Coming to Terms with Your Grief

Babies are not supposed to die. The first few months after a baby's birth are times of happiness; there is that wonderful feeling of the growing physical and emotional attachment between the baby and the parents. Suddenly, an apparently healthy infant is dead. In most cases, the death occurred after the baby was put down for sleep, usually at home — a time and place that is associated with warmth and security.

The baby's life has ended be­fore it really began, and all parental expectations and hopes have ended abruptly. There is no time to prepare, and there is no adequate explanation for the death. The involvement of the legal and medical systems often means a loss of privacy at a time when members of the family want to be alone with their grief. There may be possible community suspicion and rejection.

Overcoming Feelings of Guilt

Very often the loss of an infant is a couple's first encounter with death and personal loss. Bewilderment and numbness characterize most parents' reactions to their child's death. Because the baby's death cannot be explained by an obvious cause, many couples blame each other or themselves.

Parents may feel that somehow they have failed — that there was something that could have been done to prevent the death. These feelings of guilt are common. But parents must understand that there was nothing that could have been done.

Coping Symptoms & Habits

After the initial shock begins to wear off, parents may find it difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep- even when tired, and may feel "down" all the time. Parents may find it difficult to concentrate on any task or activity for any length of time. They may experience other physical ailments or symptoms. Regular eating habits may change—from having no appetite to eating to excess. Parents often feel like just "wanting to escape."

It is normal for mothers and fathers to express their grief in different ways. Women tend to cry and "talk out" their grief, whereas most men tend to grieve in silence. Parents working outside the home may become overly engrossed in their work, while those staying at home may seek comfort from constant reminders of the baby.

All of these feelings are normal reactions to grief. But, if any of these feelings or behaviors persist, seeking professional counseling from the family doctor, nurse, or clergy may be necessary.

The Effect of a SIDS Death on Other Children

If there are other children, parents may find themselves fearing for their safety, so much so that they have a hard time letting them out of their sight. At other times, parents may become suddenly impatient with the child for no real reason or find it almost impossible to carry on the daily responsibilities of family life. It is important to understand that the surviving children are also trying to deal with the death of their brother or sister. They are frightened and confused, and they unconsciously sense that their lives will be changed forever by the baby's death. Children may feel that they will now be expected to live for two, or they may construct a protective wall of silence around themselves. They may be confused about whether or not it is all right to talk about their dead baby brother or sister—or even acknowledge that the baby ever existed.

Surviving children may feel especially guilty for resenting all the attention lavished on the new baby. Did they somehow wish the baby’s death? They may be particularly troubled in the case of a SIDS death because the baby seemed healthy and normal, just like themselves. They may be fearful because the baby died while asleep or at rest. Could it happen to them?

Surviving children need to feel that they can talk about these thoughts or ask questions. Young children may have some very frightening thoughts that they cannot express. They may need special attention from parents and other family members or the family doctor, nurse, or other professional. Older children should be told as much as they are able to understand.

It is extremely important that a parent acknowledge the disruption to the family unit caused by a SIDS death. Parents need to convey to the surviving children that what they are all feeling is natural and part of the grieving process.