When A Child Dies: For Bereaved Parents

When a child (of any age) dies, a parent is suddenly forced into living a nightmare, a worst fear come true, and very often a deep sense that something that was never supposed to happen, something they barely dared to seriously consider the possibility of happening, has happened. For many there is an intense feeling of “I can’t do this,” that just surviving such a loss is unimaginable.

Common experiences of parents who have experienced the death of a child include:

  • Desperation to see the child again, to have the child back. Sense that nothing else matters but that. The parent feels he or she would give anything, including his or her own life, to bring the child back. Sometimes there is anger that the parent wasn’t given a choice to give his or her own life to spare the life of the beloved child.
  • One of a parent’s fundamental jobs is to protect his or her child, impossible as that is in this world of unpredictability and circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Sometimes parents can be haunted by what they dearly wish they could have done.
    • Guilt can also be present if a parent has surviving children but is so wracked with grief that it becomes difficult to be fully attentive to the other children’s needs.
    • And guilt can show up when a parent starts to feel moments of happiness again, or laugh, or not think about their child for an hour. There can be a sense of betrayal, as if ever feeling happiness or peace is somehow disrespectful of the immensity of the loss.
  • For some, fears about the safety of surviving children can become intense. Sometimes a bereaved parent will not want to let their living children out of sight.
  • A profound sense of wrongness, that the natural order of things has been broken. The belief that parents are supposed to die before their children, not the other way around, is deep and powerful.
  • Disbelief the child is gone. Mental fog. Unprecedented forgetfulness. Feeling lost, adrift. Feeling like you are going crazy. Not recognizing yourself in extreme grief. Life is drained of meaning. Longing to wake up from the nightmare.
  • Alienation/Isolation. Friends often don’t understand or unintentionally say or do something unhelpful at best and hurtful at worst. Sometimes other parents avoid the grieving parent, who is now living out a parent’s worst fear. In an irrational way, the death of a child can feel almost contagious. Sometimes other parents don’t want to be reminded of their own vulnerability. And the two parents of the child who died can grieve in such different ways that a feeling of not being there for each other can develop.
  • The hole left by the child’s absence feels bigger than the parent can face, bigger than he or she can bear, bigger than the sum total of the parent themselves.
  • Sometimes confusing feelings of love, pride, specialness and even euphoria can occur too, especially if there’s a strong outpouring of love and appreciation for the child who has died. A parent’s heart can swell and overflow while at the same time it is in deep grief. These feelings can be confusing because they are unexpected. A parent may feel there is something wrong with him or her to feel anything but devastated, but a huge range of feelings is normal. Grieving can require the capacity to feel many different emotions or feeling-states at once.
  • Fear that healing will never happen. And as the shock of the death subsides and the depth and purity of the grief itself sets in, a bereaved parent often feels worse than he or she did at first. When others start to move on, especially, a new low can set in. This can be a very good time to consider joining a support group, and/or seeking individual counseling.

Grief is not confined to the heart and mind; the body grieves too

As with other kinds of deep grieving, the profound shake-up to the system of a child’s death will take its course throughout the body, often disrupting sleeping and eating patterns. It’s common to experience apathy about your own health. Anxiety may be acute and emotions may suddenly swing. Tears can erupt when least expected or a feeling of blank numbness can take over when tears are most expected. Deep grief takes great amounts energy, even when the body doesn’t appear to be doing much. It’s exhausting. When you are this deeply exhausted, it can feel overwhelming just to meet basic survival needs. This state, combined with lack of sleep, can lead to feelings of instability. Individual counseling, taking time off of work, reducing expectations and responsibilities, joining a support group and/or letting others help you with daily life tasks can be very helpful at this time.
Deep grief is wild, unmapped territory, but there can be some familiar signposts

  • Many parents grieving the death of a child find it extremely helpful to be in the company of other bereaved parents. Not always right away. Everyone’s time frame is different. But for many there is great value and healing in connecting with others who have survived the death of a child. Some of those people will be able to speak from a place further down the road of grief where there is a choosing of life again and a re-investment of the heart. Also it can be a relief simple to be in a room with others who get it, who have been through it, and who know things others don’t – little things, big things – about what it’s really like and what feels supportive.
  • Life will never be the same as it was before the child died. A parent will never be the same person he or she was before the child died. Knowing this is part of mourning, and it can be part of the transition from just surviving to regaining a sense of truly living again. What is this new life? Who is this person (you) now? At some point those questions will start to yield some clues and with enough time can start to reveal some richness.
  • It’s not necessary to find “closure.” There’s no end to your love for your child, or your child’s life and being in your heart. Your child’s legacy can show up in many ways for the rest of your life. They may inspire you to get involved in new activities, create something in honor of your child, or in other ways keep your child’s memory alive in ways that are nourishing for you, your family and your community.
  • Grieving is hard. The best way to stay healthy is to move through it step by step, moment by moment, paying attention to what arises inside of you. You will need support, whether in the form of counseling and/or a support group and/or whatever supports you best during this time of immense heartbreak.
  • Grieving takes time and a lot of it. Many find after years of grief that it doesn’t end, but it does change. At some point your beloved child’s life and the many ways that life did and does enrich your own can become brighter in your heart than the fact that your child died, or how your child died. Bitter can become bittersweet. Gratitude for the gift of the life of the child, no matter how short that life, can take root and grow. There is no benefit to trying to push yourself to this place before you’re really there. Grief can keep us honest. We are where we are until – most likely to our surprise – we realize at some point that something has shifted and we are in a new place.

For related articles, links to bereaved parent organizations, information about bereaved parent support groups, and/or a local counselor referral list, please see our website at www.winterspring.org and call the WinterSpring client line: 541-552-0620.

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