Talking to Kids About Sibling Loss
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
I have a unique perspective on this topic because I have been on both sides of the coin as a sibling who has tried to understand stillbirth loss and as a parent who has had to try to explain it to my own children.
Conversations around baby loss were very familiar to me because my parents had a baby before me who died at birth. I always knew about her and knew the details and my parents would talk openly about it anytime I had a question or thoughts about her. I was usually something related to what my life would be like if she had lived. My parents were always open to those kinds of conversations and dreamed about it right along with me. I saw my mother cry as she talked about it and no regardless of how many years had passed, it didn't seem odd to me that she would still be sad about it. You could hear the emotion and love as she spoke about my sister, Elizabeth Anne.
I know now that it was a gift to my parents to be able to remember the loss of their baby with their living children since we know on this side of our baby loss how much we want people to remember and talk about our babies. I wanted the same for my children and I wanted them to remember them as a part of our family that we celebrated, not something they had to be cautious to talk about.
When you are in the beginning stages of a pregnancy loss or stillbirth there are so many things that flash in your mind as the shocking news starts to slowly sink in. It feels like a series of punches as you realize your life is forever different, the baby you dreamed of is not coming home with you, you are feeling grief like you never imagined and are desperately wishing you could turn back the hands of time and have a different outcome. Then comes the task of telling those closest to you what has happened.
My husband took care of calling both sets of parents that day, something I still don't think I will ever be able to show my appreciation for, and in his own numb state he took charge and made those calls and said the terrible words "the babies are gone". When my parents arrived at the hospital, we couldn't even speak because we each knew the magnitude of pain that was being felt at that moment. I did feel an extra layer of pain for them because I can't imagine experiencing it yourself and then re-living it and watching your daughter experience it. It's one I pray I don't have to relive with my own children. After a short time, the dread washed over me and I thought
"How are we going to tell the kids?"
The day I didn't feel any activity our two sweet boys who were 2 and 5 were home with my in-laws. I went to the doctor in a panic and then met my husband at the hospital where he was working the day I got the confirmation news. How would we tell the boys that the sisters we had been preparing for weren't coming home? How would we make them understand what happened without scaring them? And the disappointment...we talked about all the things they would be doing when they came home, what it would be like. They told everyone they saw that they were having twin sisters and had a hand in helping us set up the nursery while playing with some of the old equipment that we used for them.
I could not imagine what it would be like with them having to see their parents be sad, or if everyone who came to visit us was greeted with a tearful sobbing hug as their parents were going through the motions of the daily routine exhausted and lifeless. I was worried about the toll it would take on them and while kids are generally resilient and in their zone, I knew they would feel it. What if they asked me questions about the babies and I cried? There were just so many things that I was so concerned about with these two little guys. How in the world was I going to be the parent I wanted to be when my whole life felt like it was ruined and worthless?
The Dr. gave me some choices before we left the hospital once we confirmed the news on that day and since it was late we decided to go home so we could see our boys rather than stay in the hospital to start induction the next day. I just needed to hold them- and as hard as I knew it would be for me to see them, I knew they needed to see me too so I went home and slept in my bed one more night. With dead babies in me. It was probably the worst night of my life so far. We gave them the news in a 2 and 5-year-old way and the youngest son was pretty nonchalant about it but our inquisitive 5-year-old had lots of questions. He was acutely aware of what was happening and told his kindergarten class the next day his teacher later told me.
We decided to be very upfront and honest about what was happening but in a way that was reassuring as we could not know ourselves what the next few days or weeks would hold for us. let them attend the funeral and my oldest son had bought them each a small stuffed teddy bear when he was shopping with my mom one day as a gift to give them when they were born, so we had them buried with them. When we chose the gravestone it was etched with a teddy bear on each side of their names.
I am happy to report that they have both grown into well-adjusted, successful men and are the best big brothers to their rainbow baby sister. While this was a hard journey, I tried to be the best mother I could be in the circumstances and drew so much of my strength from them. I know that it made me appreciate their lives more than I ever and I hope that I instilled that same appreciation of life in them.
So here's my advice:
Answer their questions, no matter how many they ask
Kids at any age are bound to be curious and can tell when someone is not being honest with them. As hard as it is when they would ask questions and we may not have felt like answering them, we did. It was messy and hard at times but I think it made us better parents, it made us lean on each other and had us fighting harder to make sure our marriage survived this tragedy and taught the kids many lessons about life and love. It also gave us an outlet to talk about tour twins and dream about them with our kids as they wondered what life would be like had they lived.
Find ways to celebrate them
There is nothing a baby loss parent likes more than to have someone remember their baby. You can create it within your own home with your children and do as much or little celebration as you wish. You can hold birthday parties, plant flowers, create rituals of talking to them, or do anything that feels right for your level of comfort. While it might not always feel like a pleasant memory, memories are being made and it can help your healing to recognize and celebrate the gifts your baby brought to your family's lives.
Don't hide your tears
I had a friend who refused to ever let her children see her cry. I am such an emotional person I'm not sure if that would even have been possible in my house but I often wondered how her kids would deal with real life when they faced things that made others or even themselves feel intense emotion. We have been conditioned to believe that crying equals weakness and that it's something that has to be stopped as soon as possible or hidden in my friend's case. Crying doesn't have to be scary to them and it helps them see that you can feel an emotion and that you will be OK after it. The only way to the other side of pain is through it and that meant that there were many tears to be cried whether it was alone, with my husband, with friends or family, or with my kids.
Your responsibility as a parent is to teach your children how to manage life and deal with all the success and heartache that comes their way. This experience won't be one that everyone has but it can be one that teaches them that love comes in many forms and that life offers up many different things that aren't always coated in sunshine and rainbows...well...unless there is a rainbow baby that is.
I am a Pregnancy Loss Recovery Coach and I help women and their families who struggle after the loss of their babies find hope and healing so that they can live a life full of possibility again. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can learn more about me on my website at jennifersenn.com.