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  • Writer's picturethesepreciouslittlepeople

The 'D' word

Updated: Aug 7, 2021

Death and children. Not words you want to see together in a sentence. But something that many children have to cope with, and often far sooner and more often than we would like. If we are lucky we peacefully shuffle off this mortal coil only when we have had a long, happy and fulfilled life. But reality isn’t a fairytale of happy ever afters and we cannot shield our children from the harsh realities of life forever. Figuring out how and when to explain death to children for the first time is something we often only face up to at a time of grieving ourselves. When putting 'talking to children about' into a search engine, the word 'death' is the first autofill suggestion on the list. This hints at how often we turn to the internet when asking difficult questions (or, indeed, any questions) – this is the ‘just Google it’ age after all – but also how unprepared we as a society often feel when initiating our youngest into one of the cruel inevitabilities of life.

When death concerns a baby it is harder still to explain it. This is surely mother nature at her cruellest. Even we as adults struggle to comprehend how a life can end before it even truly began. If you personally have been affected by the death of a baby you will know how gut-wrenchingly horrendous a shock it is. How it can feel like you have been shoved violently off a cliff edge and are falling endlessly into a dark oblivion with no hope of rescue. Our need to know why often goes unanswered. Many miscarriages are not even investigated, let alone explained, and sadly the reasons behind many stillbirths (even when a cause is identified) also remain a mystery to modern medicine. Even if a baby had a fatal diagnosis within the womb, or was born alive but was seriously ill in hospital, to have to accept that any chance of them going home has now vanished is absolutely earth-shattering. Children might not appear to have as deep an emotional attachment to the baby, and so might seem to grieve less intensely or very differently - the enormity and permanence of the loss is unlikely to hit them in the same way as it does adults - but it is still important to recognise that children grieve too.

The overwhelming consensus from experts in child psychology and bereavement support is to speak openly and honestly to children about death. Yet when it is our own children grief can cloud our thinking; our instinct to protect them can kick in and we can find ourselves fumbling about, tempted to clutch at well-worn clichés or platitudes. The ones surrounding the death of babies abound.

“We lost the baby”

“The baby was born sleeping”

“They are the brightest star in the sky”

“God needed another angel”

“The baby went to live in the clouds”

“The baby was poorly”

“The baby is gone”.

Seemingly harmless and possibly comforting to both adults and children. Why use words such as death and talk about bodies not working anymore, babies never coming back, hearts that have stopped beating, goodbyes that are forever. Just thinking about those harsh realities can make it impossible to speak the brutal truth of the tragedy that is confronting those affected. But imagining how these might sound from a child’s perspective can put another spin on these entirely. Children can be left confused, uncertain, fearful. Where did the baby go? When are they coming back? Can we get a rocket ship or a plane to go and bring them back or visit them? Why did God not need me to be an angel? What might happen when I go to sleep? What about if I get ill? But where IS the baby?

Children are not born with an automatic understanding of death, i.e. that it is universal, permanent, that it usually has a cause that we can understand (even if we find it hard to accept). Adults need to help children understand these concepts and this is best done by giving children clear, honest information on a frequent basis. Children’s understanding of death will depend largely upon their developmental stage and previous experience (if any) of death. Each child is unique, but even very young children experience feelings of pain and grief. They might well protest loudly and will need to be told repeatedly that the baby cannot return. Young children think ‘literally’ so use of language is extremely important. They may believe that their actions or thoughts can impact on the world around them and that, in some ways, they may have caused the death. They need to be told that babies die for a variety of reasons, but not because of anything anyone has said or thought. Children can usually understand that death is irreversible between the ages of five and eight. But they can ask frequent questions about death and may become pre-occupied with thoughts of death, which can be upsetting for those around them. They may have temper tantrums, experience difficulties sleeping, or have nightmares, and also may act younger than their age. Teenagers understand the concept of death, but do not have the emotional maturity to deal with it. It is normal for adolescents to have difficulty talking to their parents, but they need the opportunity to talk to trusted adults or peers. School can provide the security and routine that is needed when coping with a bereavement, however, it can also be a place where they feel isolated, different and have issues with school work. If a child senses a change in atmosphere around them because of the death of a baby, if they feel unable to ask questions or see the distress of adults without knowing the cause of it, they can be left feeling anxious, alone in their worries, and unsure of whether or not it is safe to express their own feelings.

Children of all ages enjoy books, and these can be shared in order to help open up conversations, to reassure them, to give some comfort, and even to offer hope that there will be brighter days ahead, even as they and others around them continue to grieve. This notion was the driving force behind ‘These Precious Little People’. Families are able to use it as a platform from which to explain more about what happened if required and as and when needed, and they can explore their personal beliefs around what happens beyond death. No religion is referred to but neither does the text exclude the possibility that a higher being is able to provide some answers and further comfort and reassurance. You can read more on why I feel this book is a much-needed addition to the genre of children’s books that deal with bereavement here, and order a copy here. I have also written a blog post all about books that I have found useful to read with my living children here.

I welcome your thoughts on explaining the death of a baby to children and any experiences you feel able to share.

With thanks to the following webpages for their guidance on this difficult topic: Sands, Child Bereavement UK, Miscarriage Association, Child Development Institute, Barnados, and Psychology Today.



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