What Is Child Loss?
The loss of a child is unbearable; the pain one experiences when their child – their living, breathing baby or toddler or older child – leaves this earth is just that. It’s the most unnatural, unfair, painful experience one can endure.
- Miscarriage affects about 25 percent of women who become pregnant during their lifetime. The experience of pregnancy loss can be devastating to couples, yet the majority of women who miscarry become pregnant again soon after the loss. This can become emotionally and physically challenging for the couple. They are often plagued with concerns about the possibility of another miscarriage and whether they made an appropriate decision to conceive again.
- Stillbirths, occurring in about 1% of pregnancies, can leave a feeling of disorientation, yearning and despair. Hospitals will give parents the option of spending time with the baby to say goodbye, and many parents have said that seeing their child was important for their grief process and enabled them to see the baby as a part of themselves. Another form of infant loss is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)-the most frequent cause of death in children under one year of age-that creates a profound void and sense of loss in the family.
- Approximately 2,000 children are reported missing every day, and these kidnappings and cases of missing children cause parents almost unbearable pain. Not knowing whether a child is dead or alive results in confusion, fright and anxiety. When the bodies of kidnapped children are found, parents may express saddened relief that their children can now have a proper burial and healing can finally begin.
- The parents of murder victims face many unique struggles in their process of bereavement. A sense of loss of control is common, and the suddenness of the death is so overwhelming that, for a period of time, parents are often incapable of processing through the grief. For this group, dealing with spiritual beliefs, attitudes toward life, and general physical health may hold special importance.
- Each day, 46 children are diagnosed with cancer in the U.S., and 35% of those will die. Cancer remains the number one disease killer of children. The anguish and extreme pain parents experience begins with diagnosis. One part of the parents’ heart hopes for a cure, while the other part begins the quiet process of impending grief.
The worst thing that can happen to any parent is the loss of a child, regardless of the age of the child. People are uneasy and reluctant to talk about death and certainly not about the death of a child. Many people will pull away from a family that has suffered the death of a child as though somehow having a child die is contagious. Families who have lost children will say that others “Just don’t get it.” They are expected to move on and get over it when that will never happen. The pain will wax and wane but it is always there. With time, the pain will lessen enough to allow the parent to return to the living but their child is never far from their mind.
Grief can vary depending on how the child died. Some children will die from violence, some from cancer or other medical diseases. There are also miscarriages and stillbirths. These tend to be the less visible losses but can be just as painful. I have older adults who will talk about the loss of a child to stillbirth 40 years prior and how old the child would currently be if he had lived. The disappearance of a child has its own special torment. The parents never give up hope that their child will return someday. These parents live with intense anxiety and fear. The uncertainty can be unbearable at times.
For parents who have lost a child, the pain is indescribable. They suffer depression, anger, guilt, despair and loneliness. Even years later, parents sometimes say they cannot wait until they die so they can see their child again. They are not suicidal but long for that reconnection. The vast majority of parents have a strong belief that they will be reunited with their child on death.
The death of a child can also lead to marital stress. If there have been unresolved issues in the relationship, they can reemerge often with greater intensity. Different grieving styles of husband and wife can also cause hurt and misunderstanding, exacerbating the pain they already feel. While not all of these marriages end in divorce, a large number of them do. I frequently ask parents who have lost a child not to make any major life changing decisions for at least the first year.
All parts of the parents’ lives are impacted by the loss. In addition to the emotional aspects of grief, there are also the physical and spiritual components. As with most grief, some will be angry at God while others will find strength in their religious beliefs. Physically, the effects of stress can wreak havoc with sleep, appetite and concentration, lowering our immune system and making us more vulnerable to illness.
The age of the child at the time of death does not lessen the hurt or devastation. It feels completely unnatural for a child to die before his or her parents. However, over 57,000 children under the age of 19 die every year in the United States.
Many grieving parents question whether life will hold any meaning for them and wonder how they will survive the pain of their loss. Parents describe the feeling as having a hole in their heart that will never heal, and may blame themselves and ask, “If only I had.” Or they may be angry with their spouse, the physician, God, or the government.
Parents feel alone and isolated in their grief, as friends and relatives are often at a loss as to what to say. But it is important to talk to people who understand the loss. This may be family, friends, clergy, therapists, or support groups.
