Helping to Cope with the Loss of a Child

How many of us have ever imagined what the worst thing possible would be to happen in our lives? Far too many people can tell you that that something is the loss of a child.

Just the thought can bring chills, disbelief and numbness. The pain of such a loss is devastating and overwhelming. But, you can survive it even if that prospect is not a promising one.

Make no mistake: You will go through hell before you reach a point where you feel like you can continue on in any credible frame of mind. Grieving the death of a child takes time. One thing you should know is that grief doesn’t have a standard length of time, no matter what others say. Unless they have experienced your type of loss then they are not intimately aware of what it requires.

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No child should precede their parent in death. It seems to go against the natural order of things. When it happens, the intensity of the emotions felt almost crushes you into oblivion. With that said, you can keep going. We don’t say “move on” because no one really moves on or past their loss. The pain may dull a bit. The idea isn’t to forget or to pretend in any way but to learn to live with what has happened and discover that life can indeed be good again.

What You Might Not Know About Grief

Everyone has a word, but they don’t always know what grieving a loss entails. A generation or two ago, many people didn’t discuss death. They kept their heads held high and their feelings private. It was thought shameless to display your emotions over a loss in public. Why? Some probably believed that death was divine and we had no right to question it. Others felt it was a part of life that must be born bravely. Both cases discount the need to work through the feelings that develop after a death.

The Stages of Grief

According to many who deal with mental health issues, there are five stages of grief.

1. Denial – This reaction could be a defense mechanism by the body, specifically the brain, initiated to shield us from traumatic events. Until the mind can comprehend and process what has happened, denial allows one to keep moving through the initial shock.

2. Anger – In an effort to deal with a death and/or the circumstances surrounding it, pain is redirected into another emotion: anger. It may be directed towards doctors (diagnosing a terrible illness), those who survived (in the event of an accident) or even the dead person themselves (thoughts of abandonment). Even happy family members could become the target of anger because they are not thinking about the deceased every single minute.

3. Bargaining – In an attempt to try to “bring back” the deceased in some way, parents may try to strike a bargain with God to restore their dead child. This is where the “what ifs” begin: what if you sought medical help earlier, what if the circumstances were different, what if the parent had intervened. A parent may even imagine that the actual events that led up to the death occurred differently in an attempt to handle the pain.

4. Depression – There are various types of depression. The kind that results from grief involves sadness on many levels. Parents worry about surviving siblings, whether they are overtaxing their support system with their grief and if they are grieving unreasonably long. The process of letting go is also a depressive state. Saying goodbye is final and most want to hold on to their loved one as long as they possibly can.

5. Acceptance – This stage is not always reached by everyone who loses a loved one. In theory, it is the point that is reached when a person realizes their loved one, in the case of this report a lost child, is gone and will not return to this side of life ever again.

Some mental health professionals do not necessarily believe that grieving the loss of a child or any loved one can be summed up so neatly in five steps. Not one of these stages is easy or without pain. But, the method of grieving is different for each individual. There are several factors to consider as well, such as the background of each parent, the circumstances surrounding the death, if there are surviving children and the like. Don’t think that because your grief doesn’t match what someone says, it should mean that you are flawed or broken beyond repair.

Method of Loss

It does matter how a death occurs. Think back to any deaths you remember from your childhood. Maybe a family member drowned in a pool. Today, you might fear the water as a result. Often the way we conduct our lives has as much to do with death experiences as it does life experiences. We just don’t make the connection at the time.

Accidental death – The loss of a child this way is sudden. Parents often think back to the last thing that they said or the fact that their child may have died alone. When the accident involves the parent and/or other family members, feelings of guilt can complicate things.

Murder – This is a heinous act anyway but when it happens to a child it carries a particularly nasty sting. The thought that someone else would harm your child can result in guilt over not protecting them enough or not being with them all the time.

Illness – Any parent would gladly bear the pain of their child if it meant saving their life. But, in reality, we must suffer it in another way: by watching a child endure an illness that we couldn’t prevent.

Suicide – The loss of a child who takes his or her own life leaves parents wanting answers and wondering what they did wrong. Where were the signs? Why didn’t they notice anything was wrong?

Miscarriage – Losing a child before they have even had a chance to experience the world is also a type of loss. Again, like illness, the circumstances may be beyond our control which may leave parents feeling helpless and scared.

As a parent, you carry your child in your mind, your heart and your soul even when they become an adult. You never stop caring for them. To lose them, at any age, always brings up the question of why. The method of their death also adds other burdens to the long journey of grief.

Hindrances to the Grieving Process

As we have said, there is not a timetable for grief so counting the days is not helpful. When you have reached the point where you no longer feel like you are on the outside of your life looking in, you will know. Well-meaning family members and friends can’t tell you when that day will come. Counselors and doctors can’t do that either.

One thing that is true is that certain behaviors can hinder the grieving process for you and your family. We want to make you aware of them in case you are experiencing them right now.

