Updated: Dec 5, 2021
Talking to your own child or children, or other children in and outside the family, about a miscarriage, stillbirth, termination of a pregnancy, or death of an infant can feel like an overwhelming task. A NechamaComfort case manager is always available to help and advise you. Here are some basic guidelines about talking to children about the loss of a pregnancy or an infant:
Should I tell?
Children are very sensitive to what is happening around them. Even children as young as two- or three-years old will pick up that something is wrong. It is better to tell them what is or has happened than have them invent a narrative of their own.
If your older child or children did not know you were pregnant, it is likely that they will sense that you, and other adults around them, are sad and grieving. It can be helpful to put words to the emotions in the air so that the child or children don’t start wondering if it was something they did.
How should I tell?
It is important to be honest, reassuring, and appropriate to a child’s developmental level. This openness encourages communication and shows your willingness to engage with your child or children about a very sad, very difficult event or topic.
Your words should be clear and direct, not euphemisms like gone away or sleeping. It’s okay to use the words died and death. Here are some phrases that can be used:
“When the doctor checked to see how the baby was growing, she found that the baby wasn’t growing big and strong enough to live outside of mommy’s body/tummy/belly. That means the baby died.”
"When you die, your heart stops. Your body stops working. You don't eat. You don't breathe.”
“The baby wasn’t strong/developed enough to live, and he/she died. That means his/her heart stopped beating, but he/she will always be in our hearts, be a part of our family, even if we can’t see him/her.”
“I have a very sad thing to tell you. The baby’s heart stopped beating and he/she stopped breathing. That means the baby died. He/she won’t be coming to live with us but we will always remember him/her in our hearts.”
Your child or children will need to know that you are well and that they are well. They may ask about whether you are going to die, or if they will; you can reassure them that all of you are healthy and well and that they and you will hopefully not die for a long time. They may ask about this more than once; it’s normal for them to seek reassurance. Some phrases that can be used are:
"We're all well and healthy, and we expect to stay that way."
"My body is strong and so is yours. Our bodies should keep working for a long time.”
Many children are excited about the idea of a new baby in family, but many children also have mixed feelings about a new member joining the family. If your child had some ambivalence about the baby, they may believe that they are somehow responsible for the baby’s death. It is often good to reassure children that the loss was nobody’s fault, that these things just happen and we don’t know why.
Being honest means telling the truth but it does not mean that you need to share all details. Depending upon your child’s age and stage of development, this may mean no details, few details or more details. One gauge is to start with a few simple statements and see what types of questions your child asks. Children’s questions are a good guide as to what they want to know at any given time and their questions may change over time. It is helpful to tell children explicitly that they can always come to you with their questions, at any point, and you will always answers to the best of your ability.
It is often helpful for parents to discuss beforehand how they will speak to their children, and what they will say. It can also be beneficial to let other adults in the child’s life, such as grandparents or other close family and friends, know what the discussion(s) with the children was like, what the children’s questions and concerns were, and how you addressed them. This way, children are getting clear messages from all the adults.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, it is absolutely okay to cry and be emotional when you talk to your other children about the loss of your baby. This allows them to express their emotions, and models for them that it’s natural to be sad when tragedy happens, that sharing bad feelings helps and supports everyone, and that negative emotions can be managed and regulated. These are valuable lessons for children and will enhance their ability to understand, identify and manage their own emotions.
How do children respond?
Children will respond differently depending on their age and stage of development as well as their own personality. They may be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings or they may express those feelings in their behavior or their play. Younger children may regress somewhat behaviorally and might, for a time, be more clingy than usual. Older children may become somewhat more anxious for a time and need more reassurance than they typically do. Other children will take in what you say and have no visible response. They may appear to “move on” almost immediately. There is a large range of typical responses.
Play is often a way that young children process new information and work out their feelings. If you see play that seems to be associated with your loss, this is how your child is trying to make sense of what is happening. Sometimes play around the loss can occurs days or weeks after the child has learned about what has happened. This is okay. You can, if you want, ask the child about the game they are playing and this could allow for further discussion; sometimes, however, children prefer to be left alone in their play, finding their own path through the many thoughts and feelings they may have.
Children sometimes ask the same questions repeatedly and over long periods of time. You may have an open, though painful, conversation with your child and they seem to understand, and then two days later, or two weeks later, they will bring up the loss again, perhaps asking the same questions or others. This is characteristic of how children process information – slowly and over time, with pauses in between to digest what they are hearing.
Children may share what happened with others in their lives – friends, teachers, other adults – or may just behave somewhat differently than they typically do in school or at other activities. It can be helpful to let teachers or others in school or the parents of your child’s good friends know what has happened, and how you have explained it to the child. It may be helpful to them in supporting your child or children when they are outside of your home.
It can be helpful for some children to engage in activities that honor the baby brother or sister that they will never meet. Depending on the age of the child, they can draw a picture for the baby, write the baby a letter, do an act or small project of chesed (good deed) for others, plant something in a garden, or participate in any activity that you do as a family to remember and honor your baby. It also can help to read to and with children as an adjunct to conversations and other activities. There are books for young children that deal with death, grief, love, and hope. A brief selection is listed below.
It may happen that another loss, such as the loss of a grandparent, will bring up many of the feelings and questions the child has about the current loss or the earlier loss of your baby. The child may be older and ready to understand and process their thoughts, feelings and the information that you share in a new way. For both adults and children, a fresh loss often re-opens prior grief, at least for a time.
For some families, it may be consistent to explain the loss of the baby using religious frameworks, such as heaven or the afterlife. If you intend to use this framework, it is important to ensure that your older child or children know that death is final, meaning that that they will not see their baby brother or sister alive and among us, though you will all always remember the baby in your hearts.
Talking to children about death and grieving is very hard, especially when you are grieving yourself. Openness, honesty and authentic feelings will increase your children’s trust in you as their parent, as all of you, with love and support, move toward hope and healing.
Books for young children about death, grief, hope and love
The Invisible String Patrice Karst
About the love that connects even when we are not togethe r
Where Do They Go? Julia Alvarez
About death and memories
Life is Like the Wind Shona Innes and Irisz Agocs
About death and life
My Sibling Still Megan Lacourrege
About the death of sibling and how that child always remains a part of the family
The Rabbit Listened Cori Doerrfeld
About the power of just listening when catastrophe happens
I Miss My Baby Pnina Rosenstark Based on actual events. Written by a mom about the loss of a one week old newborn. (Purchase through NechamaComfort)
The following book is formatted as a picture book but it is geared toward older children or adults:
Tear Soup Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen
About grief and mourning Download this article to share within your community.