Thankfully they’re very rare, but every so often we do have to arrange funerals for children or babies who have been taken well before their time.
To mark National Bereaved Parents Day today, our funeral directors Anthony Topley and Helen Ellis describe in their own words how they approach working with families who are coping with the death of a child.
Anthony: “We know that when parents have lost a child that we are very often the first people from outside their family they’ve spoken to. We know for sure that they certainly won’t want to be talking about arranging a funeral but that they will be talking about their child and their feeling about losing them.
“All situations are different, but that is true in the vast majority of cases, so after introducing myself I stay silent and let them say whatever they want.
“It’s very easy to upset people or offend them by saying the wrong thing. All the things you’d say to someone who’s lost an elderly relative don’t make sense. They haven’t had a long life where they’ve seen lots of things and haven’t had the experiences that we all take for granted.”
Helen: “The parents always like to talk about their child. They just need a person who is not directly involved to offload and in that way we become a counsellor. The mums sometimes talk about the pregnancy and what went wrong if it’s affected a baby, but it doesn’t matter how old the child, even with older children in their 40s or 50s, parents will talk about them.
“Age doesn’t stop the experience of losing a child being devastating.
“When I walked into one house once, the lady stood up. I didn’t say anything, I didn’t felt I had to. I just stepped forward, put my arms round her and gave her a hug. You have to read the room and use your instincts to know what to do or say.
“Sometimes the dads are angry, with a hospital, maybe, or somebody else, or maybe us, and you have to take that on board as the way that they are using to try to cope.
Anthony: “There’s nothing to prepare anybody for the unexpected death of a child. Having a child and raising them is all about the future, about what they will turn out like and the kind of life that they are going to lead.
“When they die young, the parents are left with nothing. They don’t have a future to look forward to, so in those conversations they don’t mention anything about the future.
“That’s why they don’t mention the funeral until much later. They don’t want the only plans they have to make for their child plans for their funeral. By not mentioning it, it stays at arm’s length. Talking about it makes it real.”
Helen: “We’ve learned that arranging a funeral for a child takes more than one visit and that you don’t talk about the arrangements at the first meeting. It’s so difficult for them to get round to and we realise that they need time and space.
“In fact the arrangements are usually very straightforward, and that’s because funerals tell a story about a person’s life but when they’ve only had a short life there is less of a story to tell.
“Everything we do therefore takes on a different meaning, such as placing their teddy-bear on the coffin or a story about something they did that hints at their character and the type of person they might have turned out to be.
“That’s definitely the hardest part of all of this. They are having a funeral for someone knowing that so much of who they were and what they would have done will never come to light.
“They’re loved as much as any other human being, and what happens is that their parents continue to take them with them and show them that love by remembering their birthdays or imagining them going to school or wondering what they would be like on their 16th birthday.”
Anthony: “That’s very hard on couples, who are already having to deal with becoming known as parents who have lost a child within their families and social circle. Their identity is shaped not by who they are but by something that has happened to them which is incredibly unfair.
“No-one wants to be that couple. They want to be a couple who are bringing up a child and doing what everyone else is doing.”
Helen: “They’re having to deal with something that shouldn’t happen. We all expect to be born and grow up and have a life and as parents we expect that for our children too. When that doesn’t happen it feels unnatural, but some lives just don’t get started.”
Anthony: “There are many occasions when most of us have sat and cried with a family. You can’t help it because you are drawn into the emotion with them.
“You feel sadness for them. You can’t feel that sadness that they are feeling but the sadness comes from knowing that their hearts are ripped completely and there is nothing anyone can do to repair them.”