Grief Reactions Associated with the Death of a Child

The death of a child is one of the most difficult losses anyone can experience. The death of a young child will 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 their 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. Parents may find their minds full of disturbing 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 and Fathers 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 so. 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 from their usual behaviour. Some parents may develop difficulties in their relationship with their partner because of their different ways of grieving.

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. 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.

It can help to get support from a good friend, a professional person, or support group until they feel better. Sometimes getting information from doctors and others can help to try to make sense of how the child came to die. 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.

The funeral service is a way in which people come together to remember the child and celebrate their life. It can allow people to 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.

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 21st July, 2017