The death of a child is often described as the most painful experience a family can endure; it is the ultimate tragedy. Hopes and dreams for the future are no longer defined. As parents, we often have a vision for the future of our child, we want them to be happy, succeed, have children of their own, and lead a meaningful life. Death ends the vision of a life unfulfilled, leaving in its wake many “what if’s. The future is uncertain, and parents that have lost a child grieve not only for their child but all milestones of life the child will miss. Unfortunately, along with the usual symptoms and stages of loss and grief, there are many issues that make parental bereavement particularly difficult to resolve. The loss of a child is typically exacerbated by feelings of injustice — the understandable feeling that this loss never should have happened. This profound loss occurred before the child has had the opportunity to “live” and experience life in all its twists and turns. During the early days of grieving, most parents experience excruciating pain, alternating with numbness — a dichotomy that may persist for several months or longer. When a child’s life ends all fantasies and plans for their future ends. Following the loss of a child many parents report they merely “exist” and every motion or need beyond that seems nearly impossible.
The relationship between parents and their children is one of the most intense relationships we can experience in life. The journey of parenthood begins for some of us once we hear our baby’s heartbeat from the womb, for others once we find out we are having a baby, and others once the baby is born. Much of parenting centers on providing for the needs of our child, setting a good example, and protecting them. The death of a child robs parents of the ability to carry out parenting roles as they had once imagined it, as it is “supposed” to be. Some parents experience an overwhelming sense of failure for no longer being able to care for and protect their child, duties that you expected to fulfill for many years.
When it comes to the loss of a child, grieving parents can mourn the loss at any age at which their child dies as it feels unnatural for parents to outlive their child. It does not make a difference whether your child is baby or a fully grown adult when he or she dies. The emotion is the same, the pain just as intense.
Trying to understand the meaning of life and the death of a child can be confusing for parents immediately following the loss of a child. The search for meaning in a child’s death is especially important to parents. An understanding of how a death fits into the scheme of life is difficult and often unattainable. Some parents lean on their faith as a source of comfort and support; however, others may question their faith following a child’s death. Some parents may feel abandoned or betrayed by God. Religious confusion is normal, as is questioning many things that you may have believed to be certain. It is normal to feel anger, sadness, and confusion following such an unthinkable loss.
Common Responses to the Death of a Child May Include:
• Shock or feeling numb
• Replaying the moments just before the loss
• Creating different “versions” or scenarios that you feel could have prevented the death
• Intense sadness
• Resentment toward parents with healthy children
• Anger and feelings of bitterness and unfairness at a life left unfulfilled
• Feeling lost or confused
• Fear or dread of being alone and overprotecting your surviving children
• Questioning or losing faith or spiritual beliefs
• Loss of hope
One of the most difficult roles for parents after the death and loss of a child is to continue being a parent to the surviving children. Parents must continue to function in the very role they are grieving — an enormous challenge. But the surviving child or children shouldn’t feel that they are alone or have been set aside, as difficult as it may be to find the emotional reserves to support them. Parents have the difficult task of switching roles constantly, from being comforted to being the source of comfort for other children, and family members. at a time when they have little ability to do so. Unfortunately, some parents swing to the other extreme and become extremely overprotective of their other child, determined to keep them safe.
Surviving the death and loss of a child takes a dedication, a new commitment to life. As a parent, you gave birth to life as a promise to the future. Now you must make a new commitment to living, as hard or impossible as it may seem right now. You will survive this; however, the experience may change you. It is important for parents to let others “in”, let others know what you need, how you would like to be supported. No parent is prepared for a child’s death. It is important to remember that how long your child lived does not determine the size of your loss. For parents, the loss of a child is profound at every age.
Parents may grieve in different ways, different times, and different durations. 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. However, it is important to remember if grief continues to escalate or interferes with daily functioning, therapy is recommended. Individual and family therapy can help individuals and families process their feelings surrounding the loss of a child.