How to Deal with the Grief of Losing a Child

The loss of a child is unimaginable. Whether anticipated or unexpected, the pain that follows the death of a child is likely to feel overwhelming and endless. With time, healthy coping tools, and help from loved ones and professionals, the worst parts of grief will eventually pass.

This article will provide an overview of common grief reactions, options for seeking help, and ways to cope.

Husband comforts his distraught wife

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Common Grief Reactions

After a significant loss has occurred, it's common to experience a flood of emotions. These can include:

  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Longing
  • Confusion
  • Relief
  • Loneliness
  • Distress

Parents who have lost a child are likely to experience many of these reactions and more, and they are at an increased risk for developing depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.

Mental Health Risk for Bereaved Parents

Research shows that grieving parents are at risk for developing depression and anxiety for 10 years following the death of their child. These parents are also at increased risk for developing physical illnesses during bereavement.

Acute vs. Integrated Grief

Acute grief is the immediate response following a loss. During this time, it's common to be in shock or disbelief and to have a hard time processing the death. The focus tends to be on memories of the person who died, and it can feel all-consuming.

During acute grief, a person's experience tends to be internal, and it's common to avoid other people and normal activities for a while. The circumstances of the death can also impact the severity of the reaction. Death from violence and suicide and unexpected deaths are often more difficult to cope with.

Although acute grief can be overwhelming and extremely painful, most people are able to move through their bereavement over time. Grieving is not a straightforward path or a series of stages to move through, but a back-and-forth journey that constantly moves between pain and joy, difficulty and positive experiences.

Eventually, the worst parts of grief should ease and allow space for finding enjoyment in life again. As this happens, grief is becoming integrated. This means that, while grief may always be present on some level, it does not control or define the person anymore.

Complicated Grief

For some people, intense grief reactions continue for a long time, and grief doesn't become integrated on its own. When grief causes ongoing worry or rumination about the death, or when a person avoids talking or thinking about the death or becomes stuck in experiencing the most painful parts of grief without relief after several months have passed, it's called complicated grief.

For those experiencing complicated grief, it may feel like the acute grief phase is never-ending. It's common to have difficulty moving through grief in a healthy way and finding meaning from the loss, and many people even consider suicide.

Complicated grief is most common in those who have lost a child. In these circumstances, a mental health professional can help with processing the loss and working through complicated grief to be able to confront the death and heal from the pain.

How Common Is Complicated Grief?

About 7% of grieving people experience complicated grief, and it's more common for parents who are grieving the loss of a child.

Seeking Help

There are different ways to find support while grieving the loss of a child. Whether it's professional help or peer-based, asking for help can be difficult. Yet, seeking support can help you bring meaning to the loss and work through the most difficult parts of bereavement.

Therapy

Sometimes, it's helpful to speak to a professional to work through the grieving process. When grief does not naturally become integrated over time and remains intensely present and disruptive, a grief therapist can provide the tools to work through the painful memories and experiences of child loss.

Many parents will experience complicated grief while living through a child's death, and it's normal to need support to cope with the loss; the challenges that might come up in relationships with a spouse, family members, and other loved ones; and the interruption to daily life.

To find a grief therapist, look for a licensed mental health professional, such as a counselor, social worker, or psychologist, who has specialized training and experience in grief work. Medical professionals and health insurance providers can provide referrals to mental health professionals, and online provider searches can help narrow down options by various preferences.

Support Groups

Working through child loss can be a lonely experience. Through support groups, grieving parents can come together with others who are coping with similar circumstances. Knowing that others are going through the same pain can bring comfort, and sharing coping strategies to help others can bring a sense of purpose to bereavement.

There are different types of support groups. These include:

  • Peer-based groups: These are often run by a peer facilitator who shares a similar experience. The focus of the group is to bring connection and support to each participant. These kinds of groups can be located by doing an internet search by local area (e.g. "grief support groups near me" or "grief support groups in [city]").
  • Clinical support groups: These are run by a mental health professional and are often formed by a therapist creating a group from individual therapy clients. Ask a grief therapist about opportunities for these types of support groups.

Accepting Help

For many grieving parents, it's natural to want to isolate from others during bereavement, especially those who bring reminders of the death. It may be painful to answer others' questions, to talk about yourself as a parent who lost a child, and to get through normal daily experiences.

