When pregnancy loss affects the family

When discussing abortion with children, it is helpful for adults to be sensitive to children’s possible reactions to pregnancy loss within the family. The pregnancy loss may have resulted from abortion or abortifacient contraception, or from physiologic factors such as miscarriage, ectopic or molar pregnancy or stillbirth. Specialists often vary their recommendations according to whether the pregnancy loss was induced or physiologic and whether children seem to be aware of the loss.

Give opportunity for grief

Children with an unresolved sibling loss may show traumatic repetition in words, play or behaviour. Some children have been present during a physiologic crisis or abortion decision; others may not show explicit awareness of the pregnancy loss. Yet, as Amy Sobie, executive assistant at the Elliot Institute, has written, “Even very young children may be aware that their mother was pregnant, but a baby never arrived. This may cause young children to question their own security and lead to a sense of mistrust and lack of communication with the parents.”
But surviving children who have grieved and healed within the immediate family will be better adjusted and better prepared to learn about abortion in the abstract.

Respect unique needs of each surviving child

When there has been a specific loss of an unborn sibling, ideally it is the parents who first assist the children to grieve and heal. Psychologist Theresa Burke, who founded Rachel’s Vineyard, points out that parents share an “intimate knowledge of the strengths and vulnerabilities of each of their children.” The amount and type of information about a pregnancy loss should be tailored to the particular child’s developmental stage; so should rituals to mark the pregnancy loss. After some physiologic losses later in pregnancy, the baby may be buried in a coffin. Bernadette Zambri, who co-founded Morning Light Ministry, suggests that younger surviving children choose meaningful objects to place in the coffin; older children may wish to make objects of their own. Her ministry sends mementos to parents and surviving children for ongoing remembrance.

A surviving later child learning about unborn development through pictures may be ready to learn the gestational age at which the lost sibling died. This can be very helpful in those pregnancy loss situations where there are no photos of the missing sibling.

Share privately before speaking publicly

Parents who feel called to publicly testify about their experience of pregnancy loss may wish to postpone such action until their children have heard their story at home. Parents who discuss pregnancy loss with their children free themselves from worry that children will discover the truth from another source.

Undertake your own healing

Before parents discuss any type of past pregnancy loss with a child, ideally they first ensure that their own relationship with the unborn child is healed. They should receive guidance from a therapist, peers in bereavement and/or a member of the clergy. Parents should not share their loss with a surviving child as a means of relating to the lost child. This is particularly true when the loss has come through abortion, knowledge of which may be especially threatening to the surviving child.

Consider the merit of disclosure soon

Child and family psychiatrist and child psychologist Dr. Philip Ney has been quoted by the Elliot Institute as advocating disclosure in every case: “In some respects, the decision to talk or not talk about your pregnancy loss, particularly an abortion, is academic. There are very few real secrets within the family. The facts seem to indicate that the loss that has affected you will be communicated in one way or another, and children guess at what happened. You cannot not communicate. You will show that something has changed you, especially something as disturbing as an abortion.” Ney told The Interim about three principles to follow regardless of the type of pregnancy loss. First, the child should be given information on an as-needed basis, when (s)he shows that (s)he needs to know. Second, the explanations given should be age-appropriate. Third, if the child does not seem to be expressing an interest or need to acknowledge the loss, parents can bring up the topic, quietly and indirectly.

Consider the merit of disclosure later

Parents explaining a pregnancy loss to children who appear unaware need to prayerfully discern the timing of their explanations. Social worker Kevin Burke, associate director of Rachel’s Vineyard, considers it natural for parents to share with surviving children about a physiologic pregnancy loss. But in the case of a past abortion, he does not agree with Ney that parents should always inform children. He makes no general rule, but places the onus on post-abortive parents to justify disclosure. Burke offers specific questions post-abortive parents should ask themselves first: “How will this benefit my children? How will this affect their development now and in the future? How will this contribute to or interfere with their own emotional maturation and development? How will this contribute to or interfere with their relationship with me and my role as a parent? What is the benefit to telling them now, rather than waiting until they are a young adult or adult and can more easily integrate the information into their adult minds and understand the issue and the parents’ experience?”