Everyone suffers loss in different ways depending upon their beliefs, culture, family history, and relationship with the person who died. It doesn’t mean that others care less if they mourn differently than you do. Grief can also vary greatly depending upon how the child died. While some losses are less visible, such as miscarriage, other experiences of loss are more traumatic, such as an accident, illness, murder or death during war.
Please also visit our additional resource pages: miscarriage, coping with a miscarriage, loss, grief, coping with grief, baby loss
Coping With Pregnancy and Infant Loss:
When a baby dies before it is born or soon after birth, parents face a difficult emotional task: they must try to say goodbye to someone they had little chance to know. They must accept that a life has ended, even though it barely began. Just as with any death and loss of a child, you are likely to experience some of the more common symptoms of grief — you may go into shock or even deny that your baby has died.
Depression, anger, frustration and other painful emotions are normal and to be expected. And even if you are normally a committed, caring person, you may find that you don’t care about anything or anyone right now.
For many parents, this time is simply one of existence and survival and very little more. There are two normal reactions to death that you will probably experience very acutely after losing a baby before or shortly after birth: anger and guilt. Because a baby’s death seems so unnatural, there is an especially strong urge to blame someone. You may be very angry with your doctor, hospital or — if you are a believer — God.
Guilt is a common reaction to the death and loss of a child, and can be particularly acute for parents who lose an infant or an unborn baby. Parents of unborn babies who die often mistakenly blame themselves for the death. The mother may believe she harmed her baby.
Both parents may tell themselves they should have sensed something was wrong and alerted their doctor. While this is a normal reaction and must be processed, eventually you must find compassion for yourself and realize that this was not your fault. You were not responsible. Knowing that it was not in your control has both an upside and a downside: you cannot blame yourself, but you may also have an increased sense of powerlessness. Getting through this is part of the process.
Many parents feel overcome by a tremendous sense of emptiness. Pregnancy brings with it a number of expectations, dreams and fantasies – you spend months planning not just the birth of your child, but also his or her life in all the years to come. Now, just as both parents are emotionally preparing to welcome a child into the world, you must instead accept the loss of both the baby and all of your expectations for their future.
Parents of infants will have a different set of triggers and potentially painful situations in the months following your baby’s death. Your home may be filled with baby clothes, bottles, and a crib. If you registered with any new mother websites or infant sites, subscribed to any magazines or registered for a shower, you are likely to receive coupons for baby food or formula and more in the mail. A baby magazine may show up as a trial subscription. Photographers may call and offer to take baby pictures. Just walking past the infant-wear department in a store may initiate tears of mourning.
After the death and loss of a child it may be difficult to resolve the grief you feel for the baby you lost. Even before you can accept your baby’s death, you must accept his or her life — their existence as a person. Remember, no matter how brief your baby’s life, you have just as much right to grieve as any other bereaved parent.
What Is Loss?
Loss is the involuntary separation from something we have possessed and perhaps even treasured, or someone we love and care about. Everyone experiences a loss at some point in their lives – whether or not it is major or minor. Loss is universal.
Loss involves emotional pain. Significant losses produce emotional upheaval. Loss requires change and uncertainty and adjustments to situations that are new, unchosen and uncertain.
There is no right or wrong way to feel after you experience a loss. Minor losses such as the loss of an opportunity, may bring feelings of frustration, disappointment, or anger. Major losses can lead to similar feelings, overwhelming feelings, sadness, pain, or numbness.
You do not have to be “strong” after a loss to protect others around you. Expressing emotion is how the body and mind process and relieve the pressure of intense or overwhelming emotions. Crying or expressing other emotions does not make you less of a person. It is also not uncommon for people to feel numb. People who don’t cry may still be feeling the effects of a loss. Everyone expresses their pain differently.
No one can tell you how you should feel about something. Anyone who tries to tell you that how you are feeling is wrong is wrong.
are losses that happen due to accidents, crimes or suicides, that do not give us any time to prepare. These type of losses often shake us to the core, making us question the stability of life. The loss can feel immediate, severe, and agonizing. It can be difficult to sort through many emotions and feelings at the same time, and it may take time and space to adjust to the loss.
like those due to terminal illness, allow for us to prepare for the loss. This type of loss also creates two layers of grief: anticipatory grief (the grief related to the anticipation of the loss) and the grief related to the loss itself.
