It’s widely accepted that the loss of a child is the worst possible thing that can happen to any parent, and to any family. Yet understanding the grief that surrounds this loss is typically poor. If death and bereavement are considered as taboo topics – then the loss of a child, and the unspeakable emotions that accompany it, may be all the more difficult to discuss openly.
The unexpected sufferings of losing a child
1. Memories of the time immediately before and after your loss will only become clearer
They say that time heals all, yet when grieving for the loss of a child it does anything but – particularly in the immediate aftermath of your loss. Parents frequently report the images, sounds and memories of the day or night of their loss becoming clearer. What people said to them, what they said to others and how their child looked when they first passed. These become more vivid and amongst these there are questions and doubts as to what could or should have been different.
2. Connecting with fellow parents can provide support unlike anywhere else
No-one knows what it’s possibly like to lose a child unless they’ve experienced it themselves. It’s impossible to even begin to fathom for most. Because of this those who are around you may struggle to find the right words and actions that can provide even a modicum of support. Many parents who connect with others who have lost a child find incredible comfort in being able to discuss their feelings, and most importantly discuss them and feel understood. There are many online communities that have been set-up for this purpose, and equally parent focused websites may also have sections for those who have lost a child (such as the Mumsnet bereavement section).
3. The week after, is not the same as the month after
Families often report that it is after the extended family and friends have stopped calling and visiting that the grief really hits home. This may be particularly felt following the funeral – up until which point there had likely been a never ending tick list of things to do. Suddenly – the time ahead stretches into the distance, the future seems non- existent and nothing makes sense.
4. There may be a withdrawal of support
Grief is so very unique for the bereaved parent that it brings about all manner of behaviours that others can’t understand. Anger is perhaps one of the most common, with denial being another. Equally if your grief isn’t as apparent to others (which is a coping mechanism) this too can appear unfathomable. Unfortunately in these instances you may find that those around you withdraw their support, they may become less emphatic or they may simply become increasingly uncomfortable. It’s important to realise that this is all as a result of the terribly unique experience of grieving for a child and the ways in which we grieve can be something that those around us don’t understand.
Understanding grief when you lose a child
The loss of hopes and dreams
Losing a child doesn’t only mean that you’ve lost one of, if not the, most cherished person in your life. It is compounded by the loss of dreams, hopes and visions for the future. Most likely all of which had never been considered to be anything but a surety. This, amongst the unique relationship between a parent and child, is why grieving a child is a dreadfully different experience to losing any other person in your life.
For the years to come each event and date that may have been a milestone will serve as continual reminders of all that has been lost. Including Birthdays, Christmases, family occasions and time itself as you may reflect back to imagine what your child may be doing now and where they would be in life.
Following the loss of a child you must commit to grieving; try not to continue with the many things that you could be doing and the errands you could be undertaking. Allow yourself the time to come to terms with your loss – both of your child and of the future you foresaw.
Grieving alongside others
Every person grieves differently, this is well understood. Yet understanding this and being able to grieve together as a couple or family can throw up many difficulties, not least of which are the varying stages that people pass through as they struggle to come to terms with a child’s death. Patience, understanding and allowing expectations to fall by the way side are all essential.
Above all else communication is vital throughout the months and years that follow. Those around you should serve as your support, and equally your support can comfort your partner and family.
Yet this is easy to say, and often impossible to do – and in many instances couples and/or family counselling specifically for the loss of a child can be beneficial.
Can you ‘move on’ after the loss of a child?
Losing a child is a loss that you never ‘get over’. Becoming a functioning human being and finding joy in life is something that takes a concerted effort, and is a process of recovery.
The most important thing to understand about the grieving process is that you’re working towards a new normality; that whilst life will never be the same again, there will be hope, smiles and things to celebrate. It is learning to live within a new world and a painful process of adaptation.
Dennis Class, who is a professor of bereavement studies at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, perhaps describes this process best when she says:
"Parents who have lost a children-solve the matters of how to be themselves in a family and community in a way that makes life meaningful. They learn to grow in those parts of themselves that did not die with the child. They learn to invest themselves in other tasks and other relationships. But somewhere inside themselves, they report, there is a sense of loss that cannot be healed."
-From the MISS Foundation (an American organisation that helps grieving families)
Further resources and sources of support
Child Bereavement UK Child Bereavement UK provides support to families who have lost a baby, or a child of any age; they also offer support for families who have a child who is dying. Their website provides a wealth of resources and information, and they offer a support and information phone line. Tel: 0800 02 888 40
Cruse Bereavement Cruse Bereavement offers support to those who are bereaved – whomever they may have lost. They provide online help and telephone support. Tel: 0808 808 1677
The Compassionate Friends The Compassionate Friends is a charity that helps bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents; they offer friendship, support and access to professional services. Tel: 0345 123 2304
Care for the Family/Bereaved Parent Support The Bereaved Parent Support network is part of the Care for the Family charity; this charity’s mandate is to promote strong family life. The Bereaved Parent Support extension to their services provides a befriending scheme, article and video resources and a telephone support line. Tel: 029 2081 0800