The Grief of Child Loss

When you lose a child, your whole world is turned upside down. What you once thought impossible has happened. Understandably, you are going to have many thoughts, feelings and experiences surrounding grief. These experiences, including your thoughts and reactions, may be different from anything you have felt before. Along with the loss of your child, you may also experience the loss of your identity as a parent (or a particular type of parent), the loss of the dreams you had for your child, and/or the loss of a sense of safety in life. Grief is healthy and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. The key points to remember about grief are:

1. Grief is a Natural Reaction to Loss
2. No Timetable Exists for Grief
3. Everyone Grieves Differently (Yes, Even Your Partner)


Here are some of the different aspects of grief.

Grief Process

You have probably heard of the “5 stages of grief”, and while those emotions may play some role in your experience, we have found that a parent’s journey through grief is not as simple as a straight line. It tends to look more like this:

And that’s okay. You may find yourself full of sadness one day and consumed with anger another. You may find that you are still able to laugh and have joy in aspects of your life. While some of the sadness and anger may subside over time, it never truly goes away. Grief is often described as feeling like waves in the ocean. At first the waves are intense and continue to knock you down. As time goes on, the waves still remain, but some are smaller and you get better at predicting them and can brace yourself for the impact. The grief of losing your child doesn’t necessarily get easier with time, but rather, you get stronger.

Be patient with yourself. Grief never truly ends, but rather it changes over time.  Do what feels comfortable to you and allow yourself to feel the emotions. There are times where suppressing the emotions you are experiencing may be necessary, such as at work, but doing this all the time may lead to detrimental affects.

Common Thoughts & Feelings

Grief takes many forms and is not the same for everyone. What you feel is normal because it is normal for you. That said, below are some thoughts, feelings and emotions bereaved parents commonly experience. It is important to note that these feelings and thoughts may change over time.

  • GUILT & TRAUMA
    • Feeling guilty for their child’s death, blaming themselves, and thinking they could have done more to prevent it.
    • Feeling guilty for having fun or laughing
    • Replaying the circumstances of the death over and over
    • Regretting things they did or did not do with their child
  • SADNESS/DEPRESSION
    • Crying, sometimes constantly and sometimes when they least expect it
    • Feeling immense sadness 
    • Some find that things they used to care about no longer seem important compared to the loss of their child
    • Wanting to sleep all the time or not being able to sleep
    • Wanting to do nothing or wanting to keep busy
    • Finding it difficult to look at photos or videos of their child, or constantly looking at photos or videos of their child
    • Not wanting to eat or wanting to eat all the time.
    • Lack of interest in activities or gatherings that they used to enjoy
    • Finding it difficult to function and take care of their health and other needs
    • Feeling as if their jobs are not meaningful or important
  • SHOCK & NUMBNESS
    • Difficulty making decisions 
    • Difficulty communicating what they need/want
  • CONFUSION & DISBELIEF
    • Feeling like they are in a cloud or haze, especially at the beginning
    • Wishing they had more time with their child, even just seconds
  • FEAR
    • 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 (a car wreck, a heart condition, etc…)
  • ANGER
    • Anger at themselves, others, God, or even their child
    • Feeling like others or the world owes you, even when it’s not related to your child
    • Feeling like nobody can understand their grief
  • JEALOUSY & TRIGGERS
    • Feeling anger or resentment towards other parents/families who haven’t lost a child
    • Being jealous of other parents who have living children
    • Wanting to avoid gatherings involving children, particularly the same age as the child they lost
    • Having a lack of empathy for others
  • THINGS PARENTS MAY FIND THEMSELVES DOING
    • Wanting to research everything possible about their child’s condition or cause of death
    • Wanting to research as much as possible about grief
    • Wanting to meet other bereaved parents
    • Losing faith or relying heavily on faith
    • Wanting to have another baby right away or being scared to have another baby
    • Needing to get away or not wanting to leave the house at all
    • Wanting to throw themselves into work or not being able to focus on work
    • Many people find it comforting to put photos and/or memorabilia of their child around their house and other personal spaces. For others, this may be too difficult for them. 
 
Of course, we recommend you contact a therapist or other medical professional if you are concerned your feelings are leading to detrimental or unhealthy behavior. 

Triggers

You will have triggers and you may not know what those are until you experience them. Triggers are things that cause your grief to intensify suddenly. These are very unique to each person, but common triggers include:

  • Seeing or hearing about children that were the same age as your child or were friends with your child
  • Seeing children or babies on TV or out in public
  • Your child’s birthday or death anniversary
  • Going to places that you took your child
  • Hearing about the medical condition that your child had
  • Hearing or seeing the name of your child used for another person
  • Seeing your child’s empty room or play things
  • Hearing a song you sang to your child 
  • Driving past the hospital or funeral home where your child was
  • Hearing about death on the news or through others
  • Dates of upcoming milestones or important events that your child did not make it to

Your relationships will be affected by your grief as well. However, while you may notice some of your relationships are negatively affected, there will be others that are positively affected. This includes your marriage or other romantic relationships, family, and friends. 

Marriage
We encourage you to lean on each other during your grief, but realize that you may experience grief differently and that’s okay. Give each other understanding to cope in whatever way is best for you. Some parents grieve silently (keeping to themselves, watching television or movies, etc…), some grieve by doing (exercise, sports, keeping busy, etc…), and others grieve by talking about the loss. Remember, there is no right way to grieve and each person is unique. What is important is that you communicate with each other about what you feel comfortable discussing and doing. It’s best not to push your spouse to do something they are uncomfortable with. This means that some spouses may be comfortable going to family gatherings, hanging out with friends, talking about the loss, while the other spouse is not. Make a plan together as these conflicts arise about how you want to proceed. You may decide to have just one of you go or you may decide to stick together and stay home until you are both ready. If you are open to it, going to grief counseling together can be helpful as it provides a safe space for you both to discuss your feelings and thoughts and get a better understanding of what the other person is going through. While some parents find that their grief creates a further gap in an already-existing divide, many parents find that their marriage actually comes out stronger after they go through the grief of losing a child together.

Family & Friends
Some of your family and friends will be understanding and patient with you. Others may not be so accommodating, especially as time goes on after your loss. We find it helpful to let them know where you are at in your journey so they can better understand what to expect. Let them know you may not be as responsive to calls or texts, that you may be less likely to go to events and gatherings, or that you want to go to a gathering, but you may not be your usual self. We recommend directing them to the Family and Friends section of this site so they can get a better understanding of how to support you. Some parents find that they may lose a few friends along their grief journey, but that they gain many new friends in the form of other bereaved parents.