Tending to our grieving toddler's needs after baby loss and finding a way to explain his baby brother's demise was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do as a mother. Here's how being honest and truthful about what happened was the best thing we could've done for our toddler's grieving heart.
Use clear and unambiguous language when explaining.
Before my husband brought V to meet Julian at the hospital, he had to explain in three year old terms what had happened to his baby brother. He told him that something bad had happened and Julian had died. He further explained that his baby brother would not be able to see, hear or play with him. For adults it's easier to say and use expressions like he passed away or we lost him to communicate the death of a loved one. It is sometimes too painful for adults to say that a loved one has died, but to a child these expressions might be taken literally and create more confusion in their innocent minds.
Allow your child to meet their sibling if possible.
Out of all the hard decisions I had to make at the hospital that day, choosing to allow our toddler to meet his baby brother was one of the hardest and most rewarding decisions of all. Hard for obvious reasons but rewarding because it allowed our little family to grieve as a unit. The depth of our toddler's grieving may not have been equal to our own but in his own innocent way he understood and felt the loss of his baby brother as deeply as a child could. It also allowed the photographer to capture beautiful moments of V and his baby brother together. It's a very personal decision and circumstances may not always allow this to happen, but I urge you to consider that this will be the only chance your child will have to create precious memories with their sibling.
Don't pretend to be 'OK' around your child.
As parents we are always eager to protect our children and we may feel the need to protect our children from the pain of loss. In this case I highly recommend that you keep your protection instinct in check. Children learn from example and if your child can learn your pain, they may also learn how to grieve. Grieving is a part of the human condition yet it is something that we rarely ever teach or learn. Don't be afraid to cry in front of your children and show them that loss hurts, they may surprise you with a compassionate hug, a kiss or a box of tissues.
Read books to your child that will visually help them understand what happened.
We ordered Something Happened (affiliate) from amazon and a good friend gifted us We were gonna have a baby, but we had an angel instead (affiliate). These are child picture books that help explain baby loss. Our toddler got his hands on the books before we were able to read them together, took a quick look at the pictures and decided he wanted nothing to do with them. We would place them in his book basket only to find he would angrily dig them out and remove them from his room entirely. We got the hint and we decided to give him some time. Every night we gave him the choice to read the baby loss book or another book of his choice, thinking that eventually he might feel brave enough to give it a try. One night he wanted to read the baby loss book all on his own. He was ready and he listened intently to every word. He would ask questions about the characters and make comments about them as if he knew the book was about our family. As he became more comfortable with the events in the books, he would feel brave enough to ask more questions about his baby brother.
Pray with your child and explain the idea of an afterlife if this is what you believe in.
I pray with my child every night. We started this ritual since he was very young and now he won't say good night until we pray with him first. I took this special time to also pray for my toddler's grieving heart and his brother Julian. My child knows I believe we will see his baby brother again but not for a very, very long time. This may be a confusing topic to discuss, however I find that hope goes a long way to heal heart-felt wounds. I explained to my toddler in very brief and concise terms that baby brother is in a type of sleep where he cannot speak, hear or play but he will one day be reunited with us in another world.
Give plenty of hugs and kisses.
Grieving children may not express their feelings the way an adult might do. They do feel loss however and they may express it with new anxieties, nightmares, anger or behavioral changes. Sometimes we had to sleep in the room with V because he was so scared of being alone. We even had to place the play pen in our room for a while in case he woke up scared in the middle of the night. Don't get me wrong, I would have gladly allowed him to sleep in our bed but V has slept well through the night since he was six months old. He didn't know how to fall asleep with us and was more relaxed in the play pen. Be ready for a bit of regression and take this time to help your child know that you are still a family and that you still love them just as much. Read more posts about our healing journey after baby loss here.
Needs of A Grieving Child
- information that is clear and understandable at their development level.
- to be reassured that their basic needs will be met.
- to be involved in planning for the funeral and anniversary
- to be reassured when grieving by adults is intense
- help with exploring fantasies about death, afterlife, and related issues.
- to be able to have and express their own thoughts and behaviors, especially when different from significant adults.
- to maintain age appropriate activities and interests.
- to receive help with “magical thinking.”
- to say good-bye to the deceased.
- to memorialize the deceased.
How have you helped your child grieve? What signs of grief if any did you notice in your child? ♡
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