Facing the death of a loved one is, perhaps, the single most difficult event we must experience, and regardless of how recent or long ago it was, feelings of grief are often aroused during the holiday season.
As a parent, explaining the death of a loved one to children can compound the intense feelings of loss.
“Talking about death can be uncomfortable for families,” says Nannette Thomas, program and resource coordinator for Lost & Found Grief Center in Springfield. “It is important that parents are honest with their child when talking about the death of a loved one, in an age appropriate manner.”
Keith Wilson, MS, LPC, NCC at the Robert J. Murney Clinic in Springfield, says children react according to their current physical and emotional development.
“While very young children may not fully understand death, they do understand loss,” he says.
It’s important for parents to “follow the child’s lead and use teachable moments to help their child understand loss: news, pet loss, someone moving away, etc.”
Wilson says euphemisms, such as “passed away”, “put the dog to sleep” or “they went on a long journey” may be more confusing to children than using concrete words, like died and dead.
“When parents are open and honest about the loss, children will feel more secure,” he says. “Discussing death and loss with children will not be a one-time conversation: Children ask more questions as they grow and develop their own understanding, and they often re-grieve as they reach new developmental stages.”
Wilson adds that being honest with children is key.
“When adults talk about their emotions, they create a positive model for how their children should follow and cope,” he says.
“Remember, it’s okay if adults don’t have all the answers. It’s okay to tell your child, ‘I don’t know.’”
You’re Not Alone
Often times, many can find solitude in knowing they are not alone in their grief, especially around the holidays, and there are local resources and groups available to help.
“The holidays can be very difficult for those of us who have lost a baby–especially for Christian families, because it’s a holiday centered around the birth of a baby,” says Heather Fann, director of the southwest Missouri chapter of M.E.N.D., a Christian nonprofit corporation that serves those who have lost a child to miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death.
“Many times, our families and friends don’t recognize that it might be impossible for us to participate in the ‘normal’ holiday activities,” she adds.
“Take your time, and do not do anything you do not want to do,” says Alliena Kyger, co-founder of the Miracle Wings Foundation, a local organization that brings together resources for families experiencing stillbirth and early infant loss before they leave the hospital.
“If you want to stay home, then do,” she says. “You need to do what is right for you and your grief. Be gentle on yourself this holiday.”
Both Fann and Kyger say that many families want to remember and commemorate a lost child, especially during the holiday season, and that’s okay.
“At M.E.N.D., we offer our bereaved families the opportunity to recognize their babies during the holidays with a Christmas Candlelight Ceremony,” Fann says. “Our hope is that once they can pause and honor their babies, then they can go on and function as best as possible in other traditions.”
M.E.N.D. offers additional recognition ceremonies during the year, where family members and subsequent children/siblings are also invited to attend.
“These events are often eye-opening to extended family in seeing that their loved one is not alone in how they are grieving their baby, and that, in fact, many families choose to honor their babies rather than forget them,” Fann says.
Fann and Kyger both offer suggestions on how to honor a lost child during the holiday season: hang a special stocking or ornament; purchase gifts for a child the age their baby would be and donate them to a local toy drive; light a candle; visit their grave; and/or release a balloon.
Kyger points out that, “It is important to remember that mothers and fathers are not the only ones who lost a child. That child was also a grandbaby, niece/nephew, cousin, sibling, etc.”
Children expecting to be siblings often have many questions, and Fann explains that M.E.N.D. can help in providing anecdotal advice by sharing experiences and information through monthly meetings (1st Thursday of every month at Project HOPE, 1419 S. Enterprise, Springfield at 7 p.m.), a bi-monthly newsletter, website and recognition ceremonies.
“At our meetings, we have many resources for explaining the loss of a baby to brothers or sisters who were expecting a baby to come home,” Fann says. “We also suggest that parents allow their children to see them grieve in healthy ways to give them the freedom to do the same.”
Fann also points out that while children will have questions, their grieving process is different from adults’ processes.
“Often times, we underestimate the ability of children to understand death,” she says. “Kids are very literal. You tell them the baby died and that it’s now in heaven, and they respond with: ‘Cool (brother) is with Jesus,’ and then ask for dessert.”
