On the day of our service for my stillborn son, my then-2-year-old son and his friend went upstairs to play. My son came down and reported having seen a ghost. At that moment, I clung to the tragic magical thinking of that statement. Some piece of me hoped it was true. (Some piece of me still hopes it’s true). More likely, though, my living son had absorbed all events and was setting out to understand them.
This is a reminder to bereaved parents who have living children that providing support to these living children in the wake of a loss is important. Children are sponges. They absorb all the ambient information around them. If they do not receive gentle assistance in interpreting information, they will create their own narrative.
Their own narrative may reflect the level of egocentrism that children necessarily possess. Children often give themselves more power than they have. If their mother is sad because she has experienced the loss of a pregnancy, a baby, or a child, the surviving child may misinterpret her sadness as related to something s/he did – or can control.
Even if a loss occurred early in a pregnancy and the child had no direct knowledge of or relationship to the baby, they are likely to perceive their parents as sad. They may take that on. Support in this way can be a gentle reminder that parents can be sad – and that this sadness can co-exist with the happiness that the living child embodies. It is a lesson that happy and sad can co-exist, even on the same plane and that this is one of the remarkable things about being alive.
For a child who is older and is grieving a more concrete loss – perhaps one of a sibling – consider speaking to a pediatrician about available support services for the child. Depending on the age of a child, play therapy might be especially helpful. Ensuring that a child doesn’t take on a role of providing happiness to a sad parent is important. Your pediatrician or a preschool/elementary teacher may be able to suggest good therapists and play therapists.
Above all, it’s important to remind children they are safe. It’s important to let them know that their bodies are safe. It’s common for children who learn of an infant sleep death to be afraid to go to bed. Assurances that a child will wake in the morning are appropriate and important.
Similarly, assurances of lasting love and connection matter a great deal to children struggling to make sense of things too confusing and often tragic for grown-ups to figure out. For more advice from a pediatrician, click here.
Photographs courtesy of I-Stock.