Anticipating the death of a child can be one of the most devastating experiences for a parent, but often overlooked or minimized is the impact on the siblings. When a child dies, they are not gone from their siblings’ lives. Families are encouraged to explore ways to recognize and acknowledge the child’s life.
Rituals and memory making exercises let parents and siblings share the legacy making experience. Specific memory making activities can help parents and siblings tell their story, have family discussions, provide opportunities to express how they feel and document their relationship with the child. Below are some ideas for memory making activities.
Place an ink hand print of each family member together on the same paper to create something that all family members participated in. Use bordered paper or simple decorative scrapbook paper. The handprint can also be photocopied to allow multiple family members to have a copy. The family may also want to laminate it for protection.
Siblings can participate in the mixing of the gel and plaster for imprints of the child’s hands or feet. Multiple packages can also be used to make a larger plaster mold with the siblings and the child together in one mold.
This can be an important souvenir in many families’ books. Have a special place to put this lock of hair such as a small, plastic container, bag or special envelope. You may want to anticipate any surgery or treatment that the child may lose their hair and save a sample before then.
Place rings on the child and then pass them on to siblings and other family members to take home and wear or place in a memory box. Many families place these tiny rings on chains and wear them on a regular basis to feel close to the child. A picture of the child with the ring may also reinforce this specialness of the ring.
Offer parents, siblings and family members the chance to participate in bathing or dressing the child. Encourage the family to allow the siblings to help choose an outfit to dress them in.
Using a strong smelling lotion increases the sensory experience and allows families to create even stronger memories to reflect upon. They will be able to correlate this scent to memories of the child.
Families can take pictures with their own camera or the hospital’s camera. Staff members can take pictures of the hands or feet wrapped in a favorite blanket, or of siblings and parents caring for the child, as well as significant events (baptism, family visits).
Many parents choose to protect their children from the experience of the hospital. When this happens, there are still opportunities to create a connection. Create a storybook or video together with nursing staff that tells the story of the child’s life at the hospital. Take pictures of the room, the staff that cared for them or presents from the siblings near the child’s bed.
Playing music can help to create a calming, child-centered atmosphere within a hospital environment. It can also give the siblings an important role in choosing the music for their child and create a “special song” for them that can help the family remember the moment later on.
Some people may feel more comfortable expressing themselves through the arts. A music therapist or another staff member may be helpful in finding ways for families to connect and express all of their intense emotions through playing instruments or song writing.
Record the siblings reading a story, singing a song, telling family stories that they would want the child to know and play back to the child. Keep the tape for future listening.
When siblings are not able to be present, a phone call from the sibling to the child allows them to still have the opportunity to tell them that they loved him. Take a picture or video of the phone by the hospitalized child as an opportunity to affirm the sibling’s communication and love expressed later on.
Help siblings identify a special place to keep their memories (pictures, locks of hair, hospital ID tags, special toys, blankets, baby’s clothes) that they can easily go to when they need to feel close to their brother or sister. Premade boxes can be purchased or small cardboard or plastic boxes can be decorated by the siblings.
Families can document this experience and have something to reflect on later with cameras, a blank story book and art supplies. Magazines or other objects can be available to make collages or scrapbooks.
Family members can write letters or draw pictures about how they feel or what they wish they could tell the child. These can be placed with the child before burial or cremation or kept in a special place at home for later reflection.
A worry stone allows the bereaved person to carry something small and inconspicuous in their pocket or bag that allows them to privately remember the child while not feeling different from their peers. They can touch it when they are feeling sad to be soothed and feel closer to the child.