One reason loss is so difficult is that it can be permanent. As humans, our lives are so fluid that the idea of permanence can be difficult to grasp. Further, if your life is structured around the person, object, or concept lost, it can be difficult to adjust to new patterns and routines.
How Are Surviving Children Impacted By Sibling Loss?
One of the most difficult roles for a mother or father after the death and loss of a child is to continue being a parent to the surviving children. Parents must continue to function in the very role they are grieving — an enormous challenge. But the surviving child or children shouldn’t feel that they are alone or have been set aside, as difficult as it may be to find the emotional reserves to support them. Parents have the difficult task of switching roles constantly, from being comforted to being the comforter, at a time when they have little ability to do so. Some parents swing to the other extreme and become extremely overprotective of their child, determined to keep them safe.
Children of all ages process grief differently. To ensure the healthy survival of your family, your children’s needs must be addressed not only by you but other family members who may have greater emotional reserves at this time. Others can help you help your child; you are critical to their healing process, but not the sole provider of comfort.
Marital Stress and the Death of a Child
Studies have shown that the death and loss of a child will not necessarily strengthen a marriage, and the grief can sometimes lead to divorce. Each partner becomes deeply involved in his or her own grief and is often dissatisfied with the quality or depth of their spouse’s grief. When coupled with the anger, frustration, guilt, and blame that often surround a child’s death, parental bereavement can be a time of extreme volatility in a marriage. It’s extremely important that each spouse understands the importance of communication (sharing of feelings), and just as one should not judge themselves for their reaction to the loss, nor should they judge their spouse.
No two people grieve alike, so there is wide range of differences in the expression of grief. Any of these differences may cause spouses or partners to erroneously conclude that their mate has rejected them or feels “less.” A bereaved couple may find it impossible to give comfort to each other when both are feeling an equal grief. Each partner may expect too much and receive too little. This unfortunate combination can create a chasm in a relationship, but it can be avoided if each accepts that you both are deeply hurt. Many of the reactions and stresses you are feeling result from your pain, not from something lacking in your relationship.
However, it is not true that most couples divorce after the loss of child. Recent studies offer some hope, showing that a much lower rate of divorces – only 12–16% — are related to the loss of a child. Perhaps with more of an understanding about grief, there will be even fewer.
Parents often experience more anger, depression, guilt, and physical symptoms than those grieving other losses. Conflict can occur between the parents due to lack of understanding about each person’s way of expressing grief. Marital problems, which were present before the child’s death, can re-emerge, often with increased strength. Blaming can occur and the words that are said to each other in anger and grief can have a lifelong impact.
With time, the pain lessens and a different future is created. During the bereavement period, a wide array of emotions and symptoms can be experienced, such as denial, self-blame, sleeplessness, fatigue, anxiety and despair. These are all normal parts of the intense grieving process, and the intensity of feelings change as you move through bereavement.
Lasting Impact of Child Loss:
The death of a child is a traumatic event that can have long-term effects on the lives of parents. This study examined bereaved parents of deceased children (infancy to age 34) and comparison parents with similar backgrounds (n = 428 per group) identified in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. An average of 18.05 years following the death, when parents were age 53, bereaved parents reported more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, and more health problems and were more likely to have experienced a depressive episode and marital disruption than were comparison parents. Recovery from grief was associated with having a sense of life purpose and having additional children but was unrelated to the cause of death or the amount of time since the death. The results point to the need for detection and intervention to help those parents who are experiencing lasting grief.
What To Expect After a Child Dies:
Grief is one of the most common reactions to a loss. There are typically five stages of grief:
These stages may happen in any order, at any time, or not at all. Some people feel some but not all of the stages of grief. Because there is not a typical loss and each situation is different, it is hard to figure out what a “typical reaction” is. Some people feel:
After the death and loss of a child you may initially feel numb, which is your mind’s way of shielding you from the pain.
Your child can’t be dead. You expect to see your son or daughter walk through the door, or to hear a cry on the baby monitor.
