Ways to Help a Grieving Child

 

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My oldest son reaches in to kiss his baby brother before we close his casket and bury him.

What’s harder than living with a broken heart? Watching one of your children try to live with one.

Earlier this week my son was sobbing before school. He didn’t want to go. He has always hated school. In fact I wrote a few weeks ago about him trying to stay home after a class election didn’t go in his favor.

But this time I couldn’t figure why he wanted to stay home. I asked him if something had happened or if kids were being mean. No.

He couldn’t come up with a reason.

All day long I stewed over what it could be. Is he nervous about his science class? Does he worry about kids sitting by him at lunch? Are they teasing him at recess?

Then it dawned on me. We visited the cemetery Sunday – the cemetery where his baby brother is buried. We took a water bottle and a kitchen knife. We cleaned off his head stone and cut back the overgrown grass from its edges.

My second son wipes away dirt and grass from his little brother's headstone.

My second son wipes away dirt and grass from his little brother’s headstone.

It was a beautiful sunny day. But that trip brought back rain clouds for my 9-year-old son. The flood of emotions resurfaced as we spent time thinking of our lost family member.

This time of year is always hard for our family. Six years ago it was a hopeful, exciting time. We were waiting for our third baby boy to join our family. Then our joy quickly turned to sorrow as we discovered he had died. I delivered him stillborn at 37 weeks.

Since then our family has learned a lot about grief. More than we ever wanted to know.

I sat down with my oldest son Monday afternoon and we had a heart-to-heart talk about missing his brother. He confessed that he was overwhelmingly sad about not having him in our family.

Uggh. I hate that. More than hating the fact that I can’t get over the loss of my baby boy. I wish no one else had to feel the same way. I wish no one felt hurt, anger or sorrow because of his death. I wish I could place a giant happy bubble around the ones I love and cocoon them from sadness.

Regretfully I cannot.

So I gave him a grief journal. I told him he could use it to write to his little brother. Part of our grief (because our child died before he was born) has been mourning the fact that we never got to spend time with our baby boy.

I my son that he could write to his brother about things he wished he could do with him. Tell him what makes him sad, happy, scared or excited. Tell him what he remembers about the day he was born. Tell him how much he can’t wait to spend time with him.

We all know writing is therapeutic for me, why wouldn’t it be for my child?

I’m hoping he can pour his heart into the pages of that colorful notebook. And that it will serve as a positive outlet for his sorrow.

There are a few other things I have found that help my children when they are consumed by sadness.

I am in no way an expert. I have no professional education or training on loss. I acknowledge that every person grieves differently. But the following things have helped my children mourn and internalize the loss of the brother they never got to know.

And since I can’t create that happy bubble cocoon, I thought that the least I could do is pass on some of these ideas in case it may help another mother help her grieving child.

First, speak openly – Right after our son passed away I knew in my heart that I had to be honest with my two living children. One of them was nearly three years old, the other nearly two. They were really young. But I felt like they could handle the truth.

I told them that their baby brother died.

I refused to use phrases like, “he is sleeping,” “he is in a better place,” or “he passed away.”

I didn’t want them to be afraid to go to sleep. I didn’t want them to think that our place wasn’t good enough for their brother and I don’t even know what “passed away” is supposed to mean. If I can’t figure that one out, then how can my two young children?

There are so many phrases associated with death that are meant to lighten the blow. Words like “deceased” or “slipped away” are often used in place of “dead” or “died.”

But nothing could lighten my blow. No matter how you said it my son had died.

Being open and honest with my children allowed me to eliminate confusion for them. I still speak freely and openly about his death. And they can as well. I answer all of their questions no matter how strange they seem.

We have had many, many conversations about what happened. And while I don’t know that this is the right tactic for every family, it has worked wonders for ours. My children feel safe talking about their brother’s death.

Let Them Cry and Let Them See You Cry

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Crying is healthy. Crying is natural. Yet sometimes we feel ashamed to show others that we are sad. It’s like there is something wrong with us.

Well there is something wrong. Something terrible sad and terribly difficult happened. We buried one of our family members.

That is huge.

I tell my kids that there’s no reason to pretend that we don’t get down about it sometimes. They have seen me sob over my son. We have all hugged and cried as we have watched his memorial video or the home video we have of his time in the hospital or visited the cemetery.

