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How can parents manage their grief after the death of a child?

Having a child die turns your life upside down. Trying to understand your grief may be overwhelming. Grief takes longer than most people think and requires more energy than you ever would have imagined. Although the grief process can be painful, lonely and frightening, allowing yourself to experience your grief is necessary to heal. There is no way around grief—only through it. While everyone grieves differently, these are some suggestions that you may find helpful as you travel through your grief journey.


Do

Do understand that your grief is unique

Although grief is a natural and normal reaction to a loss, everyone grieves in his or her own way. Grief affects every aspect of a person: cognitively, emotionally, behaviorally, spiritually and socially. The way you grieve will be influenced by the relationship you had with your child, the circumstances surrounding your child’s death, your past grief experiences, your spiritual and cultural beliefs and your support systems. Allow yourself to talk about and express your grief openly with others. Remember you are the expert on your own grief journey, nobody else.

Do expect a wide range of emotions and reactions

Many people experience a wide range of emotions, including anger, guilt and overwhelming sadness. In fact, you may feel confused and experience reactions that are quite different from the way you normally act. You may even feel like you are going crazy, but rest assured, this is a very common reaction during grief.

Grief is like a rollercoaster. Different emotions may come and go quickly, or they may stay for a while. You may even notice that you are experiencing multiple emotions all at the same time. Be prepared for emotions to sneak up on you, seemingly out of nowhere. As frightening as these may seem, all of these emotions and reactions are normal during the grief process.

Do have appropriate expectations for yourself

There is no timeline for grief. Grief may only last a few weeks or it may last for years. Another important fact is that you will never “get over” your grief. Grief will lessen over time and the good days will far outweigh the bad days, but you will be changed forever.

Because the death of your child has changed you forever, part of your grief process will be to learn what your “new normal” is and to embrace those changes. There are no healthy shortcuts around grief; you can only go through it. By allowing yourself to experience your grief, you are allowing yourself to heal. Know that you may feel fatigued and have trouble completing ordinary tasks or engaging in your usual activities. You also may experience difficulty thinking and making decisions. There is no timetable on how long this takes, so be gentle with yourself.

Do create memory items and rituals to embrace your memories

Every parent wants to talk about their child, and you are no different. Continue to talk about your child and the memories that you have. Understand that thinking about or talking about your child may be difficult in the beginning, causing you to be sad or cry, but eventually, these memories will bring you comfort and joy. For example, creating memory items, such as photo albums and hand/foot prints, or rituals, such as a toy drive for foster children as a way to celebrate your child’s birthday, can be very healing and help you stay connected to your child in a special way.

Even though your child is not physically here, your love for and relationship with your child will be forever--and that is something that can never be taken away.


Don't

Do not compare yourself to others

No two people will grieve alike, including spouses, significant others or other family members. Allow yourself to grieve in ways that work best for you, without comparing yourself to others. Along that same line, understand that other family members might need to grieve differently from you. And allowing space for that to happen will help sustain and strengthen your relationships.

Do not be afraid to reach out for support

People often have difficulty asking for support, especially when they are already feeling vulnerable. But you don’t have to do it alone. Reach out to family and friends. Many people want to help, but don’t know how. Be specific about what you need. Do not be afraid to ask for someone to mow the yard, watch your other children or just sit with you. Support groups, which provide the opportunity to talk to other parents who have experienced the death of a child and grasp what you are feeling, can be extremely helpful.

Do not expect others to always understand

Many people just don’t know what to do to help you while you are grieving. Therefore, some people will avoid you all together, some will never bring up the topic of your child or the death, and others will manage to put their foot in their mouth. People who have not had a child die, do not always understand what you are going through or understand the ways in which you express your grief. Forgive them for not knowing better. When people say inappropriate or hurtful things, remind yourself that most of the time they mean well, but they just don’t know what to say or how to say it. Feel free to educate those around you about grief. If you don’t, who will?

Do not forget to take care of yourself

You may not have the energy or motivation to take care of yourself, but caring for yourself is essential to your health. Eat balanced meals, exercise and get adequate rest. Drink plenty of water and stay away from caffeine, alcohol or drugs. Pamper yourself. To some people, taking care of yourself might seem selfish; however, if you don’t take care of your health and your needs first, you will not be able to support others in your life. Understand that getting your needs met involves not only your physical needs but your emotional and spiritual needs as well. Remember to take one day at a time.


Summary
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Living after your child has died is difficult at best. The journey through grief is necessary, but there are no maps to get you through to the other side. Hopefully, these suggestions will help start you down the road of your grief journey and guide you towards healing. Be kind and gentle to yourself as you try to navigate through your grief and remember to reach out to others for support.


More expert advice about Loss of a Child

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Nichole Schwerman-StangelBereavement Coordinator/CISM Coordinator

Nichole Schwerman-Stangel, MA, CT, is the Bereavement Coordinator/CISM Coordinator at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and previously served as the Grief Services Coordinator at MargaretAnn’s Place, a center for grieving children and their famil...

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