The loss of a child — it’s every parent’s worst nightmare. How can the life of such a precious little being be cut off so quickly and harshly? To say you’re feeling grief is an understatement. But grieving is your personal way of handling these awful feelings. There’s a lot to process, understand and, eventually, accept.
The grieving process: Common reactions to the loss of a child
The grief process is your body’s and mind’s reaction to an unfathomable loss. It’s an important process your psyche undergoes to make sense of the situation and eventually heal from it. That’s why it’s important to allow yourself to grieve. It’s best to allow the process to unfold naturally, at whatever speed feels right, as grieving looks different for everyone. Grieving the death of a child can be much more extreme in emotional intensity and length of time than grieving for the loss of an adult.
Every human grieves in their own way, especially when it comes to the death of a child. It’s an extremely personal experience. There is no one “normal” way to grieve your loss, but only what is natural for you.
Here’s a small selection of reactions someone might experience upon the death of a child:
- Obsessive replaying of the incident in their minds, asking “what if” questions to figure out how the child could have been saved
- Feelings of guilt because they couldn’t stop the child from dying
- Unbearable sadness and depression that make everyday functioning feel impossible
- Anger, resentment and jealousy over families with healthy, living children
- Loneliness and isolation
- Feelings of pain or numbness throughout the body
The loss of a child can bring up some ugly and uncomfortable feelings. Don’t judge yourself for what your grief looks like. Instead, ride it out and talk to a therapist, if necessary, to help you experience and accept these feelings. Talking through your grief helps you get through it, and having someone else involved makes your experience feel less lonely.
How can you explain to a child that their sibling has passed away? Parents already suffer enough with the loss, so how can they expect another child to handle it? It may seem unbearable to talk about the death with your other children, but it’s crucial that you communicate with them during this time. They’ve just lost a sibling, someone they’ve known their entire lives. It can be a deep cut because siblings share a unique bond.
Being direct with your children about death is best because symbolisms and euphemisms can be misunderstood or difficult for children to process. Just be truthful, and let kids process the whole deal now, rather than untangling details later on. Remember, children grieve differently than adults because they have less developed emotional mechanisms. A child might not seem upset on the surface, they may get distracted by playing, they might deny the death or they could cry non-stop. Allow each child to grieve in their own way.
You might consider sharing your grieving process with your children, if you feel comfortable. This can help them learn to grieve and connects you all so you’re not grieving alone. It may be comforting for younger children if you read books with them about death of a sibling and grief.
Helping others help you.
Nobody wants to see others grieve. Most often, they want to do whatever it is they can to make them feel less alone or more comfortable. You will need the help, support, conversations and more from people to endure your time of grief. But you have to let people in. It’s easy to become isolated in your pain, not wanting to burden others or simply just not wanting to deal with others.
People won’t be able to help you if you cut them off. Help others help you by remaining open to communication, not burrowing away. There may come a time when that friend’s phone number you took becomes a lifeline of healing conversation. Here are some ways to help people know that you’re open to their help:
• Be truthful when you talk to someone about your feelings.
Whether it’s a friend or a therapist, being open about your feelings is the best way you can have the conversation you need.
• Ask for help.
If you feel yourself becoming isolated from the world and falling into a deep depression, just tell someone, anyone, “Hey, I need help.” You don’t have to go through it on your own to prove your strength.
• Trust in the openness of others.
You might feel like others couldn’t possibly understand, and you’re right, they probably don’t. But people who want to help don’t necessarily have to understand the experience in order to be there for you.
• Be upfront.
If there are things someone might say or ask about that will make you uncomfortable, be upfront about it with them so they can avoid going there. People want to help you, not upset you.
Resources and support.
Resources, resources, resources. You’re probably sick of them by now. It probably feels like no phone numbers or websites will bring your child back. And you’re right, they won’t. But you can never have enough resources. Support groups can be especially helpful because they eliminate loneliness and those who are there do understand the kind of pain you’re feeling. If you have trouble speaking with others, curl up with a book which can help your soul find some peace. When you’re feeling brave enough to reach out or even look within, here are some more places for you to turn:
• Blue Nights by Joan Didion
his national best-selling book was first published in 2012 and is a memoir of Joan Didion’s loss of a daughter.
• The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and Geoff Stevenson
This animated book is great for both parents and kids, teaching about the “invisible string” of love that connects everyone, even after death.
This is the professional organization that manages family therapy (including bereavement). You can find therapists, networking opportunities and more resources.
• Mothers in Sympathy and Support (MISS) Foundation
This organization offers counseling, advocacy, research and education to families grieving the loss of a child.
• What’s Your Grief (WYG).
This podcast covering all kinds of grief is available through iTunes and Stitcher Radio.
This is another podcast with regular coverage of topics relating to grief in its many forms.
The grief you feel over the loss of your child is a very deep and real thing. It will probably never be any less painful that you lost this wonderful soul, but with time, you’ll hopefully come up with ways of thinking or coping with the loss a little bit better. Most importantly, always remember to open up to others and try not hide away all your feelings inside. It might feel temporarily better to hide grief away, but the pain will remain and resurface at some point in the future. It’s best to accept the grief and work through it with the help of others, especially when it’s still fresh.
Valerie Sizelove is a freelance writer of blog posts, career guides and more. Her specialties lie in writing about mental health, administration and parenting. When she's not writing up a storm, you might find Valerie cooking a huge dinner for her family of 6 or tinkering around in her amateur vegetable garden. Books are pretty good, too. You can find her on LinkedIn and Facebook.