For families seeking support for themselves and their children after experiencing the death of a parent or sibling, Lost & Found was founded my local philanthropists to avoid troubles that may arise from unresolved grief.
With support groups for adults, teens and children, Lost & Found Grief Center provides grief support services, free of charge.
“When families come to the Conor House, they have the opportunity to see where their groups will meet, and ask any questions they might have,” Thomas says. “Our goal is for each child to feel completely comfortable once they enter groups.
“During the orientation, we try to address any concerns or questions that a parent or caregiver might have to help put their mind at ease,” she says.
Each group meets for 90 minutes in the evening twice a month.
“Too many times we are told to ‘move on’ or ‘get over it,’” Kyger says. “Great sadness is the price we pay for the greater love we have for children, whether they were lost at 4 weeks gestation or 40 years of life.
“We never stop loving our children, even in death.”
Grieving signs in children
- Changes in eating habits, sleeping habits and/or bathroom habits
- Signs of regression (engaging in behavior they had outgrown)
- Being afraid to go to sleep, or go to daycare while demanding extra attention from their parents
Source: Keith Wilson, MS, LPC, NCC; Robert J. Murney Clinic in Springfield
Tips for those that care and want to offer support
“People should absolutely avoid ‘I know what you’re feeling,’ because even those of us who have lost babies grieve differently. Most of the time people speak to parents with the best of intentions, but typically the more people talk the more their comments are wrong.
It is always hurtful for someone to tell a grieving mother or father, ‘You’re so young; you’ll have more,’ ‘Oh, it was just a miscarriage, 1 in 4 happen,’ ‘God must have needed your baby in heaven,’ ‘God must have known it would have a lot of health problems if it lived.”
We always recommend families name their babies, especially in early losses as it gives them and their support members something more tangible to grieve. Those around us should use our babies’ names whenever possible. They need to be willing to ask us how we’re doing and be okay with us bursting into tears. They need to be willing to ask again another day and listen when we talk to them about adjusting to our ‘new normal.’
The best thing to do to help a grieving parent is to simply show up. Most people quit calling or talking about the loss with the parent after a couple weeks. But this loss is for a lifetime. Show up and say, ‘I have no idea how you are feeling and you might not even know what you need, but know that I love you, I’m so sorry for your loss and when you do know what you need, I want to be able to give it to you.’”
Source: Heather Fann, M.E.N.D. southwest Missouri director
Looking for Support?
Lost & Found
Lost & Found Grief Center works with the bereaved to provide education and support as they travel their journey of grief to find peace, hope, and a new normal as they face life without their deceased loved one. In order to get enrolled in a group at Lost & Found individuals need to contact the Lost & Found office. After getting initial information, we will schedule an orientation and place a family in group.
Phone: (417) 865-9998
Address: 1006 N. Cedarbrook Ave., Springfield
M.E.N.D. is a ministry for parents and family members who have suffered the death of a baby. The organization’s once-a-month meetings provide a place of comfort, healing and support for those who have experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, or early infant loss.
Phone: (417) 818-0489
Address: Meetings are held at Project HOPE, 1419 S. Enterprise, Springfield at 7 p.m.
Miracle Wings Foundation
The foundation focuses on supporting families facing miscarriage, stillbirth and early infant loss by providing resource pamphlets to hospitals that then distribute them to families in need so that they can leave the hospital with tools to help begin their journey to healing. The foundation is also anticipating to extend its services to assist with funeral costs and planning for those in the Springfield, Missouri area.
Phone: (417) 576-5471
The Murney Clinic
The Murney Clinic hosts several private practice providers that can help children and parents work through and understand grief. Several of the providers also specialize in play and art therapies. The Murney Clinic is also able to offer the community counseling in problems areas such as grief, depression, and anxiety through our community service practice. These counseling services are offered by students, interns, and their practicing supervisors at a reduced, sliding scale cost.
Phone: (417) 893-7990
Address: 1322 S. Campbell Ave., Springfield