We received a question this week about resources for talking with children about miscarriage and stillbirth. Though we have lots of resources about talking to kids about death and grief (you can find those here), I realized we have never explicitly written about talking to kids about miscarriage or stillbirth, and that seems like a real oversight.
Moreover, when I started looking for other resources on the topic, I was shocked at how little I could turn up. With 10 to 15 out of every 100 known pregnancy ending in a miscarriage or stillbirth, this is an issue that many families with young children face. No surprise, we decided to do what we do best here at WYG - dig into the literature and share some information and tips on telling kids about miscarriage and stillbirth.
Before we go any further, I want to give a language disclaimer. We are well aware that there are strong feelings about the language used around miscarriage, stillbirth, pregnancy loss, infant loss, and child loss. We also understand why there is so much debate around the terminology. We understand that many people feel the term 'miscarriage' carries a tone of blame and that 'pregnancy loss' feels minimizing and invalidating. On the other hand, we also understand that many people prefer these very terms. Like so many things in grief, the language is a personal choice about what feels right.
For the purpose of this article, we will use the terms that are most commonly used, and hence most commonly searched. Please know that we are using this language to help people find this information, but we support whatever terminology you feel best reflects your experience.
Speaking of your own experience, before we start talking about supporting your little ones, let’s talk about you real quick. We have said, time and again, that supporting kids starts with taking care of yourself - which means tending to your own grief. So before you get too far into this post, you might want to go check out a couple of the posts we have on coping with pregnancy losses.
Okay, onto kids. The questions we receive about talking to kids about miscarriages and stillbirths are usually pretty broad and, really, encompass a series of questions. Here are some of the basics we are going to cover today:
- Should I tell my child about my miscarriage or stillbirth?
- If so, when should I tell my child?
- How should I talk to my child about miscarriage?
- What should I expect from my child?
All good and reasonable questions! Let’s take them one by one.
Should I tell my child about my miscarriage?
If you told them about your pregnancy, you should tell them about your miscarriage. We have heard and read plenty of stories about parents who assume that children who are in the 2-4 age range are too young to fully understand and won’t fully remember the pregnancy, so there is no need to tell them. Often this comes from a protective place and the worry that telling them will be unnecessarily difficult.
Here is the problem: kids usually understand more than we think, pick up on more than we think, remember more than we think. So the decision not to say something often results in children asking questions later, feeling confused, or silently wondering.
But what if I didn’t tell my child about the pregnancy?
This is a more complicated question. If your child didn't know about the pregnancy, there might not be a need or reason to share the loss with them. That said, as you grieve, your children will likely see and recognize that something is off. REALLY. I know you might want to believe that your kids don't notice when you're sad, but quite often they can tell when there has been an emotional shift.
Often, the confusion and worry of not knowing what is going on can feel more unsettling than being told, in a supportive way, why Mom and/or Dad are feeling sad. Also, such a conversation can model for children that painful feelings are tough, but not too be feared, and creates a family culture where everyone can talk openly about their emotions.
When should I tell my child about my miscarriage or stillbirth?
This is a harder question to answer, as it very much depends on you and your family. If there has been a lot of conversation about a new baby coming and your child has been bringing it up regularly, it will probably be best to tell the child sooner than later. It will be potentially hard for you and the child if you have to have conversations that are not honest and transparent about what has happened.
That said, make sure you feel prepared and well-supported in having the conversation. This doesn’t mean you have to wait until you feel confident you won’t be emotional (that may never happen!). But you do want to make sure you feel able to stay relatively clear and calm and that you have support from someone if you want it - perhaps a partner, family member, or friend who will be part of the conversation, in case you find yourself more overwhelmed by emotion than you expect.
How do you explain miscarriage or stillbirth to a child?
For many, this is the most important question: What should I say and how should I say it?
The first consideration is your child's age. Today, we are focusing on younger kids, who developmentally might not fully understand abstract and conceptual things like death and miscarriage. If you'd like information on the influence of developmental age on understanding, check out this article.
