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Friday Five: Five Tips to Support Bereaved Siblings

As a child life specialist, I have had the privilege of helping families navigate grief and loss—including supporting families through pregnancy loss. Combining our knowledge of child development, family systems, and bereavement support allow us to provide families with tools and language that provide them with guidance that is so desperately needed in this challenging time. My goal for this blog post is to break down what we know about families facing grief and loss during pregnancy and provide you with suggestions that can help your family navigate this huge loss.

Acknowledge and validate your own feelings around this loss

Taking a moment to discover for yourself what you’re experiencing around the loss of your baby is essential to having a conversation with your other children. During this time of reflection, you may recognize some of what you’re feeling and begin to name your own emotions. Putting language to your own feelings will be useful as you begin to talk with your children about what they are experiencing.

Consider who you want around you during the conversation

I recommend that you have as much or as little support as you need during this conversation. Some families prefer to have this conversation with just the nuclear unit in the home, while others prefer to have support workers (like child life specialists, social workers, and chaplains), or extended family they trust. It may be appropriate to ask at least 1 to 2 other trusted adults in the child’s life to attend the meeting so that you both have support during the conversation.

Set your expectations for yourself and your child

It is not necessary that your child leaves the conversation feeling “ok,” in fact, it makes complete sense that both of your reactions will be labeled as “ok.” So instead of focusing on making sure the words you use are perfect, focus on the feeling you want your child to leave the conversation with. Many families choose the feeling of “loved,” “supported,” or “together,” but I urge you to consider the theme you want your child to feel and begin to create the conversation from there.

Words to use when talking about pregnancy loss

Once you have decided on the theme, consider building your language around it. For example, if you want your child to leave feeling “loved,” you can start by saying, “I have some difficult and sad news to share, but when we finish talking I want you to know that you are completely and totally loved by every member in this family.” Then, use simple and concrete language to say what happened. “The baby in mommy’s tummy has died. This means that when they are born, they will not be breathing or have a heartbeat.” It is important to use words like dead, death, and dying to avoid any confusion that the baby is “asleep” or will be born alive. It’s normal for children, depending on their developmental level, to come to the conclusion that they have done something wrong or contributed negatively in some way. For this reason, consider saying out loud something like, “This is not your fault, it is not my fault, and it is not anyone’s fault.” It’s ok to acknowledge that you don’t know why this happened. Answering “I don’t know” is important, especially if it’s the truth. If you find that you are emotional during this conversation, that is completely understandable—you’ve just experienced a huge loss. Showing your own emotions and describing how you feel about it will signal the child to respond through their own emotions.

Examples of how children may respond

Children respond to difficult news and complex topics in a variety of ways, and there is no wrong or right way to react. What is important is to watch your child’s cues and allow them to lead the conversation accordingly. Some children may react with large, powerful emotions, while others may change the subject or ignore the information altogether. This can be alarming to parents, but is normal for children and may be a part of how they process information. If your child responds by changing the subject, you can acknowledge their redirection and say, “I can tell you don’t want to talk about this, but mommy and daddy will be here when you are ready.”

BONUS: How to conclude the conversation

Concluding the initial conversation should never be the “end” of the conversation. Instead, consider saying something like, “Although we are done talking here right now, we are always here to listen to how you feel and if you have any questions.” Encourage the child to name other trusted adults in their lives they can go to with questions and feelings. Ending the conversation by doing a “family activity” that feels normal to the child, like going for a walk, throwing the ball with dad, or watching a favorite show can help the child feel connected to those they love the most. Similarly, here are some things to do as a family when processing the death of your baby: * Write a family letter to the baby about how excited you were to meet them and what their life may have been like if they had been born alive. * Draw a family picture and include the baby in the drawing. * Take pictures/videos with the mom’s pregnant belly, which provides a sense of bonding to the child * Make a special spot in the home that siblings can go to when they are feeling sad and missing the baby (include a baby blanket, footprints, etc).
There is no wrong or right way to handle this conversation with your family. It's important to be honest and open about the feelings of loss. Regardless of how you decide to address it, it is essential to give your children space to grieve in their own way and provide them with support. If you need additional resources, please visit the Child Life websites listed below. Here are some resources and activities I recommend to families during pregnancy loss: Child Life on Call
Child Life Mommy
Child Life Grief Notes
Kids Grief Support

Meet Katie Taylor

Katie Taylor is a certified child life specialist, podcast host and CEO + Founder of Child Life On Call. With the expertise of a child life specialist and the heart of a momma, Katie’s passion is supporting parents, kids and the care team with the tools they deserve so they can go from overwhelmed to empowered during medical situations. With over a decade of in-hospital experience, Katie has helped hundreds of families cope with and navigate challenging life events. Katie graduated from the Pennsylvania State University and has studied and worked at facilities like Children’s National Medical Center, Inova Children’s Hospital, Dell Children’s Medical Center and St. David’s Children’s Hospital. She authored her first children’s book, Super Silly Wash Your Hands Dance, in early 2020 and has been featured in the media as a child development expert. When she’s not doing all things Child Life On Call, she loves spending time in the great trails of the Hill Country with her husband and two children, listening to audiobooks and visiting local Austin breweries.

Piper+Enza’s work has been profoundly shaped by our collaboration with Child Life Specialists and the valuable principles they employ to support families navigating a wide range of experiences and challenges as it relates to health. It has also transformed the way we approach conversations around physical and mental health with our own children. 

In particular, we have learned a great deal from Certified Child Life Specialist Katie Taylor and are happy to partner with her in creating this resource for the Pregnancy After Loss community. We hope it provides you with some insight in how to approach what can be an extremely difficult time for families.


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