Grieving the Loss of a Child

No parent will ever be prepared for a child’s death. Parents are simply not meant to outlive their children. It is important to remember that how long your child lived does not determine the size of your loss, the loss is profound at every age.

  • Parents of young children are very involved in their daily lives. Death changes every aspect of family life and often leaves an enormous emptiness.
  • The death of an older child is difficult because children of this age are beginning to reach their potential and become independent individuals.
  • When a young adult dies, you not only lose a child but often a close friend, a link to a grandchild, and an irreplaceable source of emotional and practical support.

You may also grieve for the hopes and dreams you had for your child. If you have lost your only child, you may also feel you have lost your identity as a parent. The pain of these losses will always be part of you. With time, most parents do find a way forward and experience happiness and meaning in their life once again.

Common Reactions to Grief

Reactions after the death of a child are similar to those after other losses, but they are often more intense and last longer. You may experience the following grief reactions:

  • Intense shock, confusion, disbelief, and denial, even if your child’s death was expected.
  • Overwhelming sadness and despair. Facing daily tasks or getting out of bed can seem impossible.
  • Guilt or a feeling that you have failed as your child’s protector and could have done something differently.
  • Intense anger and feelings of bitterness and unfairness at a life left unfilled.
  • Fear and dread of being alone and overprotecting your surviving children.
  • Resentment toward parents with healthy children
  • Feeling that life has no meaning and wishing to be released from the pain or to join your child.
  • Questioning or losing faith or spiritual beliefs.
  • Dreaming about your child or feeling your child’s presence nearby.
  • Intense loneliness and isolation, even when around others, and feeling that no one understands how you feel.

Grief is always difficult when a child dies, but some parents have an especially difficult time. Even as time passes, the grief remains intense, and may feel like it is impossible to return to normal life. Some parents think about hurting themselves to escape from the pain. If you have these feelings, talk with a professional counsellor right away. You can find help to move past this intense grief.

Timing of Your Grief

Some people expect your pain should be resolved over a specific time, such as a year, but this is not true. The initial severe and initial grief you feel will not be continuous and periods of intense grief often come and go over 18 months or longer. Over time your grief may come in waves that are gradually less intense and less frequent. But you will likely always have some feelings of sadness and loss.

Even after years of your child’s death, important events and milestones in the lives of other children can trigger grief. You may find yourself thinking about how old your child would be and what he or she would look like if still alive.

Differenced in How Parents Grieve

Parents may grieve in different ways depending on their gender and their role in the child’s life. One parent may find that talking helps, while the other may need quiet time to grieve alone. Cultural expectations can play a big role as men are often expected to control their emotions, be strong and take charge of the family. Women are expected to cry openly and want to talk about their grief.

If you are a working parent, you may become more involved in your job to escape the sadness and daily reminders at home. A stay-at-home parent may be surrounded by constant reminders and may feel a lack of purpose now that his or her job as a caregiver has ended.

Differences in grieving can cause relationship difficulties at a time when parents need to support each other the most. One parent may believe that the other is not grieving properly or that a lack of open grief means he or she has loved the childless. Talk openly with your partner, and work to understand and accept each other’s coping styles.

Helping Siblings Who Are Grieving

Parents are normally the focus of attention when a child dies, and the grief of siblings is sometimes overlooked. The death of a brother or sister is a tremendous loss for a child. They lose a confidant and a life-long friend. You are overwhelmed with your own grief and your surviving children may misinterpret your grief as a message that they are not as valued as much as their sibling who has died.

You can help your child children during the time  of grief in several ways:

  • Make the grief a shared family experience. Include children in discussions about memorial plans
  • Spend as much time as possible with your children, talking about their siblings or playing together
  • Make sure the children understand that they are not responsible for a sibling’s death, and help them let go of their regrets and guilt.
  • Never compare siblings to your child who died. Make sure your child knows that you do not expect them to “fill in” for him or her.
  • Set reasonable limits on their behaviour. But try not to be either overprotective or overly permissive. It is normal to feel protective over a surviving child.
  • Ask a close family member or friend to spend extra time with the siblings if your own grief prevents giving them the attention they need.
  • Set reasonable limits on their behavior. But try not to be either overprotective or overly permissive. It is normal to feel protective of surviving children.
  • Ask a close family member or friend to spend extra time with siblings if your own grief prevents you from giving them the attention they need.

Helping Yourself Grieve

It is natural and normal to grieve. The following suggestions may be helpful while grieving:

  • Talk about your child often and use his or her name
  • Ask friends and family to help with housework, errands, and caring for other children
  • Take time on deciding what to do with your child’s belongings. Do not rush to pack up your child’s room or to give away clothes and toys.
  • Prepare ahead of time for how to respond to difficult questions like, “how many children do you have?” and comments like “At least you have other children.” Remember that people are not trying to hurt you, they just don’t know what to say
  • Prepare for how you want to spend significant days such as your child’s birthday. You may want to spend the day looking at photos and sharing memories or start a family tradition such as planting flowers.
  • Because of the intensity and isolation of parental grief, parents may especially benefit from a support group where they can share their experiences with other parents who understand their grief and offer hope.

Finding Meaning in Life

You should be prepared that you will never really “get over” the death of your child, but you will learn to live with the loss, making it a part of who you are. It may make you rethink your priorities and the meaning of life. It may seem impossible but you can find happiness and purpose in life again.

It is important to remember that it is never disloyal to your child to re-engage in life and enjoy new experiences. Each of your children changes your life. They show you new ways to love, new things to find joy in, and new ways to look at the world. A part of each child’s legacy is that the changes he or she brings to your family continue after death. The memories of joyful moments you spent with your child and the love you shared will live on and always be part of you