Tip #1: Keep in mind that euphemism is confusing for children, so the goal is to come up with an explanation that is comfortable for you, but also direct and easy for your child to understand.
Tip #2: It's often best to provide young children with small amounts of information at a time. So ideally you would share a little with them, confirm their understanding, and then elaborate further if they have questions.
Tip #3: Something that makes this conversation a little more difficult is the fact that the concept of pregnancy can be difficult for young children to grasp, to begin with. So, it may be useful to start with a review of what you've already told them.
This might go something like "Mommy wants to talk to you about the baby. Remember when we talked about the baby growing inside of mommy's tummy? And I told you that soon the baby would get big enough to live outside mommy's tummy, just like you did?".
Tip # 4: You may feel like, if you're telling them the truth, you have to give them all the medical specifics. Unless a child asks for more information, the specific details often won't be necessary.
Instead, a simple statement that explains the baby was not strong enough to live outside of mommy's tummy is a good place to start. This might sound something like, "When the doctor check to see how the baby was growing, she found that the baby wasn't growing big and strong enough to live outside of mommy's tummy. That means the baby died."
Whether or not a child already understands death can change the course of the conversation here, so be sure to assess what your child knows. You may want to ask, "Do you know what it means when someone dies?". Explain that when someone or something dies, their body stops working and that is what happened to the baby.
Tip #5: Explain to the child that it's no one's fault that the baby died. Especially if the child wasn't excited about having a brother or sister, as children often engage in 'magical thinking'. Magical thinking is when a child doesn't fully understand the relationship between their thoughts and the world. In this instance, they may mistakenly think that it's their fault the baby died because they didn't want a brother or sister.
Tip #6: Share with the child that, even though the baby never left mommy's tummy, the baby will always be a part of the family. Also, make sure they know it will always be okay to talk about the baby and to ask questions. You may consider asking your child if they want to think about a way to say goodbye to the baby, perhaps by drawing a picture, singing a song, planting a tree, or anything else that feels right for your child and your family.
Tip #7: It's important to normalize and validate emotions - their emotions and the emotions of others. Let them know that others may cry and feel sad and that it's okay if they feel sad too. Remind your child that they can always share what they are feeling with you.
Tip #8: Remember that things like normalcy and routine are important for children. So let them know that, although things feel different right now, they will continue to be taken care of, that you will be there for them, and that things will be okay.
This guide from the Miscarriage Association in the UK has some examples of language and explanations other families have used.
A note on religion
If you have a religious belief system, this might be part of the conversation with your child as well. Just remember that religion can present abstract ideas that can be confusing to young children, so make sure to be direct and reassuring. Phrases like, 'your brother was so good that God needed him in heaven' may raise questions like, "am I not good enough?" or "if I am too good, will God make me die too?". Phrases like "he is in a better place" can also prove confusing.
What can I expect from my child?
It's difficult for us to tell you what to expect from your children because, as you know, all kids are different. Although some of these responses may take you by surprise, just know that the following is totally normal:
- If the child has specific curiosities about the physical aspects of the miscarriage or stillbirth.
- If the child seems like they don’t care
- If the child’s response seems selfish or self-centered
- If the child says something matter-of-fact or direct
- If the child has existential questions or observations about the meaning of life and death
- If the child makes angry, blaming statements
- The child seems sad and grieving one minute, and then is happy and playing the next minute.
These are all normal responses. Remember, there’s a wide range of responses and children will grieve little-by-little over time or in fits and starts. Do your best to respond to their questions and comments in a calm, validating, and non-judgmental way. Most importantly, keep the dialogue open. Kids may have questions much later, so make sure they know this is something they can always ask and talk about.
What's your advice?
So much of coping with grief is what we all learn along the way, as we stumble through the dark and try to find a path forward. If you have experience talking with children about miscarriage or stillbirth, or if you remember a parent talking with you, let us know your thoughts! Good experiences? Bad experiences? More questions? Whatever it is, leave a comment!
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