After the death and loss of a child your mind may center on the “what if’s” as you play out scenarios in which your child could have been saved.
Many parents report praying obsessively to have even five more minutes with their child so they can tell them how much they love them.
After the death and loss of a child your memory may become clouded. You may find yourself driving and not remembering where you’re going. Because your mind is trying to process such a huge shock, normal memory functions can be precluded, putting you in a “haze.” You may at times even question your sanity, though you are not crazy. Your pain is affecting your emotional and psychological systems at an extreme level — a sense of being on overload is common.
Guilt appears to be one of the most common responses to dealing with the death of a child. Parents often mentally replay their actions prior to the death and wonder what they may have done differently.
In addition to feelings of guilt, parents often have a sense of powerlessness that is attributed to feeling that they were not able to protect their child from harm.
Anger and frustration are also feelings reported by most parents and are common to grief in general. If your child’s death was accidental, these emotions may be intensified. You may also be angry that life seems to go on for others — as if nothing has happened.
Loss of hope:
After the death and loss of a child you are grieving not only for your child, but also for the loss of your hopes, dreams and expectations for that child. Time will not necessarily provide relief from this aspect of grief. Parents often experience an upsurge of grief at the time they would have expected their child to start school, graduate, get married, etc. Parents are rarely prepared for these triggers and the wave of grief they bring. Be aware of these triggers, and allow yourself to grieve. This is a normal, appropriate and necessary part of the healing process.
However you are feeling, it can be overwhelming and out of control. One way to manage intense emotions is to observe them, describe them, and label your emotions. Sometimes putting a name to your emotion can help you express it. Also remember that we experience emotions like a wave- the emotion will build, crest and recede.
Coping With The Loss of a Child
Don’t expect that you’re going to “get over it.” The only way to “get over” a loss is to go through the stages of grieving. There’s no reason to try to be the strong one – just let yourself feel however you feel.
Write about it. Sometimes the act of writing down how you’re feeling can help solidify those feelings and help you to grieve your loss. Let yourself feel the loss. The only way to get through a loss is to go through the stages of grief. You can’t bypass it, no matter how much you’d like to. Sit with your feelings and acknowledge them. We remember your babies, always. Please share your story
Exercise – exercise releases endorphins, which are the “feel-good” hormones.
Be sure to take care of yourself physically. Go through your daily hygiene routines, get up and do something.
IT’S OKAY TO BE SAD!
The resolution of parental grief may seem like an overwhelming task, but it is possible. It’s important to be both realistic and optimistic — you will never get over the death and loss of your child. But you will survive it, even as you are changed by it. You will never forget your child or his or her death. As you go through each holiday, each season, each happy and sad occasion that may trigger another wave of grief, you will gain greater strength and better tools for coping with the pain.
Don’t hide from your emotions:
After the death and loss of a child you have feelings of guilt – which are common but not always present — confront and admit them. Examine the reality of how your child died and your actual intentions and actions at the time. You may see your actions or reactions in a more positive light. Forgive yourself for being imperfect — you did and continue to do the best that you can.
Don’t minimize your own loss. If it was a loss, it was a loss. Losses are meant to be grieved.
Don’t compare your loss to others’ loss. It’s apples and oranges. You feel a loss how you feel it, not how someone else feels it.
After the death and loss of a child one of the major hurdles parents experience in their return to the world of the living is their inability to accept pleasure — or acknowledging that it even exists. But happiness or enjoyment is one of the most important survival tools, even if for just a moment in your grief. It’s okay to laugh in the midst of tears, to smile at someone or something. You might feel that your laughter betrays your child’s memory, but you need to know you are not abandoning your grieving by enjoying yourself. The only way to survive bereavement is to step away from it occasionally.
After the death and loss of a child it is important to break down the future into small increments, an hour or a day, and deal only with one portion at a time. Focus on tasks — feed the cat, do the laundry. These little bits of normalcy and focusing on the moment at hand will make grief more bearable.
Remember the positive:
Focus on the positive events and experiences in the relationship you had with your child. At some point, consider making a journal of all the details you want to remember about your child’s life. Review your family photographs and include some in your book. You may not feel ready to do this right away or you may take great comfort doing this in the early days — each person is individual in his or her needs.
