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Bereavement Support Services

Special Considerations of Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths

Baby's bed

The death of a child is considered the most stressful and enduring loss for parents. Research indicates that compared to the loss of a parent or spouse the loss of child is more intense. One reason is that for many individuals, the parent-child bond is integral to the parent’s identity.

Understanding the differences and similarities between losses that are sudden and unexpected such as SIDS and accidents and those losses that are expected such as cancer is critical to improving bereavement support to families.

While all bereaved families need information, privacy, support and involvement in decisionmaking, there are some differences when the death is sudden and unexpected. The differences include:

  • Intense shock and distress for the family that also may include fear and anxiety.
  • A family member is usually in a hospital setting and must quickly contact and summon other family members and friends. Families may feel both overwhelmed and isolated. While most SIDS deaths take place in the home or child care setting, most will be transported to a hospital or health care setting.
  • Family members must make decisions quickly that require them to change their framework from their child’s life to his or her death. Decisions such as organ donation and funeral arrangements will be discussed.
  • Dealing with many different types of personnel from transport to the emergency room. Families are faced with interacting with numerous prehospital providers, law enforcement, emergency room staff and other families and children in the emergency room.
  • Experiencing grief in a situation in which the family does not have a relationship with the health personnel or completely understand the medical information. The child’s death from SIDS or unintentional accident is sudden. The family had no reason to expect that the child was ill or would die.
  • The cause of the child’s death is unknown, which left the family with more questions than answers.
  • The criminal justice system is often involved and families face suspicion and accusations of child abuse when the death is from SIDS or is unexplained.