Navigating the loss of a child is difficult to do alone. Though it may be hard, accepting help from others can ease some of the burden of trying to work through the loneliness of grieving as a parent. Try accepting offers for food and other gifts, and push yourself to spend time with others in small amounts. Remember to set boundaries where you need them and that some days will be easier to spend time with people than others.

Helping Siblings Grieve

After child loss, it's important to pay attention to the deceased child's siblings. Sibling grief is a type of disenfranchised grief, which means it's not recognized or supported by peers or society. Thus, grieving siblings need a chance to express their feelings, get support, and learn coping strategies. Depending on the age of the child or children, they might need help learning how to process the many feelings that come with bereavement.

It's also important to pay attention to how siblings are grieving, because surviving siblings will take on the grief of their parents. As parents grieve, they often give less emotional attention to surviving children. This, in addition to the painful experience of losing a sibling, can affect their health and wellbeing and have long-term impacts. For example, research shows that sisters who lose a sibling are more likely to drop out of high school, and both brothers and sisters show lower test scores after experiencing a sibling loss.

Prevalence of Sibling Death

About 8% of people will experience the death of their sibling before age 25.

Tips for Dealing With Grief

Grieving the loss of a child is extremely hard. One of the most important ways to cope is to take things slowly and not have expectations about how long the painful feelings should last or when grief should be "over." Grief does not happen as a series of stages to work through or tasks to complete, but as an ongoing presence that moves back and forth between being extremely difficult and muted in the background.

Here are some tips to help work through grief:

  • Don't ignore your feelings: Pay attention to them and allow yourself the time and space to feel your emotions as they happen.
  • Ask for what you need: Whether it's a meal, help with picking up a child from school, or time off from work, tell people when you need help and accept it when it's offered.
  • Get involved in something: Find an activity that brings you comfort or joy and commit to it. Be sure not to use activities as a way to ignore your feelings, but as a temporary distraction that reconnects you with other people and positive feelings.
  • Honor your child: Find ways to bring meaning to your child's death. Some ideas are to make a donation to a charity in their name, volunteer with an organization that reminds you of your child, and participate in activities your child enjoyed. Celebrate your child's life with other family members and friends, and be sure to ask surviving siblings how they want to honor their sibling's life as well.

Summary

After losing a child, it's normal to experience a wide range of emotions, including despair, sadness, anger, longing, and even relief. These feelings will be most painful initially during the acute grief phase. Over time, though, the most difficult emotions associated with grief will become easier and will exist in the background rather than be all-consuming.

For many parents, though, losing a child can be so hard to handle that grief becomes complicated rather than integrated. If grief is still raw and extremely painful, or if it brings out mental illnesses like depression, severe anxiety, or other concerns, it's important to seek support from a mental health professional.

Other things that can help are support groups, accepting offers to help from others, and finding ways to bring meaning to the death. It's important to also pay attention to the needs of siblings as they mourn as well.

A Word From Verywell

Losing a child is unthinkable. The pain and raw emotions are likely to feel intense and unending. You are likely to have many different feelings that range and also sometimes conflict. It might also feel like you will never experience joy again or find satisfaction in life.

For grieving parents, it's important to balance the intensity of grief with moments of normalcy. Doing activities that bring you comfort and even finding happiness again are not signs that you are forgetting your child, but signals that your grief is becoming less acute and more integrated. This is a sign that you're healing.

If grief becomes so difficult to manage that it's impacting your ability to get through daily tasks even months after the death, you may be experiencing complicated grief. In this case, or if you are experiencing depression or other mental illnesses, it's important to see a mental health professional to work through the grief and be treated for any complicating illnesses you are experiencing.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do you ever get over the loss of a child?

    Grief, especially from losing a child, is not something you get over. Grief ebbs and flows and changes with time. Some days will be very hard and others will be a little easier. Eventually, grief should feel muted and in the background but most likely will be present in one way or another throughout life.

  • Can losing a child shorten your life span?

    Grief alone does not cause death. However, there is research that shows that the impact of child loss on a parent's psychological and physical well-being can cause significant health problems that can affect overall wellness and potentially shorten their life. Another concern is the increased risk of suicide for grieving parents.

  • What are the stages of grief?

    Grief does not come in stages or checklists. Grief is experienced uniquely by each person and comes and goes in different ways over time. You can think of grief as a bumpy, winding road that sometimes causes slowdowns and sometimes feels smooth.

    The stages of grief that were first introduced by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described the experience of a person who is dying him or herself, not who is grieving the loss of a loved one. Grieving the loss of a child takes time and work and will probably always be present in one way or another.

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