The loss of a child is generally considered the worst possible grief, making it one of the leading causes of prolonged grief. In the natural order of life, children are supposed to outlive their parents.
“The death of a child is like no other,” says clinical social worker and grief counselor at the Children’s Hospital and Clinics, Minneapolis, Minn., Theresa Huntley, in her book “When Your Child Dies.” “Your life has been irrevocably changed. Life is different. You are different.”
Parents universally say that when their child dies, a part of them dies. A child is a symbol of the future and losing that child represents a loss of hopes and dreams. While the experience of pain and loss is universal, transcending culture and class, the grieving process is still a very individual and personal experience.
Factors Affecting Grieving
According to the article “Childhood Leukemia” in the New England Journal of Medicine, the duration of grief symptoms is affected by several factors. Grief is affected by how quickly a parent breaks his or her bond with the deceased, how quickly he or she returns to the diminished living environment, and how quickly he or she forms a new way of connecting with the child who died.
The circumstances surrounding the death of a child also greatly affect how parents and survivors grieve. Research has shown that when the death is traumatic or when the parents witness the death or find the body of their child, they are likely to be more traumatized by the experience, become obsessed with the death, and replay the events over and over in their heads. Conversely, if the parents do not see the body of the deceased of if the child disappears, as in child abduction, they are likely to stay in a state of denial and disbelief for a longer period of time.
If a child is sick for a period of time, the family has time to come to terms with the idea of losing the child. They experience anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is also seen in terminally ill patients. It is a time of mourning and preparing for a loss before it happens. When the loss is sudden or unexpected, parents are left in a state of shock and disbelief even greater than that which is normally expected. People regret they had no time for goodbyes. They are unprepared, although nothing could actually prepare them for the feelings they will experience. The naturalness of the death therefore also affects people’s grief. Suicides, murders, and accidents are especially difficult for parents to process.
The age of the child at the time of death also affects grieving. It is a mistake to assume that someone is less attached to an infant than they are to an older child. Miscarriages, stillbirths, and abortions all carry their own extremely painful emotions. They are emotions loaded by societal expectations, expectations of the carrying mother, and the pain of losing a child before it begins its life. Oftentimes, in cases of abortion, extreme feelings of anger (as in the case of rape) and guilt are present. Women who experience miscarriages and stillbirths are overwhelmed with disappointment and guilt, even when they know it is not their fault, or they may feel their partner is blaming them for the child’s death.
Other important factors affecting the grieving process are individual to the griever. How has the person handled traumatic experiences in the past? Have there been other grief experiences in the person’s life?
Other factors affect grief levels and the parents’ coping abilities, which include: age, gender, cultural background, spirituality, support system, and family history. Additionally, each parent commonly has a different grieving style and timing for dealing with grief, known as incongruent grieving.
The Grieving Father
Similar to when a sibling loses a brother or sister, the father of a deceased child is sometimes referred to as a forgotten griever. A father’s grieving often takes place at different times than the mother’s, and both will experience recurring grief at varying times.
The nature of the parental bond affects the level and duration of the grief experienced. The maternal bond is established before childbirth, is more immediate, more physical, more intimate. Therefore, mothers are more susceptible to depression after the loss of an infant. Fathers often feel a sense of disappointment, failure, and resentment.
The paternal bond is traditionally one of future dreams and expectations. The loss is a blow to these hopes and dreams, or even to his ego. The loss of a toddler, teenager, or older child will sometimes affect a father more than an infant death, but not always. Today, fathers are more involved in the pregnancy and birthing process as well as in child rearing, and caring for the infant.
Fathers must give themselves permission to grieve. In many cultures, society says that men are not supposed to cry. They must support the grieving mother and be strong for the surviving siblings and other family left behind. They attend to the practical matters of the death and the household. Men oftentimes have a determination not to grieve, which leads to emotional distress, anger, depression and eruptions years later. A grieving father could feel ignored, abandoned, isolated or overwhelmed. He must seek out comfort in friends, family, and co-workers - wherever he can find support.
Ideally father and mother will be able to grieve together and help each other work through their feelings, support each other, and find ways to memorialize the child in their lives.
