Monday, May 23, 2016

Explaining Stillbirth to A Toddler

[Reviewed and updated July 8, 2022]

There is no footprint too small that cannot leave an imprint in this world.  ~ Author unknown

A reader writes: This might be a hard request but is there anything you would recommend for my 2 ½ year-old granddaughter who knows her 23-week-old born still brother "has gone away?" She was told Eden was too small to come home, and when asked "Where do you think Eden is?" she says "with the fairies and angels."

My response: I'm so sorry this has happened to you and your family, and my heart goes out to all of you. As a grandmother, you are coping not only with your own grief at the loss of this baby, but with the grief of your own child and that of your granddaughter as well. That is a heavy load to bear.

You've asked what I would suggest to help explain to your young granddaughter what has happened to the baby brother she's been expecting. As I'm sure you know, a child's concept of death varies with the cognitive and emotional development of the child. Grief is experienced and expressed in different ways at different developmental stages.

Generally, children between the ages of two and five years perceive of death as a temporary and reversible state. (Think of how death is portrayed in fairy tales like Snow White and The Sleeping Beauty, for example.) It's not surprising, then, that when asked where she thought her baby brother was, your granddaughter said "with the fairies and angels." From her perspective, the world is one of fairy tales and magic, a time of learning and growing and finding out how things work. She cannot yet grasp such complicated concepts as time and death. She does understand the day-to-day things in her life and the feeling of being taken care of by her family, and she certainly is able to pick up on what is happening around her.

Children are experts at reading their parents’ moods (body language, facial expressions, tone of voice). They know intuitively when something is amiss, even when they’re not sure what it is. They also pick up on which subjects are not to be discussed in a family ~ when parents are evasive, reluctant to discuss a topic, or a little too quick to change the subject. Parents and grandparents who explain things to their children are modeling how to talk openly about painful feelings and events in life that hurt and are hard, including the fact that a baby brother has died.

Your granddaughter needs time and attention from you and from her parents whenever her feelings about the absence of her baby brother come up, and she should be encouraged to talk about them. Be patient with her repetitious questioning, as it represents her efforts at working this through and coming to terms with this loss.

The next time the subject comes up with your granddaughter, you can offer explanations that are age-appropriate and at her level of understanding. She does not need detailed explanations so much as your comfort and support. That said, I encourage you to offer information that is simple, accurate, plain and direct. Using props, pictures and straightforward, concrete terms (i.e., death, dying, died) reassures your granddaughter that you are not afraid of the subject, and helps her to accept the reality of this baby’s death. Euphemisms (such as “gone away” or “too small to come home”) may be confusing to your granddaughter: If her baby brother has gone away, he needs to be found. If he was too small to come home, what could that mean to her?

Better to explain to your granddaughter what “dead” means:
"Eden died. His heart stopped beating and he doesn’t breathe in and out anymore. He doesn’t need to eat or go to the potty. He cannot see, hear or move, and he cannot feel hurt. Being dead is not the same as sleeping. All your body parts work when you are sleeping. When a person dies, his body has stopped working.”
You can also reassure her that most babies are born healthy (just as she was), and will grow up to be adults who live long and healthy lives.

Keep in mind that, as she asks her questions, you don’t need to have all the answers. Sometimes there just aren’t any satisfactory answers ~ but it’s still important to discuss the questions. Children need parents and grandparents to puzzle with them about such things.

You can also model reminiscing and talking openly about how much this baby Eden was wanted and dearly loved by your family. Feeling, showing and verbalizing your own pain gives your granddaughter an example to follow, while holding back implies that feelings are to be suppressed or denied.

In addition, you can explore with your granddaughter all the ways the two of you can memorialize her baby brother, such as lighting a candle or planting some flowers in your garden. You can find and read any number of wonderful stories and books written specifically for children to help her better understand that all living things have their own special lifetimes, with beginnings, endings, and living in between.

Here are some titles I would recommend for you and your granddaughter. Click on the titles for Amazon's description and readers' reviews:
  • Something Happened: A Book for Children and Parents Who Have Experienced Pregnancy Loss by Cathy Blanford - "Designed to help a young child understand what has happened when there has been a pregnancy loss. The book addresses the sadness that a child experiences when the anticipated baby has died. The child's fears and feelings of guilt are addressed as well as other confusing feelings. Perhaps most important, the book includes the family's experience of going on with life while always remembering their baby."
  • Heaven's Brightest Star by Kara Glad - "About a little girl named Katie, who is eager to become a big sister. Unfortunately, she quickly learns her new brother is a preemie, who is not strong enough to survive. The book explains the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) to children and will help them understand that sometimes the young as well as the old pass away."
  • We Were Gonna Have a Baby But Had An Angel Instead, by Pat Schwiebert - "Expresses the excitement and anticipation children have while waiting for their new sibling to arrive, and the sudden, life-changing nature of an unexpected loss. Narrated by a young boy who shares his and his family’s disappointment and grief over the loss of their baby."
  • The Invisible String by Patricia Karst - "Specifically written to address children's fear of being apart from the ones they love, The Invisible String delivers a particularly compelling message in today's uncertain times that though we may be separated from the ones we care for, whether through anger, or distance or even death, love is the unending connection that binds us all, and, by extension, ultimately binds every person on the planet to everyone else."
I hope this information proves useful to you, my dear. I believe that, difficult as it is, this can be a wonderful opportunity to teach your granddaughter about death as a natural part of living. How you teach this lesson to your granddaughter can have an enormously positive effect on her, and I wish you well in your effort. The very fact that you are seeking advice on how to help your granddaughter tells me that you are a wonderful grandmother. I wish for all of you blessings, peace and healing at this sad and difficult time.

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