One of the reasons I'm unsure about this program is that it was enthusiastically promoted to us only moments after we said that our baby died. No condolences were offered. This all happened while our daughter was present. To me, this is one of the biggest ways children learn empathy - by seeing it modeled by the adults in their every day lives and in those moments when it would have the greatest impact. If the people implementing this program cannot even offer condolences and take the opportunity to say to a child who will be participating in their program, "I'm sorry your brother died.", I have some serious doubts.
For now, we have the dates emailed to us so that our daughter does not go in on those days. Last week I made a mistake and sent her in on a day of the "empathy" program without realizing it and this was the activity the kids did:
A diaper bag. Of course this was hard for me to see. But this is not about me. She said she enjoyed the activity and that's fine. I just wonder how the adults present could let her do this activity without sparing a single thought for what might be going through her mind, what she might be feeling. Did it even occur to them that this might be a sensitive activity for a child whose baby brother died? Nothing was said to us. I'm not worried about her feeling sad. That is unavoidable. My concern is that she feels alone and unsupported. Sometimes we don't feel more alone than when we're in a room full of people not acknowledging our truth. That is a terrible feeling and in my mind, causes more problems than feeling sad about something sad and having it acknowledged and supported.
When I say "concern", what I really mean is fierce, gut-wrenching anger and sadness for what she is going through at such a young age, and how she will carry this burden her whole life. Just to be clear.
After I calmed down from all these complicated feelings, I suggested to her that on the next "empathy" day, we could go through the memory boxes I put together for the hospital (and still haven't delivered - this is proving harder than expected), and she could draw and cut out those items. She loved that idea and said, "We can do our own empathy program!" So now I'm inspired to do babyloss activities with her on those days.
Yesterday we worked on this:
The items she drew are, from left to right, a candle, a knitted hat and blanket, a (disposable) camera and a journal. Later she added a drawing of a teddy bear. We talked about each of the items and how it might help someone whose baby has died. I'm hoping we can share this activity with some of our babyloss friends who are also raising bereaved siblings or cousins. The box is made of paper and was given to me by my dear friend Theresa, an amazingly empathetic person (and crafty too!).
I wish my daughter could only learn about empathy from happy experiences. But she can't. Not anymore.
Maybe some day the empathy program at her school will include a component where people can come into the classroom and talk about someone they love who has died, and help children learn about empathy in another context. Maybe the school will participate in other events such as Children's Grief Awareness Day. Maybe they'll stop spewing mindless platitudes like "Thinking positive means letting go" over the loudspeaker during morning announcements. For now, we are opting out of the empathy program out of respect for her feelings – not to “protect” her, because that is neither necessary nor desired, but because we believe that we are the best people to guide her in emotional literacy when it comes to grief, particularly the grief associated with stillbirth.
I know I could be accused of putting my grief on her. But I reject that. She is her own person with her own feelings, which she is learning to identify and manage.
In the 23 months since Toren was stillborn, we have learned so much. Both our children have been our teachers in this. When someone you love dies, your relationship with that person does not end. It takes on a different form. It is a painful, painful transformation. Our relationship with Toren has continued to change and grow. It's obvious to us that this is happening for our daughter too. It's important to us as parents to nurture that sibling relationship.
We live in a culture that does not seem to understand the simple concept that we grieve because we love. And children's grief is, I think, even more hidden than the grief of adults. On the same day we told our daughter our new baby was coming home, we had to tell her that he had died. It was the second hardest thing I've ever had to do. I know how that moment changed my life. I don't know all the ways it changed hers, but I know that it did. I truly believe that those who deny that children grieve (and especially grieve someone they supposedly "never met") are foolish and harmful, to put it mildly. On the surface, she seems like a joyful person, and she is. But it would be a mistake to assume that she does not grieve her brother in her own way, and will do so her whole life. All these things add to the challenge of raising a bereaved sibling. Life, grief and death, these things are complicated enough for an adult to try to understand. It's our job to gently guide her through that. We hope we are teaching her empathy, among other things, and surrounding ourselves with people who are also able to teach her, mostly by being empathetic themselves.
Check out what researcher Brené Brown has to say about the power of empathy, with some lovely animation by the RSA. I note that the example she uses is not a happy one, such as a living baby, but something sad that someone is going through. We watched it with our daughter, she loves it.