Q. Our first daughter was stillborn at full-term and just over a year later our second daughter was born alive and well. She is now two and a half years old. Our first daughter is very much an important part of our lives and we regularly talk about her within the family. We have photos of her around our home and say goodnight to her at bedtime as we try to keep her memory alive.
Up until this point we have told our daughter that her big sister is up in the sky playing with the little birdies and this answer has satisfied her thus far. She now likes to spot these little birds and mentions her sister’s name when she does. We have never said that she is sleeping or was sick or other things like that for fear of scaring her. She is now, however, beginning to ask questions such as, “I want to see/play with her” and “Why is she up in the sky?”
We also visit her sister’s grave quite regularly and she enjoys playing there, putting flowers on the grave and saying goodbye when she’s leaving. Again though, she is beginning to ask questions about why we are going to the graveyard, where is her sister and can we bring her home? We are at somewhat of a loss as to how to answer these questions with age-appropriate answers that will not frighten her but will satisfy her curiosities.
We have a book called ‘Someone Came Before You’ which we sometimes read with her but it doesn’t quite answer the questions in hand. We are aware that these questions will become more regular and demanding as time goes on and want to be as prepared as we can. Can you suggest any tips for dealing with this issue or recommend any books that might help us?
A. One of the big challenges in talking to children about death is what it raises in us as parents. The innocent questions of children about death can bring up our own anxieties and cause us to wonder about what we really believe about death and even to question our own beliefs. Talking to children about death can lead to some very uncomfortable questions such as “Will you die?” or “Will I die too?” which can lead to children feeling fearful or worried when they realise the answers.
Our natural instinct as parents is to try to protect our children from worries, and this can cause us to avoid talking about death or to do it in a less-than-factual way that denies the reality with our children. The challenge is to find a way of truthfully answering their questions in a way that they understand.
A further complication is that children understand death differently at different ages. At two years of age, children generally don’t understand the permanence of death and frequently wonder where the person is and when the person is coming back. It is not until three or four years that children understand the concept of death and at this age they wonder about the how, why and when people die. Often they can worry about their own death or the death of their parents and being left alone, and this is hard for parents to hear.
Given your daughter is two and a half, I would say that her questions seem perfectly normal for her age as she is trying to work out in her mind where her sister is and what death means. The key is to try to give her the facts in a way she understands – that her sister died as a baby, and though she is not coming back you can all remember and think of her.
Given that your daughter wonders about her sister coming back, it is important to emphasise the permanence of death and how you do this depends on your spiritual beliefs and whether you believe in an after life. For example, some parents talk about the child as having gone to heaven or God, and that you will eventually see her again. Alternatively, some parents talk of going to a special place, and though they can’t come back, you can remember them.
As well as the book you mention – Someone Came Before You – there are many good children’s books on explaining death such as Waterbugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney, which tells the story of waterbugs transforming into dragonflies and going on to a new stage of life from where they can’t go back. Though she might be a bit young to fully understand these stories, they may be very useful as she gets older.
When you raise the subject with your daughter, make sure to listen carefully to any underpinning worries she might have (such as a fear of other people dying) that might be important for her to express as she gets older.
The key is to listen to her feelings and give lots of grounded reassurance – that most people live until they are very old and most people who get sick get better and so on.
Rituals which focus on remembering such as going to the grave, reviewing photos, talking about her sister, can all help you as a family with coping with the loss and it is important to include your daughter in some of these. However, be cautious about over-involving her as well. There is a delicate balance of remembering her sister and also moving on and letting her live her own life.
Be self-aware and sensitive to where you are at with the loss of your first child. Remember that you have been through a bereavement and it is important that you feel okay about seeking your own support as needed.
There are plenty of organisations that can support you if need be such as A Little Lifetime Foundation (isands.ie) or you could consider contacting a bereavement counselling service. There are also some good books for parents such as When a Baby Dies: The Experience of Late Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Neonatal Death by Nancy Kohner that you might find helpful. While, of course, you may always feel a sense of loss, the more integrated and accepting you feel about your bereavement, the easier it will be for you to judge how to help your daughter.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, November 2010. John writes in The Irish Newspaper Health+ every Tuesday.