Coping with the loss of an unborn sibling
Expecting a baby sister or brother is often exhilarating for children. When the anticipated sibling is stillborn or lost by miscarriage, the parents and surviving sibling generally experience a grief reaction that can be quite difficult.
It is a mistake to assume that a child will not be affected by the loss of an unborn sibling. The confusion about what happened to the infant and the loss of hopes and dreams for their relationship need to addressed, sooner rather than later.
Parents of an unborn child are often devastated by their own grief. It is extremely difficult for some to know how to explain their loss to family and friends. Discussing the loss with a child requires some thought and preparation.
What to Say and Do to Help the Surviving Sibling
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who pioneered our understanding of how loss affects the bereaved, talked about how we address loss as a way “to help prepare (adults and children) for losses yet to come. For mortal as we all are, they will come.” This is a very important factor and should not be minimized. We are always teaching our kids something, good or bad; they learn most of their lessons by observing our actions rather than listening to our words.
Generally how a family handles anything is how they handle everything. Meaning, how we react in times of loss (or crisis) usually reflect how we cope with things in general. There is not one right way to handle the loss of an unborn child, or how to help your surviving child(ren).
Some families approach life, including crisis situations, by gathering information or consulting with experts before taking action. Others are more spontaneous in their reactions, perhaps speaking from the heart and trusting that they will intuitively know how to proceed. In many families, one adult handles things more thoughtfully, while the other is more spontaneous. Regardless of your and/or your family’s coping style, here are some general ideas that can help guide you in the process of helping a grieving child.
· Get support for yourself and realize that your ability to help your child through a difficult loss will be easier if you have someone to help you with your own feelings.
· Ask your medical provider or hospital personnel for guidance about helping your surviving child(ren) with this loss.
· It is important is that you encourage your surviving child(ren) to express feelings and ask questions openly. Give your child permission to mourn, teach her/him how to express feelings of grief safely and model ways for your child(ren) to remember the unborn sibling. These are important lessons that s/he will draw on throughout life.
· Don’t try to protect your child from painful feelings. You and your child must learn to cope with painful feelings, and early experiences of loss are no exception.
· Based on the child’s age, explain what happened in terms that s/he can understand. For young children, there are books that illustrate the loss of an unborn sibling. These can help you explain what happened and open the door for your child(ren) to ask questions. It is okay to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t understand why it happened’.
· It is best to offer basic explanations and to be honest. A child who thinks God took his little sister/brother away with no other explanation may develop faulty thinking and beliefs that could create problems later in life.
· Don’t wait too long to talk about it. Children know when parents and others are upset, and often make up things that are worse than the truth to answer their own questions. This can lead to guilt, anxiety and other problems. In the case of an unborn child, the unknown is very frightening for children. Offer basic facts that are age-appropriate to help them understand.
· Use your best judgment based on your child(ren)’s age to decide if attending a funeral or memorial service is appropriate. Rituals are important, but it is okay to decide how to include your child in a ritual to memorialize an unborn sibling. A private memorial that includes your child(ren) may be best for some – it can be at home, on the beach or in a meadow.
· Recognize that your child may act out his/her feelings and that it is normal. None of us, especially kids, is aware of how long or in what ways our feelings of grief will manifest. The rule of thumb is at least six months, and probably one year. Children often have no idea that something that happened so long ago could cause emotional reactions a year later.
· Try to provide as much normalcy as possible. Children may need a day or so out of school initially, but the structure of familiar routines offers comfort.
· Seek professional help for you, your child and/or family if needed.
Danielsson, Krissi. "Talking to Children About Miscarriage and Pregnancy Loss." About.com Miscarriage / Pregnancy Loss. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Sept. 2013.
"The Grief of Children After Loss of a Sibling or Friend." E National Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Resource Cente, n.d. Web. 7 Sept. 2013.