Coping with the loss of a child

Coping with the loss of a child is a seemingly insurmountable task, and absolutely one of the most devastating of losses. When a child dies, as a parent you mourn the loss of his or her life, potential and future. As quoted from Dwight D. Eisenhower: “There’s no tragedy like the death of a child.  Things never get back to the way they were.”

“The death of a baby is like a stone cast into the stillness of a quiet pool; the concentric ripples of despair sweep out in all directions, affecting many, many people.” – John DeFrainAmerican author and university professor

There’s nothing quite as gut-wrenching as the unexpected loss of a child, through violence, an accident, or even illness.  In Michigan, the recent case of Damian Sutton, a 2 year old boy who died after being allegedly beaten by his mother’s boyfriend, has elicited a massive outpouring of  support and condolences, as well as outrage. The death of a child touches everyone, near and far, but none more so than the child’s parents.

Your life is forever changed, but it’s not over. You can get through the grief and come out the other side. During this time, it’s crucial to remember that no two people mourn the same way.  The grieving process is very much shaped by one’s relationship to the deceased and the nature of the death. The death of a child, in their youth or even in their prime, can be considered a non-normative loss due to its unexpected nature – and non-normative losses often trigger more intense anger and disbelief, and longer depression.

Bereaved parents often brace for the so-called stages of grief, only to discover their own grieving process unfolds differently. The stages of grief—popularized from earlier theories put forth by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, and later modified by others—initially described responses to terminal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. While some find those responses relevant to coping with death, psychologists increasingly believe that the idea of “stages” oversimplifies a complex experience.  These phases can overlap and occur out of sequence, and it’s important to remember that the way you grieve is unique to you and you alone.

As hard as it may seem, there are some steps that you can take to guide yourself through the grieving process after the death of a child, as outlined below:
1.) Acknowledge the reality of the situation

The finality of death is always a shock, even if the child may have had a known terminal illness.  Accepting that death is real isn’t the same as being OK with it; rather, it merely means absorbing the truth of what has happened. This can be as difficult and painful as smacking through the first high breakers at the ocean’s shore. For some people, acknowledgement happens quickly; others remain in disbelief for months or years (or experience disbelief in periodic bursts).

2.) Give yourself permission to mourn

You’re entitled to whatever feelings come up. You may experience intense anger, guilt, denial, sorrow and fear, all of which are normal for a bereaved parent. Nothing is off the table, nothing is “wrong.”

3.) Discard any notion of a ‘timetable’

There is no timetable to your grieving process. Every individual is just that: an individual. Bereaved parents may experience many of the same emotions and difficulties; however, each parent’s journey is different depending on personality and life circumstances.

For years, we relied on the popular notion that people progress through five stages of grief that begin with denial and end with acceptance. The new thinking is that there is no series of steps to be completed in the grieving process. Instead, people experience a “grab bag” of feelings and symptoms that come and go and eventually lift. In a recent research study, scientists learned that many people accept the death of a loved one right from the beginning and report more yearning for the lost individual than feelings of anger or depression. 

Because the grieving process is so personal to each individual, couples sometimes find themselves at odds because they can’t understand the other’s way of dealing with the loss. Understand that your spouse may have different coping mechanisms than you do and allow him or her to grieve in the way that suits them.

4.) Be gentle & kind to yourself and your partner

Husbands and wives tend to grieve differently. It is very difficult for one to meet the needs of the other when grieving styles differ. Couples may need to negotiate when and how to talk about their grief. Don’t expect your partner to be able to read your mind. They cannot know what you need, unless you tell them. If because of their grief they cannot provide the support you need, find others to talk to. When a child dies, the grief affects both the husband and wife at the same time. Other stresses in marriages usually don’t impact on both simultaneously. Therefore, your closest support is not always able to respond to you to your needs, because he or she is dealing with their own grief.

 5.) Revise your relationship to the deceased

The goal of grieving is not to let go, but the find a way to hold on with less pain.  Your relationship with your child doesn’t end with his or her death; it changes.  Nobody forgets a loved one. The goal is to find a way to a way to hold him or her in your memory, your rituals, and your conversation in a way that’s manageable, possibly even comforting, rather than painful.


Should you see a grief counselor?

After the loss of a child, visiting a grief counselor may help by allowing you to talk about your feelings in a calm, non-judgmental environment.  If you’re experiencing debilitating depression, anxiety, or panic attacks to the point that you cannot maintain normal activity, seeking the help of a grief counselor is a must.

Contact a grief counselor or professional therapist if you:

  • Feel like life isn’t worth living
  • Wish you had died with your loved one
  • Blame yourself for the loss or for failing to prevent it
  • Feel numb and disconnected from others for more than a few weeks
  • Are having difficulty trusting others since your loss
  • Are unable to perform your normal daily activities

If you or a loved one is struggling to cope with the loss of a loved one,  please contact the Great Lakes Psychology Group to schedule a confidential appointment.

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