Your journey to this point has been physically and emotionally exhausting. In the moments after their child dies, many parents let go of the flood of tears that they have been holding back. Some parents feel numb and do not know how or what feelings to express. Some parents want to hold their child for a few minutes or even an hour or longer. Some parents feel an overwhelming need to escape from the room and the hospital. Some parents feel they never want to leave the room, as it is the last place they were with their living child. All of these reactions are normal.
Mutual comforting is essential. Most likely, you as the parents as well as others who are present will experience a surprisingly wide range of feelings, many of which might be unexpected, including anger, sadness, guilt, and a sense of relief. Different people in the family will feel different emotions at different times, even within the first few hours after your child’s death. Some people will be emotional, others will be stoic. There is no right or wrong way to feel or to express your feelings.
In the hours and days following your child’s death, your family and community want to help but often don’t know how. Tell them what you need. Perhaps you need some time to just be by yourselves. Perhaps you need help with the logistics of planning the funeral or memorial service. Perhaps you need someone outside the family to just listen. People will offer what they think you want or need. If they are correct, accept their gifts. If they are wrong, let them know that you appreciate their thoughts and desires to help but you are okay for now – or you need something else from them if they can give it.
Some parents will ask a family member or friend to call, email, or use a blog such as Caring Bridge to communicate the news of their child’s death to others. It is human nature for friends to want to share your burden of sadness and grieve with you and support you. Letting people know what has happened acknowledges that they, too, have been holding your child in their thoughts and prayers hoping for a peaceful passing.
Some children will have been able to help plan their memorial service. “I want to wear my red dress” or “please put my teddy bear in the casket with me” or, “I wrote a poem for Daddy to read.”
Sometimes, especially when there are no specific religious practices that your family would follow, there can be disagreements about funeral arrangements such as burial or cremation. The hospital chaplain or a religious advisor can be helpful in reviewing the possibilities available to you and helping you decide what would have been most meaningful to your child.
Some have called siblings “forgotten grievers.” Often lost in the hubbub of notifying family and friends, making funeral arrangements, and the barriers imposed by tears and sadness, they may retreat into their own world. Yet now, as much as ever, they need explanations and reassurance.
As a parent, you may feel pulled in a thousand directions. If you have teenagers, they may want to go off with their friends – not because they don’t care but because their friends are the ones who can help them cope, just as parents’ friends help them cope. Invite them to be a part of everything, but understand if they choose to stand aside. Younger children may not yet understand the finality of death. They will be sad because you are sad, but their attention span is short and they will want to play and participate in their usual familiar activities. In fact, doing familiar things with familiar people – frequently their parents – is the most reassuring to them that, despite all the sometimes frightening activity around them, they are safe and loved.
A frequent question is “should my other children attend the wake or memorial service?” Like so much at this time, there is no right or wrong answer. Most people now believe that it is important for siblings who understand that a profound loss has occurred to be invited to be part of the services so they too can mark the loss. Children who are just three or four can, with some preparation and forethought, be part of a service, although there may need to be someone they know to attend to their needs if they cannot sit still or feel too emotional to stay with the rest of the family during the whole service. Probably the best answer is to provide siblings with the opportunity to attend mourning rituals. If a child says that he or she does not want to go to their sibling’s funeral, it is important to ask why. In some cases, there may be misconceptions about funerals that it is important for the child to talk about before making a final decision.
Depending on the family’s cultural traditions, children beyond toddlerhood are likely to know that their brother’s or sister’s body will be at the service. This might serve as a motivator to either attend or stay away. The siblings may want to be with their brother or sister so that he or she will not be alone; they may even have made promises that they would be there. Or, they may want to stay away because this is their brother’s or sister’s special time and they are overwhelmed by the grief they are experiencing around them. If they have a reason that makes sense to you, then it is important to accept the decision. Stress that there is no right answer to the question of attending a funeral. Many siblings report regret later in life, though, so you may want to work out a way for them to participate in some part of the ritual or service. For example, they could visit the funeral home to spend some time with you and with the body in the coffin, putting in a letter they have written, a picture they have drawn, or a stuffed toy they have picked out. With you by their side, they can say their private goodbyes before the service starts. Sometimes, children will decide to stay for the service once they have seen their brother or sister in the coffin. In any case, there should be a person close to the family who has agreed to stay with the sibling as their way of helping. In short, the best approach is to invite and accept.
As it has been throughout their grandchild’s illness and treatment, grandparents experience double grief – their own loss and the loss experienced by you, their child. Grandparents can be an important source of comfort to you or your spouse and to their other grandchildren. Enlist their help with arrangements and with the care of your other children. If their own emotional state permits, they can be the “familiar person” who attends to the needs of the brothers and sisters during the memorial service.
Friends are friends because they are tied to you by feelings of affection or personal regard. Because of your relationship, your friends want – indeed, need – to “do something” for you and your family. Expressions of grief by friends are signs that they care for you and are moved by your loss. They, too, had an emotional bond to your child who has died. Friends who are well known to the siblings are also people who can be asked to attend to the needs of the siblings at points when you are not emotionally or physically available.
The community beyond close friends can play a large role in helping to bring closure and solace to you as a family. Cards and letters to siblings or to grandparents are potent reminders that grief knows no bounds, especially within families. With your input, teachers can help explain what has happened to the rest of the class and to help classmates decide how they will remember your child who has died and help support your other children. The community may want to support a memorial: plant a tree; dedicate a garden; collect money for a charity that would appropriately commemorate your child.
The community’s desire to “do something” may be overwhelming to you especially if you are asked to make decisions about what would be best. You might ask a friend to suggest to those interested in arranging a memorial to identify what they think would be the best options and to discuss them with you in two weeks or a month. They will be able to channel their energy in developing ideas and you will have time to attend to your own and your family’s immediate emotional needs.
You might be surprised to know that hospital staff, especially the residents or other trainees, often wonder if they should attend either your child’s calling hours or the funeral. Interestingly, this is often less of an issue with your child’s primary care physician’s office staff when they live in your community and it feels natural to express caring to friends. Sometimes, physicians are concerned that the family will not feel that they did all that they could or find the physician at fault for the child’s death. Without question, this can occur although if you have had these kinds of interactions, they most likely took place long before your child’s death. Some providers may worry about going to services for some children and not others, or taking time away from care of other patients. Yet, we know that joining you in celebrating your child’s life can be a healing experience for everyone who knew and took care of your child.