Letting my kids show emotion about the loss of their brother has allowed them to work through it when it comes. It has minimized them bottling up their sadness.

Give Them Something to Hold on to – My oldest son has a wallet-sized picture of his brother that he keeps in a protective plastic sleeve. He sometimes puts it in his backpack or hoodie pocket and carries it to school.

It reminds him that his brother was real. It keeps him close to his thoughts.

He will put it on his bedpost or inside his wallet. He will show it proudly to others.

I think having a tangible object to hold close to his heart helps with the pain.

Start some traditions – I mentioned earlier that this time of year is difficult for our family. All around us the world is awakening from its slumber. New life is forming as winter melts into spring. While this brings a lot of hope and excitement, it also brings us memories from a darker time. The day that our baby died – April 22 – is particularly rough.

So we have started to do some special traditions to honor his memory – things that we can look forward to when we are feeling sad. (You can read about what we did a couple years ago here)

About one week before his death/birthday I create an online Facebook event for friends and family. I call it “Serve in Luca’s Memory.”

People did so many great things for us after Luca died. It brought us peace and comfort to see the service of others. So, we thought, why not help others? It can be a way to give back and keep his memory alive.

Friends and family members post pictures and comments of things that they do for friends or strangers. From helping a friend move, to donating clothing to others to sending someone flowers. It’s so nice to see what people do for each other in his memory.

We spend Luca’s “angelversary” together as a family. We visit the cemetery and take him small gifts. Sometimes we invite friends and family together to do a service project for Utah Share. Last year we planted a tree together at a local park.

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DSCF7689Each year we end the night by sending lanterns to our baby boy. We light wish lanterns, watch them fill with hot air and then float off to the heavens.

Those are some of the things we do to celebrate our little Luca’s birthday. They give us something to look forward to on our day of dread.

We do other things throughout the year as well. One thing we have grown to love is donating gifts to a child that would be Luca’s age at Christmas time. We contact a local shelter for a name of a little boy in need. Then we buy him presents and deliver them to the shelter.

There is nothing we can do to bring back our baby boy. But helping and serving helps us feel like we are giving back to others who are having a difficult time. It softens our sad hearts and gives us things to look forward to.

I am sure there are many, many more ways to help children cope with tragic loss. But these are a few things that have worked for us. While I hope no one else has to see their children grieve the loss of a close loved one, I know that it happens to far too many.

If you know of any other great ideas – for children or adults – I’d love to hear them. Because grief is always changing and different things may work better at different times. I am always looking for more ways to work through the sorrows of my heart.

Surviving Mother’s Day

I can’t tell you how many times I had to silently tell myself to smile and be grateful this past Mother’s Day. It has been a long month and a hard season of smiling through my tears.

I should naturally smile and be grateful for the two beautiful, charming boys I get the privilege of raising here on earth. They really are my whole world and I dedicate my entire life to them.

But Mother’s Day is hard now that I’m a mother to an angel. It’s painful to me that I completely failed at my most recent attempt at motherhood. It’s even more painful that since my child was stillborn, I can’t see him, hear him or hold him on a day that celebrates my relationship with him.

Instead I get to wear a pearl bracelet that has his name engraved on a silver heart at the end. I hang a heart-shaped locket filled with a tiny set of footprints and his birthstone around my neck. Then before it gets too dark I get to stop by the cemetery in the cold rain to leave a handful of tulips from my flowerbed on his headstone.

It’s just so hard to smile when I can’t be a mother to all of my children right now. I’ll admit it. I’m having a hard time with his death. Especially on days that celebrate motherhood.

Days where we have a Sunday school lesson on the shepherd who leaves his flock of 99 to tend for the one sheep who is lost. I feel like that shepherd. I love my flock — I wouldn’t trade my two- and four-year-olds for anything — but I still yearn to bring that one lost lamb back to my fold. Only no matter how much I search, my lamb isn’t coming back. Not right now.

I hate feeling down and gloomy. I hate feeling like I am ungrateful. I’ve got to figure out a way to focus on the positive impact Luca’s short life had. I’ve got to remember the tender mercies I’ve received since his death. The times I’ve felt him near. I have to stay focused on the future — the big day I get to hug him in heaven.

