children have been called the “forgotten mourners”. They are inevitably affected by the death of their younger brother or sister. How they react to this depends very much on their age and stage of development but at any age they are affected by their parents’ distress and the upheaval in the home. Many children will have witnessed also the horror and drama surrounding finding the baby dead.
It is more important that a truthful explanation of what has happened is given to children, at a level they can understand. Explain that the baby has died and will never come back. Even if the child is too young to fully understand the concept and permanence of death, you will have laid the right foundations for future understanding. It is much better to give information that can be built on at a later stage, as the child’s understanding grows, and not answers that have to be “unlearned”. Avoid explanations such as “God wanted him in Heaven” or “she went to sleep” as they cause confusion and distress and children may fear the same thing will happen to them. If they were jealous of the new baby, they may worry that their feelings caused the death and need reassurance about this.
Each child will react differently to the loss of the baby. Some may appear unconcerned. Others may regress in their behaviour and become very demanding and difficult. Although this places an even greater burden on parents struggling to cope with their own overwhelming emotions, it is important that children receive extra loving care, to make them feel secure. Relatives and friends can sometimes help with extra attention and support.
Parents may feel that they should not show their grief in front of their surviving children. This is not so. Children need to share in the tears, to know that it is all right to be sad and angry, to talk about the baby and look at photographs. They may find it helpful to draw or paint pictures.
The decision whether or not to let the child share in the funeral is a personal one for parents, but there is increasing evidence that children benefit from being included in this final ritual and may feel very shut out if they are not. Fantasy can paint a much more frightening picture than fact. Your priest or minister may be helpful in deciding what you should do about this.
If you have any worries about how your child is coping, talk them over with your doctor or health visitor.