Acknowledge pregnancy loss

Nurse and counsellor Kathleen Gray, who co-founded of Montreal’s Centre for Reproductive Loss, takes a cautious approach, encouraging parents to disclose their pregnancy loss on a need-to-know basis. But she warns that without disclosure, a surviving child can have a sense of personal vulnerability and may blame him/herself for the emotional aftermath of loss in the family. Secrecy about pregnancy loss “leaves unexplained to the child why the (parent) is sad. And the child might tend to think they’re the cause of (the parent’s) sadness.” She therefore suggests that bereaved parents might acknowledge that a loss occurred – a brother or sister died – even if it is not yet appropriate to explain how the loss occurred.

Be prepared for children’s reactivity

A child’s initial reaction to news of pregnancy loss may be fearful, resentful, and disruptive – especially in the case of abortion. Gray says a child survivor of abortion could ask: “‘If (my) mother could do this to my sister or brother, what could she do to me?’”

But parents’ openness may allow God’s healing to prevail. An older child who did not want another sibling may feel somewhat responsible for a pregnancy loss, and will need assistance to confess this and properly understand the meaning of the loss. Many children will need time to process their anger, not only at their parents, but at God, for allowing the death of a sibling.

In the particular case of abortion, parents can demonstrate God’s redemptive love. Theresa Burke recommends parents speak honestly about abortion, “humbly without implicating others – but taking responsibility.” Ney has written that post-abortive parents must let their children hear “that they are truly sorry and will not consider having an abortion again.” He explains that, “If the parents can admit to their greatest mistake and tell their children how they are forgiven, then the children will always know that regardless of what they have done, they, too, can be forgiven.”

Recognize one caveat for post-abortive parents

In the case of a family healing from abortion, some lessons about sexuality and chastity may be best conveyed by post-abortive adults other than the bereaved parents. The Burkes note that those who have healed after suffering physical, emotional and spiritual consequences of abortion can testify powerfully to adolescents. But as Theresa Burke cautions post-abortive parents, “It’s not appropriate or helpful to use your sharing as a teaching tool for better values. That’s fine if you are speaking to high school students – but not good for your own kids, who will have a very non-objective emotional reaction to this news that needs to be expressed, received, validated and supported.”

Be open to fruits from the family’s wound

Helping children heal from the loss of an unborn sibling is a separate task from fostering pro-life values. Still, adults can anticipate that surviving children who have properly grieved will be primed for the defence of the unborn. By honouring the missing sibling, families are “establishing that each human life has dignity. And it’s worthy of grief,” says Kevin Burke.

According to blogging Pastor Mark Batterson, “Wherever the wound appears in our psyche, that is exactly where we will give our major gift to the community. God often uses us at our point of greatest weakness or greatest injury. He turns our pain into someone else’s gain … No one rolls out the red carpet and invites tragedy into their life, but our greatest gifts and passions are often the byproduct of our worst tragedies and failures. Trials have a way of helping us rediscover our purpose in life.” In the words of Pastor T.D. Jakes, “Your misery is your ministry.”


It is recommended that parents seeking healing consult a specific program for assistance. Print resources include the following:  Ney’s booklet, co-authored with Dr. Marie Peeters-Ney, “How to talk with your children about your abortion” is available from Pioneer Publishing at http://www.messengers2.com/. The booklet offers steps to help surviving children welcome a missing sibling into the family, which may also be helpful in other cases of pregnancy loss. Zambri’s book, Morning Light: Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Early Infant Death from a Catholic Perspective, contains a chapter on “Sibling Grief.”  See http://ca.geocities.com/morninglightministry@rogers.com/.