When A Parent is Grieving the Loss of a Child

The recent tragedy at Newtown Elementary School in Newtown, CT on December 14, 2012 highlights the despair and pain that follows when a child dies.

The parent-child bond is one of the most meaningful relationships a person will experience. Parents who have lost a child can often feel that a part of them has died. Parents are simply not supposed to outlive their children and no parent is prepared for a child’s death. The length of a child’s life does not determine the size of the loss. Parents are intimately involved in the daily lives of young children, and their child’s death changes every aspect of family life, often leaving enormous emptiness. When any child dies, parents grieve the loss of possibiities and all of the hopes and dreams they had for their child. They grieve the potential that will never be realized and the experiences they will never share. When a child dies, a part of the future dies along with them.

Some people expect that grief should be resolved over a specific time, such as a year, but this is not true. The initial severe reactions are not experienced continuously with such intensity; rather periods of intense grief come and go over a period of 18 months or more. Over time, waves of grief gradually become less intense and less frequent, but feelings of sadness and loss will likely always remain. Grief reactions following the death of a child are similiar to those following other losses, but are often more intense and last longer.

Parents commonly experience the following grief reactions:

Intense shock, confusion, disbelief, and denial — even if the child’s death was expected.
Overwhelming sadness and despair, such that facing daily tasks or even getting out of bed can seem impossible.
Extreme guilt — some parents will feel they have failed in their role as their child’s protector and will dwell on what they could have done differently.
Intense anger and feelings of bitterness and unfairness at a life left unfulfilled.
Questioning or loss of faith or spiritual beliefs.
Dreaming about the child or feeling the child’s presence nearby.
Feeling intense loneliness and isolation, even when with other people — parents often feel that the magnitude of their loss separates them from others and that no one can truly understand how they feel.

As much as it hurts, it is natural and normal to grieve. Some parents find the following suggestions helpful while grieving:

Talk about your child often and use his or her name.

Ask family and friends for help with housework and errands. This will give you important time to think, remember, and grieve.

Prepare ahead of time for how to respond to difficult questions like “How many children do you have?” Remember that people aren’t trying to hurt you; they just don’t know what to say.

Prepare for how you want to spend significant days, such as your child’s birthday or the anniversary of your child’s death.

Because of the intensity and isolation of parental grief, parents may especially benefit from a support group, facilitated by a licensed clinical social worker, where they can share their experiences with other parents who understand their grief and can offer hope.

Parents report that they never really “get over” the death of a child, but rather learn to live with the loss. The death of a child may compel parents to rethink their priorities and reexamine the meaning of life. It may seem inpossible to newly grieving parents, but parents do go on to find happiness and reinvest in life again.

It is important to remember that it is not disloyal to the deceased child to re-engage in life and to find pleasure in new experiences. Every child changes the lives of his or her parents. Children show us new ways to love, new things to find joy in, and new ways to look at the world. A part of each child’s legacy is that the changes he or she brings to a family continue after the child’s death. The memories of joyful moments you spent with your child and the love you shared will live on and always be part of you.