Coping with the Loss of a Child
Practical suggestions to help you grieve and find ways to heal after the loss of a child
No parent anticipates having to cope with the death of a child. If you are grieving the loss of your own child, or one dear to you, we are truly sorry.
While the passage of time will not make your loss any smaller or less significant, understanding some of the ways that grief can affect you may help you feel less anxious about experiencing emotions and states of mind you are unfamiliar with.
If you are finding it difficult to cope, there are many bereavement charities and peer-to-peer groups ready to listen and provide you with the support you need. They understand that no matter how recent or long ago your bereavement, the death of a child is a loss that is borne for a lifetime.
The pain of losing a child
Losing a child is particularly cruel and shocking because it feels against the natural order of things, in a world where the old make way for the young.
Even if your child was 40 or 50 years old and with their own children and partner, feelings of emptiness, guilt and protectiveness are a big part of a parent’s loss. You don’t stop being a parent when your child grows up.
Grief has many symptoms and manifestations, some of which can be constant, others which change from day to day. The physical sense of separation that comes with grief can feel almost unbearable, as though a part of you has been cut away.
If you are finding things difficult to cope with, your doctor might be able to offer help and guidance for symptoms of anxiety and depression, while bereavement support charities can provide emotional support, counselling and respite for parents and family members each finding their own way through grief. Among them, the Child Death Helpline – 0800 282 986 (or 0808 800 6019 from mobile phones) provides confidential listening support every day of the week, however long you have grieved the loss of your child.
No bereavement is ever the same and, even in the closest of families, the sense of isolation each person may feel, can be overwhelming for them. You may identify with some, or all, of the following feelings, as you grieve the loss of your child.
Symptoms of grief
A sense of madness. Great loss can cause intense emotions that are sometimes frightening to experience. You might feel locked in a nightmare from which you can’t wake up, or trapped in a ‘bubble’, able to hear but disconnected and separate from the outside world. Some people who lose a loved one can sense their presence, or see visions, during their grief.
Anger. Anger is a common part of grief. You may be angry at the world for carrying on oblivious to your pain, angry at your God, quick to get cross with those around you, or angry and unforgiving to yourself.
Feeling numb. The shock of a child’s death can be so intense that your mind is simply not able to process what is happening. Some people just can’t cry or begin to convey their feelings. Don’t be hard on yourself, or assume someone doesn’t care, if the tears don’t come.
Feeling guilty. It’s not unusual for parents to blame themselves for their child’s death, as though it were something they could have prevented or kept them safe from. Replaying scenarios, or feeling guilty for being a survivor, can be something that’s played over in a journey through grief, trying to make sense of what has happened in a situation beyond control.
Jealousy. You may find new baby news difficult to hear, or have pangs of grief around other people’s children. It’s natural for people to experience feelings of envy towards others who have something we have lost.
Feeling as though you can’t carry on. Life may have lost its meaning, or you may wish it had been you, and not your child, that had died. If during a bleak moment your thoughts touch on taking your own life, please call Samaritans’ 24-hour helpline on 116 123.
When you are feeling lost in greyness, there are many other bereavement support organisations ready to listen.
Supporting bereaved children
If you have other children, friends and family members may be on hand to help you with caring for them in the days and weeks after your child’s death. When a child dies, routine and stability are important for the other children in the family.
Depending on how old your children are, you may have different ways of explaining what’s happened and encouraging them to share how they feel. Most bereavement support charities recommend that you use simple and straightforward language to explain what it means when someone has died. Saying someone has ‘fallen asleep’ for instance, might make younger children afraid of going to sleep.
If they are old enough, brothers and sisters may like to be a part of making the funeral arrangements, from choosing flowers or music, to drawing pictures on a bespoke coffin or doing a reading.
Stillbirth and neonatal death charity Sands says that even very young children are likely to pick up on and react to grief, when parents try to hide their feelings.
Seeing their parents visibly upset, distant or ‘different’ through grieving can also be unsettling for children, who may express feelings of anxiety through uncharacteristic changes in their own behaviour. It’s okay to show and explain your sadness and encourage them to express theirs, while reassuring them that they are special, valued and loved, even though you are sad.
Children can grieve very differently from adults. Many hospices and bereavement support charities such as Child Bereavement UK provide support that’s tailored to help every family member through their grief when a baby or child dies. Read more about supporting a bereaved child or a bereaved teenager.
Supporting your partner
A loving partner can be a pillar of strength in everyday life, but when a child dies, it can be difficult to cope when you have both been floored by the same experience.
Feelings of anger, guilt and blame you have directed at yourself, may also be the catalyst for anger with your partner. One of you may want to talk, while the other may seem unwilling to listen, or seem unable to express their own feelings. They may feel differently about certain decisions you need to make, or they may need more time alone while you want constant support.
Grief intensifies the emotional balance that we can be unconscious of maintaining in daily life, including accommodating the others ‘ups’ when we are down.
Although the death of a child may exacerbate difficulties in a relationship which is already strained, in many cases, surviving the impact of a child’s death can ultimately bring couples and families closer together, with hospices, charities and support groups providing counsel and respite breaks to support people through difficult times.
The Compassionate Friends , a peer-to-peer charity made up of people supporting others who have lost a child, sibling, grandchild or other loved one in similar circumstances, says it can be hard for couples when their emotional responses are not in step. As well as support each other, it recommends couples give each other space to grieve their own way, taking different paths through grief if necessary, without being afraid that it will drive them apart.
Moving towards healing
Learning to live again after the death of child may seem impossible. With time and support, bereaved parents learn to adapt to what many describe as a ‘new normal’ and accommodate their loss into a life where daily routine and, later, social activities play a part.
Be kind to yourself. Grief can disrupt sleep patterns and cause a loss of appetite. When you are emotionally vulnerable, this can even affect your immune system. If you are finding it difficult to eat at mealtimes, try energy-boosting healthy snacks throughout the day and keep hydrated. Sleep is a great healer, but even if you are finding it impossible, establishing a restful routine where you can lie and be still can help. Grief can also make us feel exhausted, unable to face getting up. Although it may be very difficult, try set yourself routines and daily tasks that will get you up and even out of the house for a little bit, helping you to recuperate.
Ask for support. If someone has said ‘if there is anything I can do’ – take them up on it. Whether it is asking friends or family to cook a meal, do some household chores or simply sit with you so you are not alone, don’t be afraid to ask of others what you’d willingly do for them.
Avoid too much alcohol It’s tempting to turn to the wine bottle as a way of numbing emotions or drifting off to sleep, but alcohol can be a depressant that disrupts sleep patterns and can weaken vulnerable immune systems. While it may numb emotions, alcohol won’t heal the pain of loss and there can be a risk of dependence as you become more tolerant to larger measures, so be aware of your units and try to be mindful when you pour.
- Consider joining a support group. Meeting up with other people who understand the pain of losing a child can be an important part of the healing process for many parents and families. You’ll feel less isolated in your grief and, in time, more able to talk about what you are going through. Siblings can also benefit from opportunities to talk, share their feelings through creative play, or have carefree fun with other children with whom they don’t have to explain.
The grieving process
Some people find that understanding how grief can influence our thoughts and actions, can help them find ways to cope with daily life, through their loss. There are several ‘models’ of grief, defined by psychologists and bereavement experts, with which you may identify or feel could be a help supporting a friend or family member who has lost a child.
You can find more information about the different ways people grieve here. Your doctor may be able to refer you to a specialist grief counsellor or therapist to talk more about how you are feeling, if you are struggling to cope.