Bereavement Resources For All Affected By the Death of a Child

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Bereavement Support SIDS

What You can Do to Help... By Karen Martin

  • SIDS is the sudden, unexpected and unexplainable death of an apparently healthy baby.
  • SIDS is the number one cause of death of healthy infants between the age of one month and one year.
  • The cause of SIDS is not known. It is not caused by suffocation or neglect.
  • There is no known way to prevent SIDS or to predict which babies might die from it.
  • SIDS babies probably do not die in pain. They usually die quietly in their sleep.
  • SIDS happens to all kinds of families, rich and poor, rural and urban, happy and unhappy.

Instead, you can remind them of all the many ways in which they have been loving and caring parents. They might need to tell the story about finding the baby again and again. This is their way of trying to understand what happened. It helps them accept that they are not responsible for their child's death. Just listen. Be patient. Be there for them as they begin to work through their grief.

While everyone grieves in his or her own unique way, there are some common behaviours and feelings. In the beginning, most people seem to be in shock. They often feel numb. Some parents appear distant and cold while others are emotionally volatile and angry. What can you do to help at this point?

Think of it as a dance, a slow waltz. Let them lead. Perhaps they just need you to sit with them in silence or to look after their children so they can rest. There is nothing you can say that will take away the pain of grief. In fact, listening is the best policy. You may think that taking over the funeral planning is a good idea. You want to spare them the pain of making all those difficult decisions. While it is alright to offer to help with the arrangements, don't insist on taking over.

For many parents, making arrangements represents their last chance to do something for their baby. Respect their wishes. Usually the shock begins to wear off after the funeral is over. For everyone else, life quickly goes back to normal. But for the parents, life will never be the same again. Some fathers are eager to return to work because it provides a temporary diversion. For others, it is extremely stressful.

Friends and co-workers need to be sensitive to different styles. Some men strive to maintain emotional control by not talking about their grief at work while others welcome the opportunity to discuss their experience. How will you know what to do? Ask what they would like and act accordingly. The worst thing you can do is act as if nothing of any importance has happened. It has and needs to be acknowledged.

A woman who remains at home often finds her husband's return to work extremely stressful. Without the baby to care for, the house is very quiet and lonely. If the baby was their only child, she may no longer feel she has a purpose in life. She may think about suicide or be obsessed with wanting to become pregnant immediately.

If there are other children at home, some mothers become over-protective. This feeling of extreme vulnerability takes time to pass. It takes time for all the feelings of guilt, anger, sadness, rage and pain to subside. A good friend will be there for months, ready to sit and listen, to take the kids for an afternoon, to make an occasional meal, to help create precious moments of enjoyment again. But remember the dance and who is leading. Ask what would help them and do it!

People use their personal problem-solving styles to deal with their grief. Some parents take a predominantly logical approach. They strive to understand what happened to their child and once that is understood, they work on accepting the facts of the situation. They still feel strongly about their loss but they deal with it mostly in their heads. While some may want to work it out very privately, others may welcome a friend who is willing to act as a sounding board.

Don't assume, however, that all people need to talk about how they feel in order to deal with their grief. Some just need to talk about what they think. Respect this choice. They are doing what is natural to them.

Those who take the emotional approach often react with strong feelings and little apparent concern for what makes sense to others. They may seek out people who are comfortable with the expression of strong feelings. In the presence of people who are uncomfortable with emotions, parents are likely to hide their feelings and try to be what others expect them to be.

This may actually prolong the grief process. Remember that not all emotional people want to be with others. Some require a great deal of privacy. Everyone has different needs when they a re grieving. Adjust what you do to meet their needs, not yours.

Some people avoid helping because they believe the bereaved couple will help each other through this crisis. This is not always possible. Problems with communication, different styles of grieving or the inability to accept the other' s style may all contribute to a sense of isolation in the marriage. Sometimes having others to talk to helps.

As a friend, you can try to understand but unless you too have lost a baby to SIDS, you can never fully appreciate the duration, depth, and degree of grief that this loss involves. Many SIDS parents benefit greatly from attending a SIDS support group. It can be comforting to be with others who fully understand their pain. These groups provide a good source of up-to-date information on the latest SIDS research.

Over time, most parents learn to live with their loss. But it takes a long time. Your support is needed far beyond the first few weeks or months. Bereaved parents never" get over"the loss of their child. They just learn to live with it, some better than others. It takes at least a year before the intense pain begins to subside. Many parents re-live the pain each year on the anniversary of the death.

Good friends acknowledge those days with a phone call, flowers, or a card. It helps parents to know that their child is not forgotten by others. It helps them to know they have friends who care enough to try and learn about SIDS. SIDS parents across Canada thank you for caring enough to read this article.

For more information contact:
The Canadian Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths
Tel: (416) 488-3260 - National Office, Toronto 1-800-END-SIDS (1-800-363-7437) Toll free line.

About Karen Martin
Sociologist, advisor to Edmonton Chapter Parent Support team, and author of When a Baby Dies of SIDS: The Parents' Grief and Search for Reason. "Special thanks to all those SIDS parents who participated in my research and who shared stories of their experiences with me. You taught me so much about rediscovering joy after living with despair."

If you or someone you know, would like to speak with other families who have had a child die of SIDS, please contact the Foundation. We offer the opportunity to speak with other families who have lived through this tragedy.

Many of these families have had subsequent children and are available to discuss having another child after a SIDS death. Some communities offer monthly meetings while others may offer either personal or telephone support.

The SIDS Foundation also provides materials on grief and SIDS for families, hospitals, funeral homes, and daycares. Call 1-800-END-SIDS for more information.