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When a baby sister dies: talking to kids about death


Note:

  1. This post contains reference to stillbirth. It might be difficult to read. Please read it only if and when you are ready.
  2. This is one family’s story. I encourage you to seek help in the context of your own circumstances.

Tragedy. Crime. Death.

We shelter our kids from these topics and other cares of the adult world to let them “be kids” for as long as possible. We turn off the news. We discuss after bedtime.

But what happens when death visits your immediate family?

In 2013, Susannah Rose’s second child was stillborn at 38 weeks gestation.

How Susannah and her family enabled their two year old daughter to experience the loss of baby Clementine, and how they continue to acknowledge and honour Clementine, is all at once both heartbreaking and inspirational.

This is Susannah’s story.

Susannah’s story

Lauren Gardiner (LG): What is the background to your experience?

Susannah Rose (SR): Our first child, Eleanor, was born in 2011. The pregnancy was relatively problem free, and I had a water birth. It was all that we had hoped it would be.

In 2013, I was pregnant again with our second child. Because we’d had a relatively problem free experience the first time, we went into it feeling positive.

I just thought… I’m pregnant and so, in nine months, I’ll have a baby!

However, my second pregnancy was more complicated than my first.

Two weeks before my due date, I felt our baby, a little girl, had stopped moving. The hospital later confirmed that she had died. It was such a shock for us. I had heard of stillbirth, but I didn’t know that it was a possible outcome. Scans had identified that she was a particularly little baby, but everything suggested she was otherwise perfectly fine.

Eleanor was only two when our baby, named Clementine, died. We had read lots of books preparing her to be a big sister, I was visibly pregnant, and the nesting was complete.

LG: But then the baby suddenly wasn’t coming home. Not ever. How did you approach it with Eleanor?

SR: After Clementine was born, our midwife arranged, at our request, for a photographer from Heartfelt, a volunteer organisation of professional photographers that photograph families that have experienced stillbirth, premature birth or have children with serious and terminal illness (for more see https://www.heartfelt.org.au/) to take photos of Clementine.

We were asked if we wanted to include Eleanor in the photos.

Initially we said, “No.”

We thought it would be too much. Too confronting. Too difficult for her. Too upsetting. We wanted to protect her from the reality of the situation and our grief.

But our midwife, who was very experienced and knew us well, encouraged us to think about what the photos and the experience of meeting Clementine could mean to Eleanor.

In the end, we decided to invite Eleanor to be a part of the photo session.

And Eleanor wanted in.

The photographs, some of which include Eleanor holding Clementine, are especially beautiful and precious. They are really all we have to remember the short amount of time we had with Clementine.

And as it has turned out, the photos are incredibly special to Eleanor. It’s through the photos that she has a real connection to her sister.

E, S and C
Eleanor holding baby Clementine.

LG: How did you explain Clementine’s death to Eleanor?

SR: The same midwife prepared us to talk with Eleanor.

We were advised to share information that was appropriate to her age and to be guided by her and any questions she asked. For Eleanor at two years of age and in our circumstances, this meant:

  • explaining things simply and literally. Explaining that Clementine was “asleep” or “had gone to heaven” could have been confusing because Eleanor might have wondered where heaven was or why we couldn’t just go and get Clementine. Instead we talked about how your heart beats and that is how you know you are alive. We talked about how when a person dies, their heart stops beating. Eleanor could feel her own heart beating. She could hear it too. And then we talked about how Clementine’s heart had stopped beating and we couldn’t feel or hear her heartbeat. And this meant that Clementine had died;
  • being honest about the things we didn’t know – like why Clementine had died; and
  • answering Eleanor’s questions in a simple, honest and literal way. For example, Eleanor asked about where Clementine had gone. Given her age, we didn’t offer complex answers or attempt to philosophise with her. We shared our beliefs in very simple terms. We also explained that different people believe different things about what happens after someone dies.

Reading age-appropriate books about death to Eleanor also really helped us. We especially liked ‘When Dinosaurs Die’ and ‘Life is like the Wind’.

LG: Did others have different views about involving Eleanor in the grieving?

SR: Like our initial response, my Mum and Dad’s first response was – we need to get the car seat out, we need to pack up the cot, we need to get rid of all the things that were ready for the new baby because it is too upsetting.

