Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,
Our son and his wife are the parents of our grandchildren, Seth, nine, and Missy, six. They were expecting the birth of their third child, a girl they named Janine. The baby’s room was ready, and Missy and Seth were excited about getting a new baby sister.
We are all heartbroken. Janine was stillborn.
We could use your advice in a couple of ways. First, what should we say and not say to Seth and Missy about Janine’s death?
Second, how should we handle the other set of grandparents? They are religious and are explaining Janine’s death by saying that she was special, God needed her in heaven, and she is now an angel. They bought several books to read to Seth and Missy that take this position. Our DIL is happy with these views and expects us to read these books to our grandchildren. We are non-religious and do not support these beliefs. Our son doesn’t say much when it comes to religion.
Please help us with this difficult situation.
Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response
I am so sorry for your family that Janine was stillborn. Of course this is a difficult time, and I appreciate that you want to be responsive and sensitive, especially regarding your grandchildren.
With regard to your first question about some guidelines for your interactions with your grandchildren, I have three resources I can recommend. Before I do so, I want to differentiate between a miscarriage and a baby that is stillborn. (This clarification is necessary because some of the resources I cite talk about dealing with a miscarriage as opposed to stillborn; however, the advice given generally applies to both kinds of losses.)
A miscarriage is the spontaneous loss of a pregnancy before the 20th week; it usually occurs because the fetus is not developing normally.
The medical definition of stillbirth is the birth of a baby who is born without any signs of life at or after 24 weeks of pregnancy. The baby may have died during pregnancy (called intrauterine death), labor, or birth.
(1) Writer and blogger Sarah Muthler has written extensively on the impacts of stillborn, especially on family relationships. In one column, Talking to Children About Stillbirth, she discusses the role of honesty, how to handle fears, and suggestions for talking with others, e.g., making sure children’s teachers are aware of a miscarriage or stillbirth.
(2) Another good resource is by Linda Goldman, Tip Sheet: Children and Grief; she provides age-appropriate data on how kids deal with grief and various ways adults can be positive role models.
(3) In her article, How to talk to your child about pregnancy loss, Leslie Crawford answers common questions about pregnancy loss that children are apt to ask, such as: “What happened?” or “What happened to the baby?”
Focus on Sadness
To avoid involving yourselves in discussions with your DIL and the other grandparents about religious versus non-religious explanations about Janine’s death, I suggest you change the focus. Talk instead about sadness in a general way: “Everyone deals with sadness in ways that are helpful to them. Here is how we’re dealing with sadness … ”
And then let Fred Rogers help.
Mr. Rogers presents practical topics and advice about what children need as they deal with death, for example:
- Children’s curiosity
- How words can be confusing
- Different reactions
- Expressing feelings
- Factoring in parents’ (and grandparents’) needs and feelings
- How to respond to children’s questions
If you review some of the resources I cite above, I think you will feel prepared to keep the focus on sadness and how people deal with their sadness in different ways. You can sidestep in your interactions with your grandchildren when any religious explanations are presented by others by saying, “That is how they are dealing with their sadness about Janine’s death. Let’s talk about how you’re dealing with your sadness.”
If your grandchildren share with you the religious explanations they are hearing from others, you acknowledge what they are saying without adding any personal editorial comments. Simply say, “We are glad that you are finding ways to deal with your sadness.”
In closing, between the resources I’ve suggested and a strategy of keeping your interactions focused on sadness, I hope you will be able to be helpful and supportive to Missy and Seth without compromising any of your values.
Update From the Grandparents, Two Weeks Later
First of all, thank you not only for your quick response, but also for your advice. We read everything you suggested. As anticipated, Missy wanted to know if we wanted to read her one of the [religious] books she received from the other grandparents. We said no thank you and told her we would rather talk with her. We told her we wanted to know if she thought much about Janine and if she had any questions.
She said that she didn’t really know Janine but that she was glad that mommy and daddy seemed not to be crying as much. We asked her why she thought they were crying. She said, “Because our baby Janine is not here. She’ll never be here. That makes everyone sad.” We’ve noticed that Seth of late has been more affectionate towards us. We have reminded both kids that we’re always available if they want to talk to us about anything, especially if they want to talk about Janine.
Saying that with an extra hug or two is really helping. We’ll all be okay. Again, we thank you for your help.
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