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The death of a child is undoubtedly one of the most difficult and devastating experiences a parent can imagine. Most parents mark their lives as before the death and after the death. The life they knew, the family they were, is forever changed. Regardless of the age of the child or the circumstances of the death, it is almost impossible to comprehend how this may change a family’s life forever.
While there are some common reactions to the death of a child, every individual is unique and will cope with the death in their own way and in their own time. No one will grieve in exactly the same way. Their experience will be influenced by a variety of factors:
The age and the relationship to the child who has died
The circumstances surrounding the death
The support system available to them
Their cultural and religious background
Prior loss history
Their unique coping style
Coping with Grief
The idea of a timeline, stages or phases, can help normalize some of the experiences of grieving parents but it also oversimplifies them. Too often it gives parents unrealistic expectations, and even more challenging, expectations from others of how they should be feeling and behaving. It also presents a false pretense that you can “get over it.” These phases are not fixed or sequential. Grief is more likely to come in waves, sometimes unpredictable, and rarely in a predictable order. A series of good days may be followed by a bad day or vice versa. Often referred to as “grief attacks,” they can be frightening and leave a parent feeling overwhelmed. Suddenly a song on the radio, a TV commercial or a scent triggers a memory of the child, and all the feelings and emotions come racing back in an instant. This is a natural response to grief, but with time the intensity and the frequency of this level of grief typically do decrease.
A parent grieves forever when a child dies. Death does not sever the bond between child and parent; they remain connected throughout life regardless of death. But the emotions and pain associated with grief may also continue throughout life. Most parents will find the emotions gradually have less intensity and do come with less frequency as time passes, but the love of a child remains. Some of the more common feelings parents may experience following the death of a child are detailed below.
Parents may feel responsible for not protecting the child, for not being able to spare them the suffering of any pain, or for not being able to tend to the surviving children the way they would like. Most parents will need to think and rethink all of the “What Ifs”: what if I chose a different treatment, what if I did this differently, what if I was at home, what if we weren’t swimming, etc..
Parents may feel angry because the order of nature was not respected, their child may have had to suffer or because their child wasn’t allowed to “grow up.” There may be anger directed to others: doctors, spouses, others perceived as being responsible or may be directed at the self for not preventing it. Parents may also be angry with God or begin questioning their faith. But mostly they’re angry because their child is not there to hug and hold ever again.
Parent’s longing for the child can be equally excruciating. Parents talk about missing the smell, touch, sight, and sound of their child. Parents may communicate the pain of losing a child in physical terms, “I feel mutilated” or “I’m disabled,” and have a yearning just to “feel” the child again.
These include changes in sleeping patterns, appetite, nausea, headaches, lack of energy, restlessness, irritability, inability to concentrate or difficulty with short-term memory. Many parents report having dreams about their child and/or having a sense of their child being “present.”
Nothing in life prepares a parent for the pain of losing a child. There will be sadness because there was love. Crying is part of healing. At times, there may be overwhelming sadness that stops a parent from getting out of bed or from taking two steps out their door. Other times, it may just be an emptiness that nobody else can fill.
There may be several “good” days, when suddenly a song on the radio, a TV commercial or a scent triggers a memory of the child and suddenly all the feelings and emotions come racing back.