October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. As President Reagan noted when he declared this official month back in 1988, we refer to children whose parents have died as orphans. If your spouse dies, you are a widow or a widower. But there is no term for someone who has lost a child. Personally, I like to think that there is a very good reason why there is no specific term for a parent after their child has died. It is because that person will always and forever be a parent. No one can ever take that very important title away from you.
In today’s society, child loss is a topic that most people do not want to talk about. For parents, this means putting on a “brave face,” and trying to “move on.” This might make other people more comfortable, but it is an incredible burden on grieving parents and siblings. Healthy grieving is a relatively new concept. When I meet with families who have experienced loss, it is often because it has happened suddenly and tragically, and the parents and other adults are in a panic and don’t know what, or how much, to tell the other children in the family. The specialized training that Child Life Specialists receive makes them uniquely qualified to support children and families during and after the loss of a pregnancy or infant. As a Child Life Specialist, here are my recommendations for adults when they talk with their children about the death of their infant sibling or family member:
Be honest. Even very young children deserve to know the truth, and to be included in family discussions.
Use the actual words “dead” and/ or “died.” This is important, as the metaphoric language that adults tend to use can be extremely confusing to children. What exactly do “passed,” “passed away,” “passed on,” “didn’t make it,” etc. mean? It often confuses the situation, and children often ask me very directly what those terms mean.
Don’t be afraid to express emotion. It is natural and normal to cry or even raise our voices when we’re sad or upset. Death is a major reason to feel these emotions. Let your children see you cry, and comfort each other when emotions come up, without judging or discouraging the expression of these emotions.
Reassure children that they will be supported. Let them know who they can go to for support, both at home and at school. Let them know who will be caring for them during this difficult time. Routines will probably change temporarily, so let them who will be staying with them at night, etc.
These suggestions apply regardless of who has died. They are just as important after a miscarriage as they are after the loss of an older sibling or even a grandparent. Most larger hospitals now have Child Life Specialists available to support families with bereavement after the loss of a family member. If the children are not physically at the hospital, Child Life can meet with the adults, and offer support as they prepare to tell the children at home, or meet with the children when they arrive at the hospital to provide support and guidance. If a Child Life Specialist is not available at the hospital, there are some grief centers that have Child Life Specialists.