My Angel’s Story


I was tired, I was huge and I was ready to have my baby boy. But not ready for the way it would all turn out. I would have happily carried him weeks beyond my due date if it meant he had a chance of being born alive.

Honestly? I wasn’t quite ready for a third child. I always wanted my kids close in age, but my two boys, ages 3 and 1, were a lot to handle. I was okay with waiting a while. But both my husband and I had strong impressions that we needed to try for another baby.

Despite those impressions, I was still extremely nervous about how I could be a good mom to three boys under the age of 3. Each day I grew, not only in circumference, but also in my confidence in being able to raise three tiny sprits.

On April 21, 2010 I had my 37-week check-up. Luca’s movement had been slowing down significantly for a while now and I was worried. I discussed my concerns with my doctor and we listened to his heartbeat, which appeared to be strong. So, my doctor and I decided that maybe little Luca was running out of room in my overcrowded womb.

The beginning of my pregnancy was a piece of cake. I felt better than I had with my other pregnancies and had virtually no morning sickness. But the end was pretty bad. I kept having sharp pains in my side and my muscles were aching.

Fearing the worst

My mother-in-law kept my other two boys while I went to my appointment so I decided to lie down and take a nap until she brought them home. That’s when I started panicking because I couldn’t remember the last time I felt Luca move.

I know what some of you are thinking? Why didn’t you rush to the hospital??? Knowing what I know now, my advice to any pregnant woman who is the least bit concerned about her baby, would be, GET TO THE HOSPTIAL, NOW. Speed if you have to. What are they going to do? Tell you your baby’s fine and send you home? Hopefully. Laugh in your face about your unnecessary worries? Never. In all reality, even if I had been in labor and delivery when Luca’s heart stopped beating, they still wouldn’t have been able to save him. There wasn’t anything I could have done. I realize that now. But there are other reasons why babies stop moving. In my opinion it’s just better to get it checked out as soon as possible.

I literally worried all night about my Luca’s movement. I think the strong feelings and confirmations I had received that I was supposed to have another baby kept me waiting for his little legs to kick or his fists to punch. Luca’s pregnancy was my only pregnancy I haven’t run into problems conceiving. I thought that was a sure sign that this truly was meant to be. It was meant to be, just not in the way I hoped or expected.

I waited, and waited for him to move. Finally at about 2:30 a.m. I couldn’t take it any longer. I got up and sat in the bathtub for a long time. Travis came in and convinced me to go to the hospital. My mom came over to sit with my boys so we could run up to the hospital. When I got there, they hooked me up to a monitor and we found the baby’s heartbeat. Well, at least we thought we did — turns out the sound of my own heartbeat was reverberating back. We didn’t know that for sure until they hooked me up to a basic ultra sound machine and zoomed in on the heart. I knew immediately that my son had died. I looked at my husband and he knew it too. We had seen a number of live, beating hearts in ultrasounds. This one was still.

But the nurses said nothing. They tried to remain calm as they called my doctor and asked him to come in. He arrived at about 4 a.m. to confirm my baby’s death. We all cried — nurses included. He told me I could go home and come back later to deliver my baby or he could induce me right away.

The thought of leaving the hospital knowing that I was carrying my dead child made me cringe. I knew that having a stillborn was going to be the worst thing I had ever experienced. Delaying it wouldn’t change anything. They wheeled me into a corner room and posted a grieving sign on the door.

Shortly thereafter we started calling family members to let them know they were going to have to come in sometime that day to simultaneously tell Luca “hello” and “goodbye.”

Sharing the Heart-Breaking News

My poor mother. She was the first to hear of his death. And she had to take the news while watching over my other two little ones in my quiet, lonely home. I can’t imagine how alone she must have felt. She texted me a while after I called to tell her he had died, asking what she should tell my other boys when they woke up. That literally broke my heart. What did I want her to tell them?

We didn’t want to tell him that their brother was “sleeping” or that he was “gone.” We decided to tell them the truth. That he had died. They were sad, but their grief was expressed differently than an adult. They didn’t cry much but they did throw more tantrums and asked to be held a lot more.

Telling people and hearing their reactions was one of the hardest things for me. I could handle the pain that I was going to have to bear, but having to inflict some of that pain on others made me so sad. It still makes me sad.