Other Factors Affecting Parental Grief
When we think of the death of a child, we often picture mother and father, sitting in their home, holding and comforting each other. But what happens when there is only one parent? What if there is no home? Complicated family situations affect how a parent grieves.
According to the National Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Resource Center, all of the following situations put people at risk for prolonged grief, depression, and guilt:
- Parents in stressful financial situations will now be faced with additional emotional and financial stresses, and another perceived loss in their life.
- Teenage parents may already be ostracized from family and school support systems.
- A single, divorced or unmarried parent lacks the emotional and physical support of a spouse and constant companion.
- Adoptive parents, foster parents and stepparents are sometimes not expected to have the same feelings as birth parents.
- A parent with a history of substance abuse may feel extreme guilt over neglect, lost time, or physical effects of drug use on the child.
- When parents are from a different culture and those around them don’t understand their language or belief system, they will feel especially isolated and misunderstood.
- Parents living in incarceration, institutions, or homeless shelters will often be neglected and not receive the support they need.
- When the child is one of a multiple birth and parents must grieve the lost child , and still care for the surviving child without resentment or guilt.
- When a parent loses the only child he or she will ever have because of the age or a medical condition of the mother.
Symptoms of Grief
Commonalities documented among grieving parents include: a feeling of disorientation, a sense of magnitude of the loss, the idea that the pain will last forever, grief that permeates all aspects of life, and a conviction to not let go of the child. It takes time to work through these feelings. According to psychologists, parents often experience more physical symptoms and more extreme emotions over losing a child than people grieving other types of losses.
Common Physical Symptoms of Grieving Parents Include:
- Change in sleeping patterns
- Mood swings
- Inability to concentrate
Other More Serious Physical Symptoms of Grief Include:
- Dry mouth
- Shortness of breath/tightness of chest
- Repetitive motions
Sometimes individuals begin to associate too strongly with their own grief. They become “identified” with mourning and are reluctant to move on. If sadness, depression or anxiety last more than a year or two or appear to be worsening after this time, individuals should consider seeking outside help, especially if the sadness is accompanied by unusual behaviors.
How to Help a Grieving Parent
Expect contradicting and surprising reactions to the death of a child. It takes time to work through these feelings and supporters cannot be expected to know how to react or be helpful. Victims of loss must express feelings openly so that they do not surface in unhealthy ways later on.
A number of steps should be taken both by the parent who has experienced the loss and by his or her circle of friends and family.
The Grieving Parent Should:
- Allow the grief to take place
- Verbalize feelings
- Talk about what happened
- Ask questions and seek out factual information
- Recognize there is no timetable for grieving a child
- Be patient with themselves and others
- Tell people what they need
- Find ways to memorialize the child
- Don’t wait to be told what the griever needs
- Be sensitive to the circumstances of the death
- Remember special things about the child or person who died and talk to the parents about what you remember
- Show sympathy at anniversary dates and holidays
- Be a source of reassurance
- Help preserve memories of the deceased
- Forget preconceived notions about what grief should look like or how long it should last
The death of a child not only affects each individual parent, but it has been shown to cause marital problems. Marital issues from the past often resurface, and sometimes with greater intensity. Being aware of grief and allowing the process to take place will ease these tensions. When a child dies, the composition of the family changes as well. A sibling may become an only child; or another child in birth-order becomes the oldest child, taking on new responsibilities within the family. Or parents may be left childless. Risk of divorce and even suicide is increased.
Grief may be a powerful and trying event, but human resilience is also powerful. Even adults with normal mental health and a strong support system may need grief counseling to work through the loss of a child. In order to deal with their loss, parents must adapt to a new life without their child. Parents must accept the loss and reaffirm their own lives, finding ways to honor the child that died. It is a lifelong process that involves assimilating the death and memories of the deceased into a new life.
You can be part of making a difference in parents’ lives by learning more about a career in grief and bereavement counseling. Contact schools offering counseling programs and learn how you can become licensed in your state to become a grief counselor. You would also need to acquire counseling license to start working as a counselor in a state of your choice.