Grief Topic

Grief Reactions Associated with the Death of a Child

The death of a child comes as a great loss and may give rise to acute grief. The child may be young and their death can seem tragic and unfair to their parents, carers, family members and friends.

The death of an adult child is also a great loss for parents and also may seem unjust. The significance of the loss may not be acknowledged by others because the person was an adult. Children are not supposed to die before the parents in the natural order of things.

People usually find they have strong reactions even if they knew the death was coming. Some may feel numb or dazed with the shock, or get really upset, and feel angry, guilty and sad.

It may be hard to sleep or eat. Some may feel very tired and find their minds are full of many thoughts. All of these responses are part of normal grief.

Each person, young or old will respond in their own special way which may be different from others in the family. There is no set pattern or time limit. Mostly, the first strong emotions become calmer after some time has passed, but certain reminders can bring these feelings back again, such as Mothers Day, Christmas, anniversaries and other memories of the child.

Parents may find they have the “aching arms” of yearning and needing to cuddle their child.

They may find that along with the death of their child they have lost their sense of future direction.

It can be very hard to talk with other parents about their children.

While some parents may be able to help each other, many find it hard or even impossible to do. Each is trying to cope with their own burden. They may have different ways of doing this. One may want the comfort of being close and touching, or to talk. Another may want to be alone and to think or be out doing something to keep busy. Sometimes this can be different to their usual behaviour. Some parents may develop difficulties in their relationship because of their different ways of grieving.

It can help to get support from a good friend, a professional person or support group until they feel better.

Helpful strategies

  • Staying with a child who has just died, alone or with close family, holding, touching and talking to the child, can help people to accept that the death has really happened.
  • It is important people are allowed to show their strong feelings of grief if they want to and are given support, time, and have their questions answered. This includes others who may be affected, for example, brothers and sisters, grandparents, school friends, and those who cared for the child around the time of death.
  • It can help to get information from doctors and others to try to make sense of how the child came to die.
  • The funeral service is a way in which people come together to remember the child and celebrate their life. They can also pay tribute to them, express their sadness, say goodbye in a public way and receive the support of family and friends. Cultural groups often have their own ways of doing this and of continuing the period of mourning. It is usually helpful for parents and other family members to be as closely involved in the preparation of the funeral as they wish.
  • Some find it helps to provide a means by which the memory of the child can live on by, for example, making a garden, or creating some other memorial.

All of these things can help people come to terms with the death of a child. It does not mean they forget or that there is no longer any sadness and pain. However it often happens that the child gradually occupies a different place in their minds and hearts and they can adjust to life without their physical presence. They learn to live with the pain, not in the pain. They will also need support and permission (but not pressure) to continue with life: to laugh, to think about other things and to make plans for a different future.

Page last updated 17th April, 2008