We’re looking at a very emotive topic for this week’s blog – Baby Loss Awareness Week, which falls between the 9th and 15th of October. Let’s speak up about Infant Loss and ways to help our families cope better with this devasting event.
The death of a baby before, during or shortly after birth is a major bereavement for the whole family. It has an impact on children who were expecting to have a new brother or sister. Other children in the family and those of close friends may also find this time hard too.
There is no one right or wrong way to tell a child or talk to them about death or the death of a baby. You may need to be flexible depending on the child’s age and ability to understand, process what you are saying and ask questions. The main thing is to always be open and honest. Children will sense something is wrong, and if they are not told what it is they may feel upset, frightened or even feel if they ask it would make things worse. Keeping this from them may also create anxiety or fear that something bad is about to happen, for example to a parent.
How do children grieve?
All Children grieve no matter their age. Children may feel scared, upset, act out, think they might die too, or that it is their fault and may need special attention after the death of a baby.
Here are some ways you can help them better understand the baby’s death:
- Use simple but honest language – You could say things like, “The baby was born very small.” Try to avoid using honest language that may confuse them like, “The baby is sleeping,” or “We lost the baby.”
- Read them story books that talk about death. Funeral directors, libraries or schools may have some useful books you could borrow to help explain death to a child.
- Encourage them to talk. Perhaps they want to share their feelings or ask you questions.
- Comfort them. They may feel anxious about their own mortality and wonder if there was a reason for the loss. Reassuring them that they are safe, not going to die and that it’s no one’s fault can be comforting to them.
Children’s Reactions to Death
Under primary School age
They will be sensitive to the changes and the mood around them at this young age. They might show their feelings through challenging or unusual behaviour, for example bed wetting or tantrums. They may be clingier than usual or look for security from a favourite toy or blanket. They are also likely to communicate some emotions through play.
Primary School age
They are likely to have a better understanding of what death means. You may find that they cope better and focus on other things and distract themselves with playing. They may even use humour as a coping mechanism by making silly jokes about what has happened, but this doesn’t mean they don’t care.
Older Children and Teenagers
Older children may experience complex, conflicting and confusing emotions. Some may feel the need to be more independent by staying strong for you. They may feel they need to take on more responsibilities at home and be the “adult of the house.” It is a good idea to explain to them that it is ok to feel and be sad in order to show emotions, and they don’t need to look after you.
Some teenagers may find it difficult to talk about how they are feeling with their parents. If you feel that might be the case, you can encourage them to talk to another adult close to them (a family friend, aunt or uncle for example).
The Grieving Brain
After a loss, the body releases hormones and chemicals which triggers our “fight or flight” response. Each day, small reminders of the loss can once again trigger this same stress response. The left prefrontal cortex (our intellectual mind) takes a bit of a backseat, and the primitive minds takes over. As we know the primitive mind only responds within the primitive parameters of depression, anxiety, anger or a combination of all three. This can result in heightened anxiety and an inability to think clearly.
Brain Regions Affected by Grief:
The Left Prefrontal Cortex – often referred to as the “Intellectual Mind”. In this area of the brain, we tend to get things right in life, come up with answers based on a proper assessment and are generally very positive. In grief, this area of the brain becomes underactive.
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex – often referred to as “The Secretary”. This area of the brain connects the left prefrontal cortex (the Intellectual Mind) and the limbic system. The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in our behavioural and emotional responses, especially when it comes to behaviours, we need to survive; feeding, reproduction and caring for our young, and the fight/flight response. The anterior cingulate cortex is involved in attention allocation, processing, decision making and error detection. In grief this area of the brain becomes underactive.
The Amygdala – The centre and most influential part of the “Primitive Mind”. This area of the brain is the fear centre and often referred to as the fight, flight and depression area of the brain. In grief, this area of the brain becomes overactive.
Ways to help a grieving child
- Practice self-care – This may feel challenging when grieving but it will help your child by having a healthy adult providing support to them.
- Listen – Listen to your child share their perspective on what happened. Allow them to ask questions. Answer in the most honest and age-appropriate way you can, but also don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
- Acknowledge your child’s grief – Be careful not push your grief on to your child but allow them to experience their grief in their own way. It’s normal for children to move in and our of the grief process; sometimes emotional and at other time behaving as if nothing has happened.
- Share your stories – Children benefit from hearing stories about the adults in their lives and when those adults were children, this help normalise their feelings and emotions.
- Be creative – You could give your child a creative outlet to express their thoughts, emotions and feelings. A new tradition can give your family ways to acknowledge grief and honour the memory of their late baby sister/brother. You could light candles, share in celebration of those special occasions (such as the baby’s birthday or due date), sharing stories and often speaking their name, are some ways you can build new family traditions.
Activities for bereaved children and young people
There are lots of positive activities you can do with your children to help them cope with grief and express their feelings, for example:
- Memory boxes
- Memory jars
- Ideas on how to mark special occasions
- Activity books
- Story books
Winston’s Wish have some fantastic downloadable activity ideas to help grieving children and young people explore and express their feelings and emotions:
Sands have some great downloadable activity and support booklet to help children from 3 years old up to teenagers and young people:
If you’re worried about your child’s reaction or behaviour, get in touch with your GP.
You can also seek help from online support groups and charities, such as:
Oscar’s Wish Foundation – https://www.oscarswishfoundation.co.uk/for-children
Tommy’s – https://www.tommys.org/baby-loss-support
Winston’s Wish – https://www.winstonswish.org/helpline/