I believe it is every parent’s hope and prayer that they do not have to live through the unfortunate experience of burying their child. No parent is prepared for a child’s death. Parents are simply not supposed to outlive their children. When a child dies, the parent’s life and the family life as a whole changes significantly.
Grief can vary depending on how the child died. Some children will die from violence, some from cancer or other medical diseases. There are also miscarriages and stillbirths. These tend to be the less visible losses but can be just as painful. The disappearance of a child, perhaps lost at sea, has its own special torment. The parents never give up hope that their child will return someday. These parents live with intense anxiety and fear. The uncertainty can be unbearable at times.
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, such that facing daily tasks or even getting out of bed can seem impossible
• Extreme guilt or a feeling that you have failed as your child’s protector and could have done something
• Intense anger and feelings of bitterness and unfairness at a life left unfulfilled
• Fear or 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 other people, and feeling that no one can truly understand how you feel
Parents may grieve in different ways depending on their gender and their daily role in a child’s life. One parent may find that talking helps, while the other may need quiet time to grieve alone. Cultural expectations and role differences also affect how parents grieve. 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.
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 caregiver has abruptly ended. This is especially true for a parent who spent months or even years caring for a child with a terminal illness.
Differences in grieving can cause relationship difficulties at a time when parents need each other’s support the most. One parent may believe that the other is not grieving properly or that a lack of open grief means he or she loved the child less. Talk openly about your grief with your partner. Work to understand and accept each other’s coping styles.
In addition to the emotional aspects of grief, there are also the physical and spiritual components. As with most grief, some will be angry at God while others will find strength in their religious beliefs. Physically, the effects of stress can wreak havoc with sleep, appetite and concentration, lowering our immune system and making us more vulnerable to illness.
Is there a right way to grieve?
It is natural and normal to grieve. You may find the following suggestions helpful while grieving:
• Talk about your child often and use his or her name.
• Ask family and friends for help with housework, errands, and caring for other children. This will give you important time to think, remember, and grieve.
• Take time deciding what to do with your child’s belongings. Don’t rush to pack up your child’s room or to give away toys and clothes.
• Prepare ahead of time for how to respond to difficult questions like, “How many children do you have?” or comments like, “At least you have other children.” Remember that people aren’t 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 or the anniversary of your child’s death. 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 can offer hope.
You should expect 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. Your child’s death 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.
For some parents, an important step may be creating a legacy for your child. Find ways to keep your child’s memory alive. Perhaps you may choose to honor your child by volunteering at the hospital or with various organizations. You may work to support interests your child once had, start a memorial fund, or plant trees in your child’s memory. It is important to remember that it is never disloyal to your child to reengage in life and to 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.