Most of us expect to bury our parents someday. We can accept that they will grow old and die-that is nature’s way. But we do not expect to bury our children. Having a child die before we do seems to go against nature, to go against our sense of what is right. Psychologists say that is just one of many reasons why the death of a child is possibly the most difficult loss of all to accept.
People who have children often feel that being a parent is the most important role they play in life, whether their children are three years old, 13 or 30. Therefore, the death of a child is a tremendous assault on the identity of a parent.
Reactions to a Child
If your child has died, you will likely experience several common reactions of bereavement, but to a greater degree than normal. You may go into shock or even deny at first that your child has died. You will likely become depressed. Even if you normally are a committed, caring person, you could find that you don’t care about anything or anyone. You may become preoccupied with the circumstances of your child’s death, recreating them over and over in your mind. You may even have dreams or nightmares about your child – or think you see or hear him or her.
The intense grief caused by your child’s death can take a physical toll as well. You may lose weight, have difficulty sleeping, become irritable or listless, or feel short of breath. Grief has even been known to cause hair loss.
But of all the normal reactions to death, the two you may experience most acutely are anger and guilt. Because the death of a child is unnatural, there is an especially strong urge to blame someone. You may be angry at the doctors or nurses who didn’t save your child, or at God for letting your child die. If your child died because of some traumatic accident, you may be angry at whomever you believe caused it. If your child’s actions partly caused his death, you may even be angry at him or her—and then feel guilty about your anger.
In fact, you are likely to feel guilty for many reasons. Parents often feel terribly guilty simply for living when their child has died. If you had an argument with your child or had to discipline him or her shortly before his or her death, you may feel guilty for not being “better” to your child.
But perhaps you will feel most guilty because you believe you should have prevented your child’s death. You may find yourself consumed by “if only” thoughts: if only I hadn’t let him go outside that day; if only I had checked on her a minute sooner; if only I had been there.
Effects on a Marriage
While bereaved parents know they will experience intense grief, their child’s death can have another effect they do not expect: It will probably alter their feelings toward each other. Parents expect their grief to be similar because they have lost the same child; however, the way the father mourns is different from the way the mother mourns. As a result, the parents may find it difficult to communicate.
A child’s death often causes sexual problems within a marriage as well. One spouse may want to feel intimacy, but the other may not want the closeness, because letting down the emotional barrier means feeling the pain. Sexual problems can last up to two years or longer after a child’s death.
Coping With a Child
How can parents handle the problems brought on by their intense grief? Parents need to find someone who can understand their feelings. Join a local group for grieving parents like The Compassionate Friends or other associations of bereaved parents for support.
It is important for parents to comprehend that severe grief can make them feel like they’re out of control. If you feel like this, you might consider asking your clergyperson, doctor or funeral director to suggest a counselor. If nothing else, you may be relieved to find out your problems are normal.
Finally, remember that other people will likely feel very awkward around you because they won’t know what to say. You can help bridge the gap by simply telling them what you need and letting them know if it’s all right to mention your deceased child.
Talking to Your Other Children
Your other children will look to you to explain the death to them. A child’s questions will depend on his or her age, but your answers should always be honest. Don’t tell a child that a brother or sister is “sleeping”; that child will be afraid of dying in his or her sleep. Don’t tell the child that God wanted his sister; he or she will be angry at God and fear being “wanted” by God. Simply answer the questions as they come, without offering more information than is necessary.
However, you should assure young children that they will not die of the same cause, and that they had nothing to do with their brother’s or sister’s death. Young children sometimes fantasize that they caused the death by being “mean” to a sibling or by fighting with him or her.
Remember, your other children need to resolve their grief. They will take their cues from you, so give them permission to grieve by letting them see your own grief. You won’t do them any favors by “protecting” them from the grieving process.
A Note to Grandparents
Grandparents have the double burden of grieving for their grandchild and seeing their son or daughter suffer pain. Although you cannot take that pain away, you can still offer your help in taking care of the other children, making dinner and, most importantly, listening. You should not take over the funeral arrangements—that is something your child, as the bereaved parent, must undertake as one step in working through his or her own grief.
And do not neglect or bury your own grief even as you support your son or daughter. You need to express your feelings as well. This is a good time for honest talk with your family and friends.
National Funeral Directors Association