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  • Writer's picturethesepreciouslittlepeople

#TogetherForChange - be the change you want to see in the world - let children grieve too

Updated: Aug 7, 2021

I have heard a lot in recent years about breaking the silence that exists around the death of a baby. It is heartening to see many more conversations starting up, the stigma around baby loss lessening, bereaved parents feeling less isolated. There are a number of books that now exist (or soon will) that are striving to do more of the same - some that have literally just been published this autumn - and as an avowed bookworm I am always keen to see more giving a voice to the experiences of so many. It is really important to help bereaved parents feel more comforted, less alone, and to help those wanting to support them have a better chance of understanding what they are going through. But a big part of the reason why I have wanted to publish These Precious Little People, a book for children affected by the death of a baby during pregnancy or soon after birth, is that there doesn't seem to be the same effort being made with regards to making those conversations, those experiences, that invitation to grieve openly and honestly, accessible to children.

The story that appeared in the summer of the orca whale mother that carried around her stillborn calf - with the full support of her pod might I add, and for 17 days in total - was incredibly moving. It did not surprise me in the least that she was unwilling to let go of her baby, that she needed time to process the loss of something so precious to her. A life that she nurtured for so long inside of her. She waited to welcome her offspring into the world and yet she never saw that child of hers take a breath. She needed to mourn - the world could see that - yet I saw more outpouring of empathy for this animal than I often see for humans in similar throes of grief. As a society we tend to put a time limit on grief, not realising that maintaining our connection to a loved one who has died can be perfectly healthy. It is also totally normal. It shows that we love deeply and that we wish to honour what that person meant to us. In my experience remembering grandparents fondly is never met with the levels of discomfort that is felt from some people when it is a child who is being mourned. Bereaved parents still want to talk about their time with their children, however short it was - who we think our babies looked like, or would have looked like (perhaps joking about how big their feet were - my husband and I both have large feet so Esme had no chance of inheriting a dainty pair!), reminiscing about foods that were craved or songs that were listened to during the pregnancy, the joy we felt at seeing their gorgeous little profiles during scans - why we chose their name, how their lives changed us - often for the better - and what we do in their memory now.

Lori Christopher's painting, See Me, depicting southern resident killer whale J-35 — also known as Tahlequa — went viral after she posted it on Facebook. (Lori Christopher/Facebook)

I have more than likely been as guilty as anyone for being nervous at times when it comes to approaching this topic with children. We are often so desperate within our culture to try and shield our little ones from the horrible realities of life - many children’s books dealing with grief are very gentle, often involving cuddly-looking animals gathering to mourn a much-loved but generally elderly companion - but when a baby dies, there is not really any escaping just how tragic and untimely it is. What is harder to remember at times like this is that children are not stupid. They are capable of understanding (or at least starting to understand) far more than we give them credit for. They often pick up on adults around them being stressed, worried or upset before we are fully able to acknowledge and address our own feelings. So them picking up on our distress and shock after the death of a baby is only natural, and it can be far scarier and unsettling for them that it needs to be if they are not adequately guided through what has happened and why everyone is so devastated. We often dismiss the fact that they are more than capable of grieving too. So in my opinion the last thing children need if a baby dies is for the grown ups around them to shut down conversation about it and stifle their emotions in their presence. I’m a big believer in modelling the behaviour we wish our children to emulate. Therefore is it actually such a terrible thing then for them to see that if something truly awful happens that it’s ok to feel heartbroken? That they can cry and not feel that they have to hide away their tears? That they can talk about their sadness and remember that person openly? It might go against what many of us have been taught about grief, but if we wish to change things we need not only to open up amongst ourselves more as adults, but extend that invitation to the next generation - leading by example. Many bereaved parents I know have been encouraged if not instructed by the older generation to 'move on' and 'stop talking about that sad thing that happened', as if we could even if we wanted to. Things are changing, thankfully, and even though these comments still hurt we can confidently ignore them if not forgive them. But just imagine how much things will change for our children if we can teach them from a young age that it is healthy and acceptable to grieve openly and unashamedly?

Some fellow bereaved parents I am in contact with through social media took a holiday over the summer and talked with the children there with them - aged 18 months, 5 and 10 years old - about how they could remember and honour the life of a little boy called Dexter, who they all know about. Dexter is the son of their godmother Ruth, and they all have a sound understanding of who he is, despite the fact they were never able to meet him. They wanted to show the world that they were thinking of Dexter and other babies gone too soon. The eldest suggested that the names of some of these babies be written down and put in a bottle that could be launched out to sea. Whoever found the bottle on its return to shore would then have the opportunity to gain an appreciation of what these precious little people mean to the family and friends left missing them. What an incredibly thoughtful and special way to pay tribute to those little ones - together they enjoyed writing the babies’ names down and took part in the ceremony of wishing the bottle well on its journey. They had been having a wonderful holiday, and taking a little bit of time out to do this did not change that in the slightest. On the contrary, it meant a lot to them all to be able to acknowledge all the little ones that could also have been enjoying family holidays in the sunshine this year if their lives hadn't been cut so short. They were able to recognise that just because these children are not here growing up with us it does not mean that they are not with us in our hearts and minds.

Esme being remembered in front of Dunstaburgh Castle, Northumberland

So many beautiful babies being honoured

The bottle being sent out to sea at Seahouses, Northumberland

So my plea to the world, including those of us within the baby loss community, is to accept that children have a right to remember these precious little people and to grieve along with us if they need to. We can all embrace our wish to honour our little ones gone too soon, we can find ways to pay tribute to them together, we can speak freely of them in front of young and old, include them in family traditions (go ahead and hang a stocking for them at Christmas time if you want - light a candle for or raise a glass to them during special gatherings if you wish - carry out acts of kindness in their memory); we can continue to love them fiercely and protect their place within our hearts. You can read more about how to talk to children about death and find further support here. You can also read more on why I feel the book I have written for children affected by the death of a baby is a much-needed addition to the genre of children’s books that deal with bereavement here, and order a copy here.



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