Christmas after the death of a child: how to help someone who’s grieving

A little planning can help people who suffered a loss to get through Christmas Day

This time of year is especially difficult for families who have lost a child. Photograph: iStock

This time of year is especially difficult for families who have lost a child. Photograph: iStock

 

Between 2006 and 2015 there were 3,818 child deaths in Ireland, according to First Light, who provide a bereavement support service to families who experience the sudden loss of a child.

The greatest number of child deaths occurs during the neonatal period, accounting for 51 per cent of all deaths in children under 15 years in Ireland during the period. Last year, there were 208 infant deaths registered. Of these, 155 were neonatal deaths (deaths of infants under 4 weeks of age).

While the first Christmas is particularly poignant, each Christmas without the child who has died will have its own challenges. It is important that parents suffering the loss of their child remind themselves they are grieving and are gentle with themselves.

Christmas Day is only one day and a little planning can help people to get through it.

Here are some suggestions:

– Acknowledge that Christmas will be different and while you may wish to keep some traditions, others may have to be changed or dropped altogether.

– Accept offers of help. Also let people know if you are comfortable talking about the child who has died. If you don’t mention their name, others might presume you don’t want them to mention it either.

– If there are children in the family, ask them for ideas on how to spend the day. Young children may need to be assured that Santa is still coming and that it is okay to enjoy Christmas even if people are sad.

Some guidance for family members, friends, neighbours

What to say or do . . .

– Ask the parent how they are feeling. Enquire but do not interrogate.

– “I will do my best to understand – I can’t really understand what you are feeling right now, but I can offer my compassion.”

– If you need to say something, the two simplest things to say are: “I am sorry for your loss”, or “I’m at a loss for words, I don’t know what to say”, – instead of any platitudes.

– “I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.”

– “You and your child are in my thoughts and prayers at this Christmas time.”

– “My favourite memory of your child is . . .”

– Give a hug instead of saying something.

– Be able to sit in silence with the person and do not fill the void with words.

What not to say or do . . .

– “Are you looking forward to Christmas?”

– “At least she lived for xxx number of weeks, months, years.”

– “He is in a better place.”

– “There is a reason for everything.”

– “It has been a year, aren’t you over him yet?”

– “You are young enough you can still have another child.”

– “God wanted a special angel.”

– “I know how you feel.”

– “She did what she came here to do and it was her time to go.”

– “Be strong.”

First Light is the new name for The Irish Sudden Infant Death Association. The organisation’s Celebrate a Life with a Heart to Heart campaign provides bereaved families with the opportunity to write a message to their lost child and place it on the Christmas tree in Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green shopping centre.