Having a child is life-changing. They open our eyes. We love more intensely. We experience joy more completely. We look at the world in new and different ways. And this makes the loss of a child all the more devastating.
No parent is ever prepared for the death of one of their children. After all, you’re meant to go first. It doesn’t matter how old they are. Whether they’re an infant, school age or well into adulthood, the depth of your loss and the grief you experience is powerful and long-lasting.
Common reactions to a child’s death
Grief is always profound, but it can be particularly intense when a child dies and some parents have an especially tough time. Here are just some of the raft of emotions you may experience following the death of your child.
- Shock. You may initially feel numb. It’s your mind’s way of shielding you from the pain. But feelings of shock, confusion and disbelief will eventually break through as you begin to experience overwhelming sadness and despair.
- Denial. You keep your ears pricked, expecting to hear a cry on the baby monitor. You pick up the car keys, ready to take them to school. You glance at the door, waiting for them to come home. How can your child possibly be gone?
- Confusion. Your memory may become cloudy. Because your mind is trying so hard to process what’s happened, normal memory functions can sometimes become a bit hazy. Grief is not only an emotional response, it’s also a physiological one.
- Guilt. Should of. Could of. Would of. Guilt is a powerful emotion. It may be realistic and based on something you know you’ve done wrong. But it’s often unrealistic, as you may be blaming yourself for things out of your control. It’s common to replay your actions prior to your child’s death and wonder what you might have done differently.
- Powerlessness. As a parent you see yourself as your child’s protector. It’s your job to protect them from any and all dangers out there in the big, bad world. When your child dies, a feeling of failure can set in. You didn’t protect them. You were powerless to save them.
- Anger. It’s normal to feel angry in the wake of your child’s death. If their death was accidental, your anger may be even more intense. And your emotions may bubble over as you watch life go on around you as if nothing has happened.
- Hopelessness. You’re not only grieving for the loss of your child, but also for the loss of your hopes, dreams and expectations for them – and time will not necessarily provide relief from this aspect of your grief.
Some people expect these emotions to resolve within a specific time frame. But unfortunately, that’s just not the case. Certain triggers can bring on waves of grief. What would have been their first day at school, their graduation, their birthday and more. These waves can continue to come, even long after your child dies.
Ways to cope with your grief
In the face of so many emotions, coping with your grief may seem like an insurmountable task. But there are things you can do to make the pathway to healing a little easier.
- Take small steps. The future is a long time and facing it in the wake of losing your child may seem too daunting to contemplate. It’s important to break the future down into small increments – an hour, a day, a week – and only deal with one portion at a time. Focus on tasks. Feed the cat. Do the laundry. Little bits of normalcy and focusing on the moment at hand can help make grief more manageable and bearable.
- Don’t hide your emotions. Confront your feelings and admit them. All too often, grieving parents ‘put on a brave face’, but it’s important to admit to yourself – and those around you – that things aren’t OK. There’s no reason to hide your emotions. If someone asks how you’re doing, tell them the truth. Don’t feel that you need to protect them from your feelings.
- Let others know your needs. People will want to be supportive, but they won’t know how. Like you, they’re processing the loss and likely won’t know exactly what to say. Reach out to those around you. Let family and friends know what you need. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re worried about running into well-meaning acquaintances while you’re doing the grocery shopping, ask someone to come with you to run interference. If you can’t face the prospect of cleaning the house, reach out to someone to do it for you. If you need someone to listen to you and help ease your loneliness, pick up the phone. Only you know what you need. Ask for it.
- Remember the positive. Focus on the good times. When you’ve lost a child, it’s all to easy to find yourself in a negative frame of mind. But take the time to remember the joy your child brought to your life. You might consider starting a journal to chronicle the details you want to remember. Look at family photos. Talk openly about special times spent together. Allow yourself to focus on the positive, rather than the negative.
- Accept happiness. Finding joy again in life is often one of the hardest things for a parent to do in the wake of their child’s death. But happiness is one of the most important survival tools we have –even if it’s just for a moment. Laughing is not a betrayal of your child’s memory. Feeling joy doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten them. You’re not abandoning them. To survive grief, you sometimes need to step away from it.
One of the most difficult roles for a parent after the loss of a child is to continue being a parent to their surviving children. It’s an enormous challenge. But, even though it’s difficult to find the emotional reserves to support them, your remaining children shouldn’t feel they’ve been forgotten. You’ll inevitably find yourself switching between the roles of being the comforted, to that of being the comfortor. It’s hard. But it’s necessary.
Here are some ways you can help your remaining children and move forward as a family.
- Speak openly and honestly with them. It’s important to communicate honestly about what happened to the child who died, what death means and why their sibling is not coming back. Be prepared for ongoing conversations; for some children, going over things many times can help. Listen to their anxieties and address them as honestly as you can.
- Share the experience. As a parent, it’s important not to hide your emotions and the grief you’re experiencing from your other children. Make grief a shared family experience. Talk to them about how you’re feeling. Be honest about how much you miss the child who has died. Create a safe environment for them to open up about their feelings.
- Don’t make comparisons. For some siblings, it can be a natural reaction to try to fill the gap left. Make sure your children know that you don’t expect them to ‘fill in’ for their sibling who is gone. Let them know that they are their own person and you wouldn’t have it any other way.
- Set limits on their behaviour. Grief is hard for children to process and you may find they start to ‘act out’ in the wake of losing their sibling. It’s to be expected, but shouldn’t be left unchecked. While it’s important not to be overly protective, nor should you let them get away with otherwise unacceptable behaviour.
- Acknowledge their grief. Anger, sadness, confusion, guilt, fear and frustration are all natural emotional responses for children when they’re grieving. Let them know it’s OK to feel these emotions. Validate their feelings. Allow them to express their grief and show your support.
It’s important to understand that children of different ages understand and experience grief in different ways. To learn more about how children grieve, view our video >>>
Don’t forget your partner
Communication is important in any relationship and never more so than following the loss of a child. Here are some ways you can work together through grief.
- Talk to one another. Don’t ignore or try to bury your feelings. The death of your child will leave you feeling dazed and in shock. It’s vital to communicate with one another. Share your feelings of helplessness, confusion, anger, depression, pain, guilt and fear. Don’t try to get through it alone.
- Seek outside support. You may find you’re so deeply involved in your own grief that you can’t provide the support to your partner that they need. Because of the intensity and isolation of parental grief, it can be beneficial to seek help from a counsellor or support group.
- Speak up. Don’t expect your partner to be a mind-reader. They can’t know what you need unless you tell them. Be comfortable in silence. Sometimes there truly are no words.
- Don’t feel like you have to fill the silence. Your partner just needs to know you are there.
- Don’t judge. No two people grieve in the same way. Everyone expresses their pain in different ways and feels their loss differently, so it’s important not to judge your partner for their reactions in grief. Men are often expected to control their emotions, be strong and take charge of the family. Women may be expected to cry openly and want to talk about their grief. Try to understand and accept each other’s coping styles.
You can learn more about how men and women grieve differently by viewing our video >>>
Find meaning in life
You’ll never really “get over” the death of your child. But you will learn to live with the loss and make it part of who you are. Your child’s death may lead you to rethink your priorities. You might start to search for new meaning in life. It’s important to remember that it’s OK to re-engage in life and enjoy new experiences.
Children change your life and part of each child’s legacy is that these changes continue after their death. The memories of joyful moments together and the love you shared will live on and always be part of you.
Want to know more?
For more information about coping with grief after losing a child, please contact the Walter Carter Funerals team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.