Coping with the loss of a child
Losing a child is the single most cruel and devastating tragedy that can happen to anyone. It affects the harmony at home and it puts the parents under an enormous amount of pressure to keep the family together and stay strong, not just for the child’s siblings but for each other too. Coming to terms with a loss of that magnitude is extremely challenging and complicated as parents are not expected to outlive their children.
This grief guide helps you to understand the effects of losing a child and it shows you how to cope with such a loss.
Losing a child
The initial shock triggers a series of physiological changes in your body which are likely to overwhelm you with exhaustion and affect your eating, sleeping, heart rate and breathing. Expect to cycle through intense pain and numbness, accompanied by the inability to complete simple daily tasks. The loss of motivation to do anything including getting out of bed in the morning is quite common in these early days too.
Don’t be surprised if you begin to forget things or miss appointments. Grief can affect your memory, cloud your judgement and make you question your own sanity. It can also make you extremely angry, irritable and short-tempered.
Regardless of the circumstances, the death of a child plays on your mind and it makes you feel guilty for not doing enough to prevent it. You can’t help but go through it over and over again, playing different scenarios and speculating about the outcome from them. That guilt is often reiterated by a strong sense of powerlessness.
The death of your child steals the joy of being at their graduation, wedding, the birth of their children etc. Realisations of that kind can affect your dreams and plans for the future. They are also likely to become triggers and result in a fresh wave of grief.
Effect on your marriage after losing a child
Grieving the loss of your child is likely to put quite a bit of pressure on the marriage and test the relationship with your other half. One of the main reasons for it is the fact that grief is an individual reaction and each parent is likely to have their own way of expressing it. Be prepared to hit some lows as a result of the anger, irritability and blame which are likely to be displayed by each one of you.
Set some ground rules taking into account both of your personalities to allow you to express your grief in a healthy way without inflicting your pain and emotions on your spouse. It’s important to understand that you are likely to do and say things which are provoked by the pain of losing your child. That is true for both of you and it’s not a reflection on your relationship or feelings for one another. Give each other the time and space to grieve without putting conditions on it or expecting anything in return.
Effect on siblings after losing a child
The loss of a brother or sister is likely to have a devastating effect on your surviving child or children. It is a time when they need plenty of attention, affection, constant care and support. The death of their sibling is likely to raise questions about their own mortality as well as yours and that of others. You need to reassure them about their safety and be prepared to answer their questions as honestly as you can.
Being the parent of a child who is grieving the loss of their sibling is one of the hardest things you have to do. It requires you to put your own grief on hold in order to comfort your child and give them the support they need. You need to stay strong and focused on their needs without letting your anger and frustration get in the way. It’s OK to ask or let other family members to help at this difficult time.
Please read this guide about explaining death to children for more information.
Effect on other people after losing a child
Unless they have experienced the loss of a child themselves, people are not prepared for it and they don’t know how to act around you. It creates an involuntary barrier which can be quite difficult to lift. Be prepared for conversation stoppers and awkward silences along the way.
Sometimes, people can share opinions or offer advice in a way that comes across as insensitive and hurtful. It’s not ideal but it happens. Don’t let it upset you and remember that only you know what’s best for yourself at this difficult time.
Effect on your work after losing a child
Some people see their return back to work as a positive step. It helps them to introduce a routine which is not dictated by grief, whilst others find it more difficult. However you feel about it, you need to take into account the fact that grief affects your performance and ability to concentrate on individual tasks. Although you don’t have to go into any specifics, it helps to talk to your manager about it. They may be able to offer reduced work hours and duties to make your transition back to work easier. It’s also a good idea to inform your colleagues about your loss too in case some of them are not aware of it.
Moving forward after the loss of a child
Losing a child turns your world upside down. It leaves you lost, confused, angry and unable to see a way forward. It challenges your beliefs and attitude to life. It robs you of the opportunity to care and provide for your child and that can make you feel like a failure. None of this is easy to comprehend, let alone - to accept and grief is likely to add a few more challenges along the way. It gets easier but it takes a long time to see any improvement and you can’t do it if you neglect your health and surround yourself with the wrong people.
Here are some suggestions for coping with the loss of a child:
Stay on top of your health and wellbeing
Looking after yourself at this difficult time is not likely to be on your list of priorities but you need to make an effort to stay on top of your health and wellbeing. The emotional distress and hormonal imbalance as a result of the shock and trauma of your loss are likely to put your body under a tremendous amount of pressure. Expect to suffer a number of different aches and pains, appetite and sleep problems as well as exhaustion and general lack of energy.
Make sure that you keep hydrated and eat to provide your body with the necessary nutrients. Exercise or go for walks every day to stimulate the release of endorphins which are nature’s way of lifting your mood. Don’t use any electronic devices and gadgets in bed; this will increase your chances of a good night’s sleep by minimising the negative effect of the blue light they release.
Avoid turning to alcohol or drugs
As tempting as it may be, try to resist self-medication, alcohol or any other substance abuse. If you are hurting and struggling to carry on, you need to make an appointment to see a doctor who is qualified to evaluate your health and prescribe treatment if needed.
Surround yourself with understanding people
Having a good and reliable support network is a vital step on your way to moving forward. Surround yourself with people who understand your loss and who can be trusted to help with different chores, doing the school run, shopping, gardening etc. They can be members of your family, relatives, close friends or colleagues.
Join a support group
Join a local support group where you can meet other parents who are grieving the loss of a child. These group meetings provide a safe environment where you can share your experience and listen to that of others. It’s a form of therapy which helps you to channel out your feelings.
If you are not ready to join a group, find a local bereavement counsellor who specialises in parental grief. They are qualified to listen without judging or making you feel uncomfortable. If you prefer to keep things to yourself, start a journal and write about your feelings.
There is no way of predicting how long it takes to resume life and get back to every day duties after the loss of a child. It’s important to understand that and give yourself permission to grieve. Allow plenty of time for it, do what feels natural to you and take each day as it comes.
We offer grief help and support through the National Bereavement Service's (NBS) webchat. It is a free online service which connects you to a trained advisor.
NBS has a wide network of contacts within organisations providing support to bereaved people. They will explain your choices and help you decided what would be most helpful for you and how to make contact with them.
The service is available Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm and Saturday 10am to 2pm and you can reach NBS by clicking on the chat box at the bottom of this page.
Contributed by Mark Welkin
Mark Welkin is the author of three grief books and a journalist who has worked for various media outlets in Europe and Asia. He lost his long-term partner in 2014 and a few months later, Mark turned to a grief counsellor for help. The results inspired him to share his experience and help other bereaved people to resume life after the loss of their loved ones.