Whether your family has encountered death before, or not, the death of an infant offers many unique opportunities for celebrating a brief but beloved life. It also raises numerous questions about how to involve older siblings in the rituals that surround death so that they are healed and not hurt. For parents, these questions about how to involve your children in the traditions of death begin the moment the baby dies and continue long after the funeral is over. It is my hope that the information, suggestions, and personal experiences that I provide here may assist you as you determine the ways in which your living children should honor their baby brother or sister.
- Should my living children see the baby’s body?
This is a very personal decision that is based on the situation. While some children find it helpful to see and spend time with their little sibling’s body, many parents choose not to involve their children in this way. I would encourage parents who face this question to consider several things including the development of the living siblings, the siblings’ ability to communicate effectively, the physical condition of the baby and how the siblings will likely respond to it, the setting of the death or delivery, your emotional state as parents during the brief time you have with your baby’s body, and whether or not the death was expected so that you could prepare the siblings for what the baby would look like.
Our family decided not to have our daughter “meet” her sister. We determined that by the time our daughter would be able to arrive at the hospital and we would be emotionally composed enough to focus on our living daughter, our baby’s body would be very discolored and we did not want our daughter to carry that image of her sister in her memory. However, we took lots of pictures and had some pictures taken of the baby. We then made a black-and-white album with the pictures that are not visibly discolored and do not show our incredible sadness. We are planning to make another album with the remaining pictures that our daughter can chose to see when she is much older.
- How should I talk with my children about the baby’s death?
As much as we would like to shield our children from death, it is important to be open and honest with them about what happened to their little sibling. Your openness with your children can help them to communicate their thoughts and feelings with you, now and throughout their lives. This is very important because it fosters a close relationship with you. It also allows your children to process the loss of their sibling and to integrate that loss into their understanding of their personal histories. On the flip side, if children are not able to talk about their grief, then they can have difficulty accepting the reality of their loss and this can cause ongoing challenges. It can also impact their ability to communicate freely with you about future events in their lives. Sadly, a study of adults who lost siblings during their childhood years has found that 76% felt that they were not able to talk about their feelings when their sibling died. No one wants their children to suffer alone, so it is critical that a pattern of open communication is established soon after the baby’s death.
In order to establish easy communication with your children, you will need to be proactive about discussing the death with them. It is important that you use age appropriate and direct language because children can easily misunderstand some of the euphemisms and metaphors we use about death. For example, try to avoid saying that you “lost” the baby or that the baby is “gone.” As harsh as it may seem to you, your children will comprehend the death better if you use the words “dead,” “death” and “died” openly. It is also important to constantly wonder “How are they hearing this?” so that you can avoid some of the misunderstandings that children frequently have. For example, some children who were told that “God just needed another angel and took the baby to Heaven,” have reported that they began acting badly so that God would not take them to be an angel, too. Others have stated that they were afraid to leave their mother’s side because she might “lose” them, too.
Most importantly, as Christians, we need to make sure that the messages that our children are hearing about their sibling’s death help them to understand the realities of life, death, sin and Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation. We need to cling to the hope of that salvation and allow it to be conveyed to our children through our grief. One way to do this is to emphasize the idea that Jesus is more powerful than death by reading about Christ’s Passion and the stories of Jairus’ Daughter and Lazarus. You can also use picture books about death and the stories of the Saints to help your children to understand about Heaven and God’s eternal plan for His people. I have found that it is important to preview picture books before reading them to my daughter because some of them contain beliefs that we do not agree with. We have some favorite books that we mostly agreed with but I crossed-off and rewrote the passages that were not consistent with our beliefs. That way if other family members read the book to my daughter, I knew that she was hearing the words that I wanted her to hear.
- What if my children see me crying?
If your children see you crying, then you are giving them a great gift! As hard as it may be to believe, showing them that it is okay to express their emotions, that you are being open and genuine with them, and that you loved their brother or sister enough to grieve is good for them. Of course, you need to be sensitive to their response to your tears and you may need to reassure them that you are “okay, just sad,” but since children learn from example, you want to be a model of healthy grieving and healthy grief requires the expression of emotions. That being said, while there is no time limit on grief, healthy grievers begin to experience more breaks in their sadness as time goes on. If you find that you are constantly sad or that your mood is not improving over time, you may be depressed and having depressed parents can cause problems for children. If you are concerned that you may be depressed, the best thing you can do for yourself and your children is to talk to a medical provider about how to cope with your feelings of sadness.
- Should we bring our children to the funeral/memorial Mass?
Perspectives on this have changed drastically over the past several generations, which may mean that, before the funeral, you need to have discussions about your decision with older relatives who might feel that it is inappropriate for children to attend funerals. However, our current understanding of child grief suggests that funerals can be a healing ceremony for children because they help children to understand death and to express their emotions in a socially supportive context. Some child grief specialists suggest that children over the age of four or five are capable of choosing whether or not they attend their sibling’s funeral, however, many parents choose to bring much younger siblings to their baby’s funeral.
In our case, we talked with our three-year-old daughter about what would happen at the funeral and let her decide whether or not she came. She knew that there would be an adult who she knew well who would take her to a different part of the church to play if she chose to leave. Once she knew that she could leave if she wanted to, our daughter decided to attend the funeral and she ended up staying with us for the entire time. In order to include her in the service, we asked that one of the hymns be “Jesus Loves Me,” we tried to explain what was happening to her, and we passed out flowers to put on the baby’s coffin. My extended family also made sure that she had plenty of food that she could eat during the reception and my cousins made sure that she received a lot of attention.