Our family members started gathering at the hospital and at our home waiting for the time when they would meet Luca. I knew we would only ever have a few hours with him and so I prepared to face my nightmare with a smile on my face. This was the only time I was going to hold my baby. The only time I could take pictures of his beautiful face. I wasn’t going to let my grief overcome my ability to make the moments meaningful.

I don’t know if it’s all in my head, but I don’t think I had the full power of my epidural during his delivery. It was by far my most painful delivery. Not only emotionally, but physically. Maybe that’s because I didn’t have the anticipation of meeting my healthy baby to pull me through. With each painful push, I knew I was a step closer to meeting a baby I wouldn’t take home. I’ll never forget the shock in my doctor and nurses voices and faces as Luca was born. They all gasped in unison. He had suffered a cord accident that was visible the moment he was delivered. The cord was wrapped around his neck several times and it contained a true knot. Umbilical cord knots are extremely rare and knots resulting in a baby’s death are even more rare. Although I will never be grateful for what happened to my son, there is something I am extremely grateful for: The fact that we found out why he died.

He was born at 5:13 p.m. and weighed 5 pounds 13 ounces. He was beautiful with curly reddish brown hair and rosy red cheeks. We each took turns holding him and taking pictures. Utah Share came and casted molds of his hands and feet. Pat Wimpee came and took dozens of priceless photos of him and our family. I don’t know what I’d do without those photos. I think I would forget the details of his face. The wrinkles of his toes. The size of his tiny fingers. At times I stared at his little body, waiting for his chest to rise or his eyes to open. He literally was perfect.

We had Luca in our hospital room for five short hours. My legs were still numb from my epidural, so I was forced to watch everyone’s encounters with him from the comfort of my hospital bed. That was really hard for me. I wanted to hug and comfort everyone and yet I was stuck on the sidelines. I am sure that those who came to the hospital to meet him will forever be changed. There was such a special spirit in the room. It was a terribly sad, yet wonderfully peaceful experience.

The next several days were a blur. I left the hospital on a Friday morning. That afternoon I sat in the mortuary office preparing a funeral. We had a very small service on Monday, just four days after I delivered. Thank heavens for pain medications. Without those my traditional delivery pains coupled with the pain of my milk coming in, would have been unbearable. I buried my baby and part of my heart on April 26, 2010.

How am I dealing with his death?

I believe, as my religion teaches, that I will raise little Luca someday. Sometimes that thought brings great comfort, other times it is little solace for a grieving mother who longs to hold her angel infant now. Although he is in a better place, free from sorrow and sin, I wanted the challenge of raising him in this crazy world. Wanted to see him wrestle with his older brothers or hear him giggle as the three of them cooked up mischief. I hate that we don’t get to have him now.

I have experienced all of the traditional grief stages at least once. I have felt depressed, angry, honored, jealous, comforted, tired, rude, bitter, overwhelmed, out of control, anxious, stressed and unmotivated. There have been times I have sat on my couch, not wanting to do anything. Then other times that I feel an urgency to give back to others in honor of my son’s memory. I have yet to find a happy medium. I have heard people say that the first year is the hardest. I pray that’s true.

This past year has literally been the year from hell. Yet despite the darkness I have felt, there are a few things that have relieved my sorrows.

What do I do when the grief is too much to bear?

I take long soaks in the bathtub where I blast Pink on my radio and cry until my eyes are strawberry red.
I watch movies like Tangled and sob when I see Rapunzel reunited with her parents. I wish I only had to wait 18 years to meet my “lost” baby.
I take my boys fishing. Fresh air and the beauty of nature clear my head and remind me of my place in the world.
I lay by my other boys while they are sleeping. I put my hand on their chest to feel their heart beating and their lungs filling with air. That reminds me of the beautiful boys I do get to raise on Earth. I can’t let myself take them for granted.
I start finding something I can do for others. I know it sounds cheesy, but serving others has been my saving grace this month. I have sewn 20 baby blankets and crocheted a dozen beanies to give to other families whose babies die. I understand the need to be still and internalize my grief and emotions, but sometimes it’s overwhelming. I have to find a productive way to patch over my grief until my emotions settle and I’m able to digest them.
Finally, I write through my heartache. Writing has always been a way for me to work through life’s problems. I imagine I’ll write through this problem my entire life.
I just have to keep reminding myself that life is hard, life is good and life is necessary.

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