Caregivers are often some of the first individuals to interact with parents after the loss of a child. We know that these conversations are not easy, but we also know how impactful they can be. To help facilitate these conversations with bereaved parents, we wanted to give you some suggested responses to common feelings after child loss.
Please keep in mind, grief takes many forms and is not the same for everyone. Further, these feelings and thoughts will likely change over time.
Guilt & Trauma
Parents likely feel guilty for their child’s death, blaming themselves, and thinking they could have done more to prevent it.
When appropriate, use your words and actions to reassure the bereaved parent that they are not responsible for their child’s death. It may not absolve their guilty feelings, but it will help to have the voice of a reasoned medical professional in their head when they question themselves again and again later on.
Parents replay will replay the circumstances of the death over and over.
Allow the opportunity for the parents to receive a medical debrief after a traumatic event, code, or death. Allow them to verbalize the sequence of the events from their perspective if they are able and help them fill in the blanks of the how and why things happened the way they did. Another method would be to give a brief summation of the event and allow them to ask questions throughout.
Sadness / Depression
Parents will cry, sometimes constantly and sometimes when they least expect it
Many parents might apologize for crying. Normalize this feeling, but also give them the opportunity for privacy if they request it.
Shock & Numbness
Parents will have difficulty making decisions and even communicating what they need/want.
End of life care requires a barrage of difficult decisions that can have lasting consequences in the life of a grieving parent. Allowing the family the needed time to make these decisions and be confident in them is a gift. Making a decision to continue life-supporting medical devices or care may actually be indecision on the part of a family coming to grips with the impending death of their child.
Confusion & Disbelief
Parents will feel like they are in a cloud or haze, especially at the beginning.
As a medical provider you have probably thought the following sentence, at least once, in your career “I JUST spent an hour explaining all this to the family yesterday, I don’t know why they don’t understand today.” Families in crisis are experiencing significant trauma during this time. They may not be able to make accurate memories during this trauma. They actually may not remember the conversation, only remember parts of it, or remember it going a different way. Two parents may hear the same conversation and come away with completely different impressions.
Parents will wish they had more time with their child, even just seconds.
If you can, give them that time.
Parents may develop a stronger fear about situations they may not have previously.
– Being overprotective of other living children
– Fear about the safety of their family
– Concern over having another child
– Fear of the particular circumstances that took their child (e.g., a car wreck, a heart condition, etc.).
Acknowledge and validate these fears while also providing appropriate reassurance and direction when the bereaved parents are ready to move forward.
Parents may feel like no one can understand their grief and experience anger toward themselves, others, God or even their child.
Allow them to express their anger as long as it is done in a safe manner. Do not take their anger personally even if it is directed at you.