But they were actually really open to the written guidance provided by our midwife (she gave them a leaflet prepared by Sands (https://www.sands.org.au/), a charity that supports people through miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death) which encouraged an inclusive and open approach, to the point that once Dad had done everything in the brochure, he asked if there was another one!

LG: Did you show your emotions in front of Eleanor?

SR: I was in so much shock and so completely overwhelmed that I didn’t show much emotion or openly cry very much in the beginning.

The few times that I did get upset, I did try to hide this from Eleanor. I didn’t want her to feel scared or worried about what was happening.

But I know now that it can be confusing for children if we hide grief or sadness from them because they have fine-tuned emotional radars.

It’s taken more than five years and some counselling for me to finally allow myself to begin to feel the sadness of losing Clementine and to grieve our loss. Now I feel like it is okay to let tears come in front of Eleanor and Patrick.

I also believe that it’s important to show my children that it is normal and okay to feel sadness. It also gives them the opportunity to learn how to respond to someone who is sad.

LG: Five-plus years on, Clementine lives on in your family. What do you do to remember Clementine?

SR: The anniversary of Clementine’s death, which is also her birthday, is very difficult, both in the lead up and on the actual day. However, it is very important to me to acknowledge that day and it has become a family tradition to acknowledge it.

For Clementine’s fifth birthday last year, Eleanor took it upon herself to set up Clementine’s special birth photos and candles, a bit like a prayer circle at school. She had music and she led a prayer. It was very important to her.

Clementine would have started school this year. Eleanor asked a Prep teacher if Clementine’s spirit could join this year’s Prep class. The teacher was so lovely and responded so beautifully. Eleanor also took a teddy bear to school at the beginning of the year. This teddy is special as she was given to us when Clementine died. Eleanor took the teddy bear to school with her for a few weeks as her way of representing Clementine coming to school with her.

LG: Patrick was born in 2015. Does he also understand what happened to Clementine?

SR: Patrick is nearly four now. We’ve found it much more difficult for Patrick to understand the concept of having a sister that he has never met. When Eleanor organised the prayer circle on Clementine’s fifth birthday, Patrick had only just turned three and he found this confusing.

LG: Perhaps it’s easier talking to children about death when a person is old and sick, because the child is not old (and hopefully not sick). Does Eleanor worry about death?

SR: No, I don’t think so.

Eleanor has, from time to time, asked why Clementine died. And together with explaining that something went wrong in an age appropriate way, we’ve also talked about the fact that normally things don’t go wrong, and most babies are perfectly fine. So, Eleanor believes that most babies are perfectly fine (which is true). It’s also reinforced by her reality – she doesn’t know anyone else with a stillborn sibling.

LG: So, coming back to the “let kids be kids” idea, your experience suggests that it’s not a blanket response to protect and shield our kids from death and sadness. What do you think?

SR: I think that the idea might lead us to try to create a false reality for our children.

I think it is confusing and disorienting for children if we try to pretend that everything is fine when it isn’t.

I believe we need to use age-appropriate language to help children make sense of what has happened. I think books, like the ones I talked about earlier, can be very helpful in doing this.

We need to be able to support our children with their emotions and for them to know they can talk to us about what they’re feeling. I also think that as our children grow older, they may process the loss in a different way so the support we offer them needs to be ongoing and to evolve over time as their needs change.

I’d recommend seeking professional help if you’re feeling unsure about how to talk to your children about what is happening or has happened. When you’re trying to process your own experience and the feelings that go along with that, I think that guidance from an experienced professional can be invaluable.

More information about stillbirth

Stillbirth is when a baby dies before or during birth and can occur at any time from 20 weeks until full term (40 weeks) or later. While relatively rare, six babies are stillborn every day in Australia. (Stillbirth Foundation Australia, https://stillbirthfoundation.org.au/stillbirth/)

For more information, see:

  • Stillbirth Foundation Australia, a charity dedicated to stillbirth research – https://stillbirthfoundation.org.au/stillbirth/
  • Still Aware, an Australian stillbirth awareness charity – stillaware.org
  • Sands, a charity providing support, information and education to people affected by the death of a baby before, during or shortly after birth – https://www.sands.org.au/
  • Red Nose Australia, an Australian charity that aims to save the lives of babies and children and support people impacted by the death of a child – https://rednose.com.au/

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