It Takes a Village: How You Can Truly Support Families After Child Loss

As a funeral professional, you’re no stranger to guiding families through their toughest times. 

But even the most seasoned professional can waiver when tasked with the unimaginable… helping a family cope with a child’s death. 

The loss of a child is immeasurable in magnitude. It’s every parent’s worst fear, and a subject nobody really wants to talk about. 

So how can you truly and thoughtfully support families through this most tragic loss, and maintain your own inner peace at the same time?

Experts in pediatric palliative care, Betsy Hawley and Kristin James, offer us an invitation to speak the unspeakable. In their advice below, they encourage us to engage in a tough conversation about how the funeral profession deals with child loss. 


A different kind of grief

Both Hawley and James have particular insight into the effects a child’s death can have on their loved ones and on the community at large. Each of them works in pediatric palliative care, coordinating with families, medical professionals, and others in the community before and after the loss of a child.

While any death is tragic, it is particularly traumatic when a child dies. Words that might bring comfort after the death of an adult often don’t make sense to someone grieving their child. 

The stifling grief associated with child loss means that families may need more support than they would after any other type of loss. It turns out, parents who lose a child are at higher risk for:

  • Marital problems
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Psychiatric hospitalizations 
  • Health complications
  • Sleep problems

It is not just the parents who suffer greatly when a child passes away. Research shows that kids who lose a sibling are more likely to:

  • Score lower on tests
  • Dropout of high school
  • Not attend college
  • Abuse alcohol or drugs
  • Have suicidal ideations

Another thing about child loss is that it has an enormous ripple effect. Exerts surmise that a child’s death has 200% more of an impact on the community than an adult’s!

Despite the fact that the death of a child is such a unique and far-reaching type of loss, fewer than 30% of funeral professionals have any formal training specific to handling funerals for children. 

Of course, even the most experienced death care professional may struggle with their own emotions when working with the loss of children. In fact, surveyed funeral professionals said it’s the most difficult part of their job. Some even admitted that it’s the one thing that has ever made them consider another career path. 


Tips for doing better for families facing the loss of a child

Now that we understand that funeral homes are sometimes falling short of giving families comprehensive support after the loss of a child, how do we fix it? 

Hawley and James offer some great suggestions for stepping up the way you care for families in the aftermath. Here are just a few:

  1. Ask about faith or cultural rituals. When arriving to pick up a child for transport, ask the family about any faith or cultural rituals they would like you to observe. This is particularly important after an unexpected death. Families who are still reeling from the shock of their loss may not think to request certain practices that are important to their belief system. Anticipate this and gently ask before taking possession of a child’s body. 
  2. Perform acts of love and care. This can look like offering to carry a child or place them in a bassinet instead of using a gurney. Or agreeing to play a favorite song or hymn while transporting or preparing the body. Gestures of reverence can be very meaningful to a parent in these moments.
  3. Invite the family to be involved. Ask family members if they would like to participate in some part of preparing the body. Some families will want to be very hands-on, while others will not even want to talk about this part of the process. A key aspect of providing meaningful care is finding out what brings each family the greatest level of comfort and healing. 

Taking this tact means you will probably have to spend just a little more time with these families than is necessary. But those extra moments taken to honor their child will likely resonate with them forever. 


Building a network of care and support 

In the aftermath of child loss, families are left to navigate their way through dealing with one or more places before they even get to the mortuary or funeral home. Depending on where the death occurs, this could include a hospital, a hospice care facility, or the medical examiner’s office. Hawley and James suggest building a “community bridge of support” with the staff at these facilities. 

Reach out and connect with local medical examiners, emergency departments, care facilities, and so forth. Talk to them about their policies and procedures, and let them know about yours. This can help make the transition smoother and the experience less traumatic for everyone involved. 

And this “it takes a village” mentality doesn’t need to stop with you. Experts on child loss recommend meeting with people on the post-funeral side of things, too. Talk to counselors in your area in case families need referrals, and be aware of other helpful resources that may be available. Some funeral homes even host regular grief and loss support groups. 

The idea is to connect and collaborate with the other professionals who will help see a family through an unfathomable loss. 

This will reinforce your important role in the community, and it will help you provide additional comfort and care to people during their most vulnerable time. Forging these connections will likely help you and your staff to feel more confident in serving those coping with child loss. 

Finally, remember that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed sometimes. You are doing good things in the world. Be sure you take time out for self-care and be sensitive to the needs of your staff as you all manage the difficult emotions that come with the noble profession you have chosen. 


Allow families to heal in the comfort of their own home 

In this time of increased social isolation, it’s more important than ever to make sure your funeral home website isn’t falling short. Your site can be a place where families come to find real-time help and support after a child loss, any time of day or night. Click here to connect with our specialists and find out how you can transform your funeral home website to attract more customers and provide a more meaningful experience to bereaved families.  


What resources, tips and experiences do you have to share about the loss of a child at your funeral home? Share them with us in the comments below!

This blog was published as a summary of the NFDA 2020 Workshop titled Imagining the Unimaginable: Promoting Healing After the Death of a Child with Betsy Hawley, M.A., Executive Director, Pediatric Palliative Care Coalition and Kristin James, LCPC, Executive Director, Greater-Ilinois Pediatric Palliative Care Coalition.

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  1. Andrea Horn

    As a funeral director and embalmer, I am the in charge of taking care of the infants and children. A few of the things I do if hand and foot prints on a certificate. I also have purchased the hand mold buckets. I make a mold of their hands, just right above wrist. I always cut locks of hair, and we have a photographer who does newborn post mortem photo sessions.

    The families are always asked about the photo sessions, some decline but others say those pictures and hand molds are their everlasting memories of their infant.

  2. Krystal Penrose

    Hi Andrea, thanks so much for sharing that with us. What a beautiful offering.