Let people know your needs:
After the death and loss of a child many people want to be supportive but are at a loss for what to do — they are unable to process this loss or know exactly what to say. Bereaved parents may have to be the ones to take the first step in reaching out to others. Let friends and family know your needs, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re afraid of running into someone who might say something about your child, ask a friend to do some shopping for you. Others could help you deal with daily tasks. Maybe you’d like someone to be available to listen to you or be around to ease your loneliness. Only you know what you need.
Talk to friends and family who love you and make you feel good about yourself. Lean on people who love you and care about you.
Talk to a therapist or grief counselor – someone who is trained to help you get through your grief.
Surviving the death and loss of a child takes a dedication to life. As a parent, you gave birth to life as a promise to the future. Now you must make a new commitment to living, as hard or impossible as it may seem right now.
You will survive this; however, the experience will change you.
What To Say To Someone Who Has Lost A Child:
People tend to avoid grieving parents, in part because they do not know what to say or do and do not want to upset them further. Below are some of the comments they would find helpful from others:
- “Please use my child’s name when you speak to me.”
- “Share stories with me about my child that I may not know.”
- “I am doing the best I can, so please don’t judge or criticize me.”
- “Just listen to me. Let me talk and show my feelings. I can’t take care of you by pretending I am fine.”
- “It really upsets me when you say you know how I feel. If you have never lost a child, you don’t have a clue.”
- “Let me do things in my own way and time.”
- “Please don’t avoid me; I am in enough pain without feeling abandoned.”
- “I am never going to get over this so stop telling me I have to.”
When talking to grieving parents, what we say can often make them feel worse. We cannot take away their pain, but by following these guidelines we can offer them some comfort and support.
How To Help Someone Who Has Lost a Child:
Listen non-judgmentally. Even if you don’t understand why the person feels a certain way, just listen.
Offer to help around the house with specific tasks.
Offer to take surviving siblings out for the day/week/etc.
Ask about the situation. Just because they’re not talking about it, doesn’t mean they don’t want you to ask about it.
Be there for them. Even if it means taking care of small chores or calling a couple times a week, letting them know they have someone who cares around can do wonders.
Sit with them. Even if they don’t want to talk about it, sometimes having someone nearby helps the person mourning the loss to know that they are not alone.
Ask how they are feeling. Acknowledging that they suffered a loss and allowing them to express their feelings can go a long way.
Remember their loss. Many people don’t acknowledge a loss for fear that it might make the mourner feel badly, but remembering every year around the anniversary of the loss can make a huge difference.
Let them feel their feelings. It’s in our nature to want to fix problems and tell people how they can fix their loss. But loss and feelings don’t work that way.
Call them. Email them. Reach out to them. Keep reaching out, even if they don’t respond.
Don’t minimize their feelings.
Check in with the person on anniversaries, important dates, or around holidays. Often these are times when people reconnect with the pain of their loss
What NOT To Say To Someone Grieving A Child Loss:
If you found this page because you have a friend or family member who has lost a child, thank you for caring. The fact that you want to know what to say to him or her shows how much you care. Below is a post that will give you some insight into what you should and shouldn’t say.
“It was God’s plan”
“You can have another one!”
“At least you had (X amount of time) with him/her”
“Focus on the kid’s you DO have.”
“Stop wallowing – your child wouldn’t want you to wallow.”
Additional Coping With Child Loss Resources:
Glow in the Woods– Community of Baby Loss Bloggers
How to Plan a Baby’s Funeral– From the Glow in the Woods Bloggers
The Compassionate Friends– The Compassionate Friends organization provides online and in person support for families who have lost a child, regardless of their age. They provide local chapter meetings, candlelight memorials and grief support for siblings and grandparents.
Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood Program– The SUDC Program was created to be a centralized resource for those affected by a sudden unexpected death in childhood, whose cause is left undetermined, unclear or unexplained. The site offers counselors for all family members, a huge database of resources and many articles.
CURE Childhood Cancer – A wonderful organization dedicated to help families who are going through cancer treatments and diagnoses with their child. It’s a wonderful resource for family members and other caregivers as well.
Page last audited 8/2018