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Learn how to live after loss and cope with the death of a child

As a parent, most people assume that their children will outlive them. Burying one’s child goes against the natural cycle of life. Unfortunately, many parents do experience the heartbreak of having a child die. The grief that accompanies a child’s death is profoundly painful, raw and life-altering. The despair and devastation of grieving a child’s death can result in hopelessness and a lack of meaning. However, with time and support, many bereaved parents learn to live again and even find joy and purpose in life.


Do

Do reach out for support

Unfortunately, family and friends of bereaved parents often do not know what to do or say to comfort a grieving parent. Because many people are uncomfortable with death and are afraid of saying or doing things that might further hurt the bereaved parent, they believe it is better to avoid talking about the child’s death altogether. As a result, many family and friends withdraw from parents or avoid them. Although their behavior may be very hurtful to a bereaved parent, it does not mean that friends and family are uncaring.

One way that bereaved parents can get support is to tell family and friends what they need or what actions/words are comforting and supportive. At the same time, because bereaved parents are often emotionally and physically exhausted, reaching out to family and friends may seem implausible. In these situations, bereaved parents often find support groups, such as The Compassionate Friends, to be a helpful source of support. These organizations are grief support groups specifically designed to address the needs of bereaved parents.

Do find meaningful ways to express grief

Everyone experiences grief differently. And there is truly no right or wrong way to grieve. Some bereaved parents may find frequently visiting the cemetery comforting. Others may find planting a memory garden to be healing. For many bereaved parents, finding a way to express their emotions in a meaningful way helps them work through their grief and begin the healing process.

Do continue to talk about your deceased child

Many bereaved parents often fear that because their child is no longer living, he or she will be forgotten as time goes on. This fear is amplified by the fact that even though their child is no longer physically present, most parents continue to feel an emotional or spiritual connection to their child.

Bereaved parents can ensure their child is remembered and honor their ongoing connection with their child by integrating the child’s memory into their everyday lives. For instance, mentioning their child’s name in conversation or reminiscing about activities the child loved doing are meaningful ways of honoring the child’s memory. Some bereaved parents honor their child’s memory by wearing pieces of jewelry that belonged to the child, or lighting a candle for their child during holiday gatherings or other significant events.

If bereaved parents decide to include family and friends in these activities of remembrance, some friends and family may appear uncomfortable. However, when bereaved parents openly talk about their deceased child, it can signal to family and friends that it is okay for them to talk about and remember the child as well.

Do discuss your child’s death with surviving children

Being a bereaved sibling is also extremely difficult. Surviving children are grieving as well, and depending on the age of the surviving siblings, they may not understand the irreversibility and permanence of death. Some children may even feel that they somehow caused their sibling’s death.

Unfortunately, because their parent(s) can be overwhelmed with grief, surviving children may not receive as much comfort and support as they would like. It is important for bereaved parents to talk with their surviving children about the emotions they are experiencing and to validate these emotions as a normal part of the grieving process. It is also vital for parents to let their surviving children know that they, too, are grieving and that it is okay to express emotions in front of each other.


Don't

Do not expect to express grief in the same manner as your partner/spouse

Men and women tend to express grief differently. Oftentimes, men are more likely to process their grief internally, whereas women may be more likely to express their grief externally. These differences in grieving do not mean that men never express their grief outwardly, or that women always express their grief to others. What it does mean is that one parent’s way of grieving may look different from the other parent, which can sometimes cause conflict.

One parent may interpret the other parent’s style of grieving as incorrect. For example, if one parent does not talk about the child’s death or does not express emotion openly, the other parent may interpret his or her partner’s behavior as a sign of uncaring or not loving/missing the deceased child. In most cases, nothing could be further from the truth. Both parents are grieving and hurting--and both are expressing their grief in ways that are comfortable to them.

Do not impose a timeline on grief

In Western cultures, society often imposes arbitrary timelines on the grieving process. It is not uncommon for a grieving person to be told, “It has been a few weeks. Aren’t you over her death by now?” When it comes to traumatic losses, such as the death of a child, the grieving process can last for months--and even years. This does not mean that a bereaved parent will intensely grieve indefinitely. Rather, grief often ebbs and flows, and certain dates/days can trigger intense grief emotions. A deceased child’s birthday or the anniversary of a child’s death are often difficult times for a bereaved parent.

Do not assume your life will go back to normal

Part of the grieving process for bereaved parents is creating a new reality or a “new normal.” In essence, creating a new normal means learning how to live without the physical presence of the deceased child. For many bereaved parents, having a child die changes how they view themselves and the world they live in. Bereaved parents often re-evaluate their life priorities and are more conscious of how they spend their time. It is not uncommon for bereaved parents to report that their child’s death has taught them how fragile and unpredictable life is.

Do not believe that your relationship with your partner/spouse is doomed

For years, there has been a myth that couples who experience the death of a child are highly likely to divorce. A number of studies, including one conducted by The Compassionate Friends, have dispelled this myth. While the death of a child can certainly add stress to a couple’s relationship, the couple is not destined for divorce. Nevertheless, because partners often express their grief differently, there can be conflict over how each grieves. Seeking out a grief counselor or marital therapist can help couples work through this conflict.


Summary
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The death of a child is an earth-shattering, life-altering event that no parent ever wants to experience. The pain and devastation bereaved parents feel is often overwhelming. Nevertheless, bereaved parents are amazingly resilient, and many are able to work through their grief with time and support. A bereaved parent never truly gets over a child’s death. But many learn to live, thrive and find meaning once again.


More expert advice about Loss of a Child

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Paige W. Toller, Ph.D.Associate Professor-School of Communication

Dr. Toller has been researching communication and parental bereavement for over 15 years. She has published several academic articles examining how communication is impacted after the death of a child....

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