Health: My big sister went to heaven: Children must be given an explanation when an expected new arrival never comes home, or when a sibling dies, writes Caroline Jay

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
I've got a brother called Samuel and a sister called Laura, but she's in heaven,' announces my five-year-old daughter, Zoe, during a conversation with her friends about the other members of their families.

There follows a lot of questioning and discussion about heaven from the children and a lot of embarrassed shuffling and evading of the issue from the assembled parents.

My first daughter, Laura, was stillborn. I have since had two very healthy children. I often find myself easing people out of their embarrassment when they ask me how many children I have, and I reply that I have three, but that one was stillborn.

Zoe cannot be the only child who, at an early age, has had to come to terms with having a brother or sister who has died. Unfortunately, although most pregnancies end happily, some do not; many others are lost through miscarriage. What effect does this have on other children in the family? How best can we, as parents, help our children to come to terms with the fact that people die?

We start out at a disadvantage. Society is not very good at dealing with death, and most adults would really rather a bereaved person 'got over it' as soon as possible and 'got on with life'. But the bereaved need to grieve; they need to be allowed the space and time to talk about the person they have loved and lost before they can accept what has happened and move on.

Children are no different. They, too, need to grieve. They will have made enormous readjustments to the fact that their mother is pregnant. A new brother or sister is on the way and it can be very exciting. It can also be confusing - what exactly does it mean and what is going to happen? It can be frightening - will Mummy love me less? Will she have to go away to hospital? What will happen to me? It can be a cause of resentment - 'I don't want this baby to have my toys or my bedroom' and 'I wish Mummy didn't have this baby in her tummy making her tired all the time.'

Then, suddenly, 'this baby' is no more. It's gone, and Mummy and Daddy are very upset. 'Is it my fault?' 'Did I make the baby die because I wished it wasn't there?' 'Did I do something wrong?' 'Where has the baby gone?' It is vitally important to address the issue or we may leave our children confused, frightened, guilty, angry and upset.

Zoe did not have to live through my pregnancy nor her sister's death, but as soon as she was old enough to understand, I told her about Laura. I have now begun to tell her brother, Samuel, who is two. Even quite young children seem to be able to accept and 'understand' in their own way much more than we might expect. As long as they are dealt with honestly at each stage, children can cope extremely well. It doesn't matter if they see you crying as long as they know that it is not their fault.

Problems arise only when things are left unsaid, when explanations are not given or when euphemisms are used. A friend whose second child, a daughter, died soon after birth found her three-year-old son desperately searching his bedroom a few weeks later. He was looking for his sister because he had overheard grown-ups talking about the fact that she was 'lost'.

Depending on their age and the circumstances, it is sometimes helpful for children to see their dead baby brother or sister. What has happened is then not shrouded in mystery for them. Some explanation then needs to be given as to where their brother or sister has gone, be it 'heaven' or wherever.

Memorials can be helpful in allowing children some focus for how they feel or for where they can go to think about their dead brother or sister. When Zoe asks why we can't get on a bus or plane and go to heaven to visit Laura, I explain that no bus or plane will take us to heaven but that what we can do is go to 'Laura's place' - to a headstone that we put up in her memory four years after her cremation because I, too, felt the need to mark her existence in some way. We plant flowers, Samuel arranges fir cones and Zoe washes the headstone with her hands, using water that she collects from a nearby bird-bath.

Later this year, 1 October at 11am, we shall go as a family to Guildford Cathedral in Surrey to a special service for babies lost from early miscarriage onwards and for children lost at any age. Anyone who has suffered such a loss is welcome. Zoe will find that she is not unique, that there are hundreds of other families like ours who have one or more members permanently missing.

In this, the Year of the Family, it is important, I think, to help our children to cope with all the problems that may arise for them in their lives and in death. Death, after all, is one of life's certainties.

Sands, (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society), 28 Portland Place, London W1N 4DE.

'Remembering Michael', an illustrated story book for children, by Anita Harper, published by Sands, pounds 6.95.

(Photograph omitted)