If, like us, you decide that your living children will attend the baby’s funeral, therapists who specialize in child grief suggest that you talk with your child about the details of what to expect. This should include specifics about the coffin, burial, prayers, number of people attending, and behavioral expectations. You should also let your children know that people will cry at the funeral and that this is okay.
- What can I do to help my children go back to their daycare, school or other activities?
It can be helpful to make sure that anyone who works with your children know about your baby’s death. You never know when your children might mention the death and it can help for teachers to have a heads-up. We left messages for all of our daughter’s teachers before she returned to her usual activities so that they knew what had happened and could be prepared to respond to anything our daughter might say. While I do not think that any of her teachers ended up talking with her about her sister’s death, they all made sure to welcome her back to class and they gave her some extra support and attention as she got back into her routine.
- Should my children keep things to remind them of the baby?
Children and their parents can sometimes have different needs when it comes to keeping memorials of their baby. Some parents find it helpful to have physical reminders of their baby, others do not. Children, however, generally process their grief best when they can keep a physical reminder of their little sibling. This can be something that they take from the baby’s room, an ultrasound picture, a piece of clothing the baby wore, something the children make to remember the baby, or even a special piece of jewelry that was given to them as a reminder of their baby. You might need to work with your children to help them to understand how special this reminder is and how they can take care of their memorial object. You might also need to talk with them about where to keep their object so that it will be helpful to them without being painful for other family members to see.
- Should my children come with me to visit the baby’s grave?
In the same way that most children can decide whether to attend the funeral, many children can choose whether they want to visit their little sibling’s grave. You might find that sometimes your children want to go with you and other times they do not – that’s okay. Remember, your baby is not there so it is alright to avoid visiting the grave and visits should only be made if they are beneficial for the visitor. Also, you should not be surprised if the amount of time that your children want to spend at the grave is shorter than the time you want to spend there. Consequently, if you do bring your children to the cemetery with you, might need to return by yourself later so that you can spend more time there alone. You want your children to associate remembering their sibling with pleasant memories, so you don’t want to force them to stay at the grave for longer than they want to.
Standing by the grave can be boring for young children. To help our daughter to actively remember her sister when we visit her grave, we try to bring flower arrangements that she has chosen or that she has made. While we are at the grave, we also pray. In addition to our own prayers, we have found that it is helpful to pray a short prayer that is intended for cemetery visits, like the following from http://www.acc-seattle.com/resources/visits.htm: “Praise be to God our Father, who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Blessed be God for ever. We gather today to pray for our baby whose body lies here in rest. Our baby is purified now of all faults. We pray that God may welcome our baby among all the saints of heaven. Amen.” I have found that having a pre-written prayer helps our living daughter to know how she can honor her baby sister in a setting that is unfamiliar to her. It also helps me to feel like we have spent some time really focusing on God and our baby so that, even if the visit is short, it is meaningful and precious.
- Are there special days that we can use to help our children remember their little sibling?
Absolutely! Many families have special traditions that they keep on the anniversary of their baby’s birth and death. These can range from having a cake to donating to a charity in the baby’s name. Some families have similar traditions on the Saint day of the Saint their baby was named after.
In addition to remembering their little sibling these more personal days, the Catholic Church also offers several opportunities to celebrate and remember the dead throughout the liturgical year. Remembering your baby at Christmas and Easter can be a wonderful way to show your children how precious and relevant Jesus’s gift of salvation is. In addition to these major holidays, we also like to celebrate the Saints Days of Saints who were bereaved siblings. Learning about the lives of these Saints provides children with a sense of hope and connection to others who have suffered a similar loss. As a parent, these days also offer a reminder to ask these Saints to pray for my daughter to overcome and grow through the loss of her sister. I am sure that there are many bereaved siblings who have become Saints that we have yet to discover, but so far, we have learned about the following Saints who lost siblings: St. Bernadette Soubirous (Saints Day April 16th), St. Catherine of Siena (Saints Day April 29th), St. Kateri Tekakwitha (Saints Day July 14th), St. Therese of Lisieux (Saints Day October 1st), St. John Paul II (Saints Day October 22nd), and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (Saints Day November 13th).
Finally, the month of November is a special time in the Catholic Church that is set aside for remembering the dead. At the beginning of the month, All Souls Day and All Saints Day provide opportunities to pray for and to remember the dead. I have found that these are good days to visit the baby’s grave and to pray special prayers that are intended for these days. Throughout the month, churches hold memorial Masses for the dead. In addition to these memorial Masses, churches set up books for parishioners to record the names of loved ones who have died. During Masses during the month of November, the church remembers and prays for those written in this book. Explaining this ritual to your children and offering to have them accompany you as you write your baby’s name in the book can provide them with a physical act of remembrance that is affirmed by the church community.
Catholic Online, “St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.” http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=278
Donnelly, Katherine Fair. Recovering From the Loss of a Sibling. Dodd, Mead & Company, NY, 1988.
Miller, Don, OFM. “Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.” https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-kateri-tekakwitha/
Rosen, Helen. Unspoken Grief-Coping with Childhood Sibling Loss. Lexington Books, MA, 1987.
St. Bernadette Soubirous, “My Name Is Bernadette.” http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/bernlife.htm
Saint John Paul II National Shrine, “John Paul II.” http://www.jp2shrine.org/en/bio/index.html