Throwing yourself into your work – Trying to shut out the thoughts and feelings by working more doesn’t help you or your co-workers. Overworking can lead to extremely high levels of stress that can damage your health. Other family members who are grieving are left alone without you to help them.

Substance abuse – Even though alcohol is a depressant, many turn to it to drown their sorrows. Other forms of substance abuse include taking illegal drugs. You are vulnerable at this time and drugs only make you more so, as well as make you an easy target for those wanting to take advantage. Substance abuse adds more worry and pain to an already traumatized family.

Risky behavior – Some engage in risky behaviors in an effort to numb the pain or to absolve imaginary guilt over the death of a child. It can only hurt you and your family in the end, and will not change the fact that your beloved child is gone.

Stoicism – This is the way that many dealt with death generations ago. By avoiding any emotion, they hoped to stop the pain in its tracks. For parents, the other spouse may feel like you don’t care and it can cause a rift in the relationship. Letting emotions build up inside can lead to physical problems, sudden outbursts, inappropriate behavior and isolation.

Common Symptoms of Grief

We only mention these to let you know that you are normal. While grief takes on a different look for many of us, there are certain ways that others can tell you are still grieving and give you a wide berth if need be. It is also a sign to you that you are not losing your mind but working through a process that might take a while. Recognizing how these symptoms are manifesting helps with finding the appropriate course of action for assistance so you can indeed keep going with your life.

Fatigue – Extreme mental stress such as the death of a child can make the body weary. It is not uncommon to feel tired all the time, foggy in the brain and lost like you can’t concentrate anymore.

Insomnia – Many can’t sleep. They see their child in their dreams, or in the case of a child who was murdered or killed in an accident, they want to see justice done. Until the culprit is apprehended, they feel guilt over resting and not doing all they can for their lost child.

Illness – You may feel your body breaking down. That is the stress of losing a child. If you don’t eat or sleep and run yourself ragged, immunity drops and your body is susceptible to all sorts of germs.

Anger at God – Whatever your higher power may be, the general feeling can be that they have let you down and more so, your child. Some who went to church may suspend attendance for a while. People re-examine their beliefs when something happens to shake their faith.

Rash decisions – In the face of such grief, any change or decision is influenced by your emotions and can’t be trusted, especially in the early days.

Emotional roller coaster – This is where the five stages of grief come in. Each is a different emotional state that many experience throughout their process to wholeness.

Sibling Grief

Parents are not the only ones who grieve when a child dies. Siblings may or may not be adults at the time of a child’s death. Even if they are young children, they are still affected by the event. The age of the siblings affects their understanding of death and what it means.

Preschool kids – At this age, children don’t understand the finality of death. The change in their routine may make them fussy. The loss may lead to tantrums, bad behavior and even nightmares.

School age kids – They are more acquainted with the language of death so they know the person will not come back. Because they don’t have the experience to display appropriate emotions, they may become angry or irritable. Grades may drop and they may withdraw from friends at school. At home, nightmares may occur.

Teenagers – They understand death as adults do. Because siblings don’t always get along, their death may bring feelings of guilt. Sadness is not uncommon, nor is acting out or having trouble at school. Children gravitate towards others who may have experienced the same type of loss as a way of venting their feelings and camaraderie.

Sibling relationships are fluid. They go from loving each other as toddlers, to a love/hate type of relationship in school, to resenting each other as teens. This is normal as each child works to find themselves. When one sibling dies, they may imagine that their relationship at the time (especially if turbulent) had something to do with it.

Coping Resources

Parents, siblings and other close family members need help after the death of a child. The method of help depends on the person and their grieving process. Each family dynamic is different so don’t hold yourself to one tried-and-true method of dealing with your pain. One thing to remember is to recognize that the way to get through this unimaginably tough time in your life is together. Here are a few coping resources that may work for you.

Counseling – This is not for everyone but may help those who have trouble with their grieving process. It can be family meetings or individual sessions. Choose a professional who specializes in grief counseling. There are counseling services that may further specialize in suicide, traumatic death and illness-related deaths.

Support group – This is crucial for everyone who goes through the grieving process. Support groups can consist of other family members, co-workers, therapists, grief support meeting participants and others who are willing to go with you and assist as you need it.

Religious resources – Contact your church, mosque, synagogue, parish or whatever place of worship you belong to. Let your faith guide you to understanding, acceptance and survival.

Activism – The death of a child has led to parents and other family members introducing and passing legislation for drunk driving statutes, child predators, tougher sentencing for offenders and beginning charities. Channeling your loss in this way can assist with closure, not only for you but also for others who have lost a child in a similar way.

Losing a child is the worst anguish a parent could face in their lifetime. The shock of it may follow you throughout your life thereafter. Continuing to live your life is not about forgetting or putting the event behind you, but remembering without pain, cherishing without anger and living without guilt.