Parenting After Loss - Katie Wangelin

Parenting After Loss

On September 23, 2014, Heartstrings hosted its third Living With Hope – Speaker Series program in Winston-Salem.  Partnering with Novant Health in a four-part speaker series, Heartstrings has facilitated discussion of topics that touch the lives of families grieving the loss of a child.  Heartstrings was pleased to have Katie Wangelin, LCSW, explore the topic of “Parenting After Loss” at this event.

The insights and guidance she discussed were so meaningful, that Heartstrings wanted to share this information with an even larger audience, especially today, which is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day.

Understanding the meaning of the words commonly used in a discussion such as this, was a perfect place to begin.  We frequently use words of “loss” and “grief”, but how do we define what they really mean?  Katie began her discussion with explaining these terms.

“Loss” is an event where it is realized that a person, object, place or expectation will no longer be part of our lives; and “Grief” is all the feelings and reactions we have that stem from that loss.  She reminded the group that grief does not follow a structured path, nor can it be contained in a pretty little box.  Grief is messy, unorganized and unpredictable.

Each person’s experience is unique, even for family members grieving the loss of the same baby, and feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, depression, anxiety, shame and worry are common for parents to experience.  The living children in a family of loss also go through a myriad of emotions, and it is natural for behaviors to change and intensify for each of them.

How is it possible for grieving parents to honor their own painful grief, while also helping their living children to heal?  This is a challenging path that parents travel, and by better understanding the different ways in which children and adults naturally grieve it provides a roadmap that is helpful.

Pace – children grieve at a different pace then the adults around them.  Children, even teenagers, tend to experience “grief bursts”, which are unexpected, powerful emotional reactions to loss.  Children benefit from having someone to talk to when these occur, as the feelings can be overwhelming at times.  Although adults experience ups and downs in their grief, they have to balance their grief with the responsibilities of daily living (work, home, community, family, etc.).  

Time – due to other responsibilities in life following a death (funeral arrangements, medical care), adults may not always have time to grieve when they want to.  Katie suggests that parents set aside time each day to connect with their grief.  For example, take 10 minutes each day to sit and write down thoughts and feelings associated with your baby or draw shapes or pictures that represent emotions you currently notice.  The goal is to spend time, even small amounts of time, to connect with grief.  Katie also identified the benefits of watching part of a sad movie. 

Although the story may be different from yours, tapping into those sad emotions can allow your mind and body to safely express what you are holding inside related to your own loss.
Developmental Stage – reactions to a loss are closely tied to a child’s developmental stage.  Knowing your child’s developmental stage can help you know what to expect as they navigate this new loss.  

It is also important to keep in mind that even children in a family who are at similar developmental stages (ex: twin 7 year olds or a 3 and 5 year old) will have unique reactions based on their personality as well.  While one elementary school-aged child may become tearful upon learning of the death, another child of similar developmental stage may respond with minimal emotion and go ask to play.

Play is the language of children and their desire to move on and play, even after hearing news of a death in their family, is not uncommon and can be encouraged.  During that time of play they can begin to process what they heard and form the questions they may ask to further understand what it means.

Katie’s extensive experience in working with children and teenagers, provided the perfect backdrop for her guidance on how parents and other adults can help their living children manage their grief.  Some of the more common reactions include:

Seeming disinterested – although a child may seem uninterested in hearing that the baby has died, his indifference does not mean a lack of empathy or love for this child.  Let your child know it is ok to go play and that you will be available to talk about the loss again later if he would like to do so.  It can be beneficial to have a scheduled “check in” time your child can count on.  Even if he does not have anything to say, it provides an opportunity for your child to feel he is being offered a chance to express himself.

Asking questions…over and over and over again – Children may test your response by asking the same questions about the loss over and over again.  Model patience for your child, but if you are in a place where you are unable to be patient, engage another caring adult to discuss these questions with your child.  Be sure to prepare this selected adult to respond in ways that are consistent with your beliefs and feelings.

Depending on their developmental stage, children truly not realize you have already responded to a particular question.  An example of a question a preschooler may ask repeatedly is “When is the baby coming home from the hospital?”.  Katie shared that children of this young age do not realize that death is final and it is natural for them to continue to inquire about the baby.  As parents and other adults are consistent (and patient) in their responses, overtime a child will gain better understanding.

