by Jessi Snapp
I spent a lot of time during my pregnancy trying to figure out where my living child would fall into all of this. I struggled with how much and how little to share. We chose not to blanket the truth from him. I knew that he needed to know and it was my job to prepare him for what was ahead. As much as I hated it, I had to do it because I wanted my son to be a part of his brother's short life. As well as understand why it was important to make the most of our time with him.
But how do you prepare a child to lose someone they love too? There really is no right answer to this question. But here are some suggestions and tips on how to prepare siblings the best you can. Ultimately, it is your choice and everyone will go about it differently. I can only share from my educational background and personal experience.
-Wait until the diagnosis is official. There is no need to cause undue anxiety/fear. It might be the best option to wait until you receive the official diagnosis or at least know the likely outcome if you do not have an "official diagnosis." Give yourself time to process first. This will allow you to better answer questions that may arise when you break the news to your child.
- Be honest. This doesn't mean you have to give every single little detail, but it is best to tell the truth. This prevents them from being blindsided later. It also allows them to be a part of their sibling’s journey and to make memories with them. It can help them to have a better understanding of what is going to happen.
-Don't bombard. Be cautious not to bombard young children with information that they cannot understand. You know your child better than anyone. Go with your gut as to how much is too much. A fatal/life limiting diagnosis is overwhelming for the entire family. Give them what they need to know and allow them to ask questions if they have any.
- Choose your words wisely. Children, especially very young, internalize a lot of things. When we use words like "sick" or "ill" they can become frightened that they might die if they become sick. So, if you are using the word "sick" to explain your baby's diagnosis, it is a good idea to explain that most of the time when someone is sick - they get better. Sickness does not equate death. We personally never used the words "sick" or "ill" since my son was 5 at the time. We were able to explain things in a little more detail. Also, know it okay to use words like "death" and "dying," as morbid as it may seem - it is our reality. These words will probably evoke a lot of conversation, but these conversations are important if you want to prepare your child.
-It is not their fault. This is a given but one that needs to be said. Because children do internalize things, it is important to express that this is not their fault. And it isn't yours either.
-Mom will be okay. Children may worry about mom since she is the one carrying baby. For instance, my son often worried that I might meet the same fate as his baby brother. Reassure your children that you are safe and will be okay if in fact there is no danger posed to you. Even if they don't express concern - it is worth mentioning.
-Make memories. Just as we want to make memories with our babies, we should allow our children to do the same. My son loved to tell his brother jokes, feel him kick, read him books, and sing songs. Let children be involved in picking outfits or a special item for their sibling. We took our son to build-a-bear and created a special heartbeat bear for his brother. He brought it to the hospital the day his brother was born and it is now a very special memento that he cherishes.
-Decide if they will meet. I have heard stories from mothers who were apprehensive about letting their children meet their sibling. Especially if they were expecting severe anomalies. I will admit I was one of those mothers. I was actually more worried about my son holding his deceased brother than him seeing his brothers anomalies. But I knew I wanted them to meet no matter the outcome. This decision is yours and yours alone (and your child's if you choose to let them decide). I think it is important to share that I would have regretted not letting my boys meet, even though my son had already passed when they did. No matter the age of your child, it is okay to let them meet their sibling. But again, there is no right or wrong choice here - you decide what is best for your family. Prepare your child accordingly by talking about what they can expect. Know that it is okay to change your mind last minute.
-Take Photos. I don't have many photos of my boys together. But I cherish the ones I do have. My son cherishes the pictures of him and his brother too. Take photos during pregnancy and after birth of your children together. This may be your only opportunity to capture all of your children together. This will provide your other children to have photos to keep later on.
-It's okay to cry in front of your children. While we aim to shelter our children from life's storms, it's okay to show emotions. We can't always be strong and it is healthy to let our children see us cry from time to time. I can recall a few times where we all cried together as a family. It brought us closer together and it also showed my child that he could share his emotions with us.
-Take time to talk. The initial conversation will be hard and overwhelming for most. After this conversation be sure to check in with your child and see how he or she is feeling and if they have any unanswered questions. Make yourself available so they can come to you when they have any questions or anxieties about the situation.
-Every child is different. This means that all children will not handle this the same way. Some may be more distraught and others more matter of fact. This is okay and completely normal. Your children will handle it their way so it is important not to take their reaction personally. All we can do is love them through it.
-Children grieve too. Anticipatory grief affects us as well as our children. Anticipatory grief is a normal reaction that can be experienced by children when there is fear or knowledge that their sibling is not going to survive. Children will grieve with the family, even before the loss actually occurs. Allow room for their anticipatory grief along with yours. Validate their feelings and let them know they aren't alone. Don't be surprised if your child acts out.
-Read books. This is one of the most beneficial ways to help your child process. Reading books about sibling loss can help prepare them for what is yet to come. It also creates bonding time and opportunities to talk about feelings. Take advantage of books. They can explain things that we may struggle to. It may seem incredibly out of place to read books about loss before your baby is even born, but it can help to prepare your children what to expect. Reading these books can be a very emotional experience for you as well as your child. Read these books as often as your child wants.
Here is a recommended book list for children:
* "We Were Gonna Have a Baby, but We Had an Angel Instead" by Pat Schwiebert. A story of a boy expecting to have a baby sibling, but the sibling passes away. Gentle and simple enough for young children.
* “Something Happened: A book for children and parents who have experienced pregnancy loss” by Cathy Blanford.
* “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst. This book isn't about pregnancy or loss at all, but rather the love that connects a family together. This was a great way to explain to a child that even when a person isn't with us they live in our heart because we love them.
* “Thumpy's Story: A Story of Love and Grief Shared” by Nancy C. Dodge. This book is about death of a sibling and the different ways grief is experienced as told by Thumpy the bunny. Personally, this was my favorite because it is incredibly honest and real. It not only talks about loss but grief also. I would recommend this book for children 5+.
* Water Bugs and Dragonflies: Explaining death to young children" by Doris Stickney. This is a beautiful story that explains death and what lies after in a gentle way. Perfect for preschoolers and above.
* If you are a person of faith and believe in heaven, “God Gave Us Heaven” by Lisa Tawn Bergren is a good option.
Every journey and every child is different. There is more than one way to go about preparing children and lot of that will be based on the age of your children and your family’s beliefs and values. Just know that the decisions you make about how much or how little you prepare your children are the right decisions for your family. You have your child's best interest at heart. The most important thing in all of this is love. Just love your children through this the best you can.
~ ~ ~
Jessi Snapp resides in Indiana where she is pursuing her master’s degree in social work. She is married to her wonderful husband, Karl, and she is a mother to one living child and three in Heaven. After enduring two losses to miscarriage, Jessi became pregnant with her son Silas Edison who was diagnosed with Trisomy 18 at 20 weeks gestation. Silas was born and passed on August 20, 2014. Though his life was brief, he is loved for a lifetime. In Silas’ memory, Jessi turned his nursery into an art studio where she creates custom memorial art for other babies gone too soon. You can find her heart-centered work at LuminousLightStudio and on Facebook. She is also the newest contributor for Still Standing Magazine.