Life’s Tiny Lessons (infant death)

by Peggy Sweeney

Peggy Sweeney

In my sixty-five years on this planet, I have walked numerous grief journeys following the death of someone much loved. Two of the most difficult of these were the deaths of my infant brother as well as my baby due to an ectopic pregnancy.

In 1960, my mother was pregnant with my third sibling. The baby was born prematurely. My little brother, Timmy, died less than 24 hours after birth. I was fourteen at the time. I remember feeling concerned for my mother’s well-being, yet very sad because I had wanted to be a big sis again. We had no funeral for Timmy. I never saw him. He was buried in a cemetery near our home. Although I came from a very loving family, my parents did what most parents did back then. Children in the 60’s, like many children today, were sheltered from unpleasant events in life.

The day my mother came home from the hospital, I expected her to say something about Timmy. She never mentioned him. Over the next few days, she explained that he had died because he only weighed one and a half pounds and had trouble breathing. Other than that, neither she nor my dad discussed Timmy very much. I would see mom crying, but never talked with her about how she or I were feeling. Grief wasn’t a topic of conversation years ago. As a young teenager, I hid my feelings and hoped they would disappear.

I realize now, that when my baby died in 1984, I handled the situation as my parents had. I didn’t share any of the circumstances surrounding the baby’s death nor my feelings with my children who were 3, 7, and 10 at the time. They must have had many unanswered questions. One of which, no doubt, was had they done something wrong. They saw me crying all the time and did their best to comfort me. I did nothing to comfort them.

Sometimes, this is all a parent gets to hold
A set of paper footprints

As a mortician and bereavement educator for many years, I have played an active role in helping families cope with the death of their child. Also, I have interacted with adolescents and teens dealing with the death of a sibling and other significant people in their lives. I believe it is very important for children to be able to share in experiences of loss and grief. As painful as it may be, they are learning life lessons that will sustain them through adulthood. They participate in happy family events such as weddings, birthday parties, and graduations, but we seldom allow them to join in mourning the death of a grandparent, parent, sibling, or friend. Some parents are fearful their children will be frightened by the funeral experience. Some believe that the child may be too young to understand. In some instances, parents are uncomfortable dealing with their own grief and doubt they have the tools to help their child or children process their grief.

One of the first steps in helping your school age child cope with a loss is to be honest with them with regard to the circumstances surrounding the death. If they discover a lie, their trust factor is diminished. Secondly, allow them to be an integral part of any funeral or memorial services you may be having. Lastly, it is important to have open dialogue about feelings of grief and mourning. As difficult as this may be for you, they need to know that what they are feeling is normal and that you will be there to comfort them in their grief. Remember, each new day brings events that are new to them. You are their primary resource for learning about life and coping with whatever unpleasantness there is. You are building a foundation for their future.

Copyright Peggy Sweeney.

About the Author: Peggy Sweeney is the president of the Sweeney Alliance, a non-profit company that offers educational programs and resources for coping with grief and traumatic events. She has developed and taught countless workshops including How to Understand Grief Seminars and the Grieving Behind the Badge program for emergency response professionals. She has reached out to her community through Halo of Love, a support group for bereaved parents, and Comfort and Conversation for bereaved spouses/partners. Peggy has written numerous award-winning articles and is the editor of the Journeys Through Grief Newsletters. She is a member of the Comfort Volunteer Fire Department and former mortician and EMT-B. You may contact Peggy through her email peggy@sweeneyalliance.org or join her Journeys Through Grief newsletter mailing list.

Additional information on this topic:
Ectopic Pregnancy
Children Healing After Trauma
Books about grief