Separation anxiety – following a loss, it is common for children to be worried that another death in the family could occur.  Separation anxiety is a normal grief response for children (and adults alike) and usually fades over time with no intervention.  To help reduce this type of anxiety, let your child know where you will be while you are separated and when you expect to be home.  If possible, allow her to contact you while you are separated.  If contact while you are away is not possible, work with your child on an alternative adult to contact if she is feeling anxious.

Sleep disturbances – even though many children exhibit few grief behaviors at school or with friends, it is when they are home and facing bedtime that anxiety really kicks in.  According to Katie, an effective approach must include ROUTINE at bedtime.  A child’s anxiety can be reduced when they know what to expect and have tools to use to soothe themselves.
Examples of developing a bedtime routine would include:  Keeping bedtime the same each night; develop a sequence of events that you follow each night (brush teeth, put on pajamas, read a book in bed, lights turned down for sleep); and eliminate things that increase anxiety and sleeplessness, such as outside noise, darkness and separation from you.  

More specifically, to reduce outside noise, turn on a white noise machine or play quiet music.  Katie suggests that giving a child a flashlight in bed or having a nightlight on in her bedroom can help ease discomfort with darkness.  If separation from you is the issue, consider using a baby monitor (or walkie talkie) so he can call to you if he needs to be comforted or reassured.  You and your child may also put together a sack of items that can be used for self-soothing, such as a soft bag with a favorite stuffed animal, music box, special stone to hold and picture of their family tucked inside.  These tools help put your child in control of what they use and when, allowing them to learn they can manage their nighttime worries with independence.  

Difficulty focusing at school – it is important for the teachers and caregivers at your child’s school to know what is happening at home develop a plan to best support him when he needs it.  When a child is having difficulty focusing at school (a very normal reaction), talk with him about the cause of his distraction and coordinate with teachers an “Escape Plan” he can use when needed.  

Consider providing your child with memorial items he can carry with him to use at school when he needs to feel connected to his loved one.  Items that are small and can be tucked into a pocket or backpack are ideal.  A picture, soft heart or stone to rub are perfect ideas.
Feeling like they are in a “fishbowl” – it does benefit your child for their caregivers at school to know what is occurring, but some children, usually teenagers, may not want certain people at school to know about their loss.  Work with your child to determine what she wants other to know about the loss and what she would prefer to keep private.  

Help your child develop a canned response to questions about the loss, such as “I’d rather not talk about that” or “thanks for asking…we’re doing ok, but it’s hard to talk about at school”.  
Provide your child with more “escapes” than usual, such as movie nights, day trips away from your hometown, or time with a special friend.  Additional helpful activities include:

Worry jar – use a mason jar or other glass container for your child to decorate and place colorful stones inside. Instruct the child that, at bedtime (or before school), they should think about whatever is worrying them at that time, assign a worry to each stone, place those stones into the jar, and seal the jar tight to hold their worries until they are ready for them again.
Question box – have your child decorate a shoe box in which to place questions they have about the loss, the grief process, or other related questions.  Set aside time to answer the questions they are asking.
Shared journal – encourage your child to write questions in the journal and you respond, in writing, as you are able.  This can feel like a less intimidating way for your child to tell you how they are feeling or about their concerns.
Honoring the sibling relationship

Before closing her discussion, Katie focused on special ways that children can honor their relationship with their sibling and find meaningful ways to remember the life of their loved one.  These impactful suggestions include:
Create a memory box
Plant a tree or bush (butterfly bushes are hearty and attract butterflies)
Create a memory stone (Michael’s and AC Moore sells memory stone kits)
Create a special piece of beaded jewelry, with beads to represent memories of the sibling
Memory Bear workshop at Kids Path
Balloon release
Holding a space at the table (example: candle)


The staff of Heartstrings is so grateful to Katie for sharing her insight and suggestions with grieving parents in our community.  We hope you find this information helpful as you honor your own grief, while helping your other children to heal.


More about Katie
Katie Wangelin is a dynamic professional with experience serving the community since 2001.  Her work with Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro Kids Path Program, The Women’s Resource Center, and her current private practice have allowed her to focus on supporting parents, children and families facing issues related to illness, grief and loss, divorce, women’s issues and caregiver strain.

If you feel you could benefit from direct support as you navigate your grief journey, you may contact Katie Wangelin:
Katie Wangelin, MSW, LCSW The Treatment Network,  LLC 336-542-3179