I don’t think there’s anything anyone can experience more heartbreaking than the death of a child.
When a spouse dies, the remaining partner is called a widow or widower. When a child loses his parents, the surviving child becomes an orphan. But when someone loses a child, there’s no word for it. Some people say that there’s no word because it’s just too awful an experience to even have a name.
And yet, parents lose children every day. Sometimes children die because of illness, accidents, or suicide. Sometimes the death of a child is never explained. And sometimes, children die before they ever meet their parents outside the womb.
This post is about coping with the loss of a child. And when I talk about child loss, I’m including all kinds of losses, from experiencing a miscarriage or stillbirth, to unexplained infant death, to losing a teenager through illness or suicide. In no way am I comparing the severity or trauma of losses. I am not equating an early miscarriage with the loss of an older child or teenager. But I do want to be inclusive of all losses.
After personally experiencing two devastating miscarriages and not having found many helpful resources or a community of mourners to join, I dedicated a good chunk of my practice to providing help to others who experienced child loss. In the last few years, I’ve been honored to work with some amazing parents in some of their most vulnerable days, after miscarriage, stillbirth, or the loss of their children after illness and suicide.
Working with bereaved parents has become my specialty. I’ve experienced personal loss, have acquired special training in grief and loss, and have worked with many loss parents, and so I’m uniquely qualified to work with other parents. And I hate it. I hate that it’s a specialty that’s even needed. I hate that any parent has to endure the loss of a child. It’s just not fair.
But unfortunately, loss happens, and when it does, I want parents to know that they aren’t alone. This is one of those topics that no one really talks about. For example, nearly every parent I’ve worked with who has had a child stillborn, has said that before going through it, they had never even really heard about it or knew it was possible. So on top of going through one of the most unspeakably difficult losses imaginable, parents often feel alone and can also feel a lot of shame. And guilt.
It’s hard to even develop a list of tips or to print advice without seeming like I’m not giving enough importance to how painful this experience is for parents. This is a topic that deserves much more time and attention, and more is coming, I promise. But, where do you start?
Here are a few things to know that might be helpful when coping with the loss of a child…
- Know that grief isn’t linear. There are several theories about grief that describe various stages and feelings you might experience. These theories are helpful to learn about some of the emotions you might experience, but it’s important to read them loosely and know that everyone is different. Also, know that the stages aren’t often experienced in a linear fashion. Also, know that there is no timeline for grief.
- Don’t expect to “get over it”. You’ll never “get over” the loss of your child. You’ll get through life and life will go on, but you never overcome the loss of your child. The feelings of grief will change over time, but the loss will never disappear.
- Acknowledge that you’ve experience a huge loss, perhaps the biggest you’ll ever experience. Women who miscarry early in a pregnancy may feel like they should be able to “get over” the feelings of disappointment and sadness because the loss was early in the pregnancy. Very common reaction, but not very reassuring since it just makes you feel guilty about feeling sad which you are feeling anyway. Regardless of how your child died, or what others say, losing a child is one of the most devastating experiences you’ll ever endure.
- Allow yourself to feel all of your feelings. Be sad, be angry, be in shock. Just allow yourself to be where you are. Feel your feelings deeply and know that they won’t last forever. Give yourself permission to grieve.
- Don’t compare your grief. It’s so easy to compare your grief with the grief of others. This goes both ways. You might try to convince yourself that if your loss was early, you don’t deserve to feel as sad as someone who has experienced a different loss. Or perhaps you’ve had a stillbirth and find yourself feeling as though your loss isn’t as substantial as the death of a twelve year-old. Or maybe you have experienced the death of an infant but you can’t fathom why mothers who have had miscarriages would even feel sad. It isn’t the same. No two losses are the same. Your loss was traumatic and you are sad and that is what matters.
- Talk about your child. Other people will likely shy away from asking about your loss because “they don’t want to upset you”. (As if you’re not already upset, right?) So you might have to lead the conversation. For many parents, talking about your child helps them feel like they are keeping the memory alive and giving their child’s life meaning and a legacy.
- Know you are not alone. Unfortunately, there are many other people who have experienced the loss of a child and there is a whole community of parents who have lost children. Most cities have support groups for child loss and these can be a wonderful resource. If your community doesn’t have a group up and running, there is a lot of support on-line.
- Know that everyone grieves differently. Each of us needs support in different ways. Some people need privacy and others need to talk through the experience with many, many people. Some people find it helpful to journal or even start a blog of their own, and others don’t have the patience to write anything. There isn’t a right or wrong way to grieve, the important part is knowing what feels best to you and then doing it.
- Reach out for support. If you share your loss with others, chances are that they will ask you what you need or they may say, “let me know if there’s anything I can do.” It’s good to have a few suggestions for letting others know exactly what they can do that will be supportive. Suggestions might include help with groceries or dinner, assistance entertaining other children, joining you for a walk or a movie, contacting other friends for you, returning maternity clothes, or just sitting with you while you cry.
- Let go of guilt. Guilt is not productive and it’s often a dangerous spiral. It’s very common to try to figure out why the loss has occurred. It’s also common for parents to blame themselves, maybe for drinking that glass of wine before you knew you were pregnant, or for taking an Advil or working out too strenuously. Or for not listening carefully enough to the monitor. Or not paying close enough attention to your teenager’s depression. Most likely, there is nothing you did to contribute to the loss. Know that you did all you could do.
- Expect some bumps in the road. One of the most inspirational clients I’ve ever worked with lost her son when she was 28 weeks pregnant with him. She so wisely coined the term, “train wreck moments” which she described as “moments when a barrage of uncontrollable thoughts, that you don’t see until the last minute, are approaching but you’re already traveling so fast toward them you can’t find the brakes. And in the end, you know they are going to cause more damage than what you know what do with at the moment, but there is nothing you can do to stop it.” These “train wreck moments” may happen when you find out that a friend or relative is pregnant soon after your loss, or when you see your favorite grocery checker or hairdresser who hasn’t yet heard about the loss. You may be able to avoid some of these moments by unsubscribing from certain websites, notifying people in your life, and avoiding certain interactions, but there are often unavoidable train wreck moments. Sometimes just expecting that there will be some bumps helps to make them a little easier to endure when they do happen.
- Expect some people to say some stupid things. Unfortunately, in their attempts to make you feel better or to alleviate their own anxiety, some people might say things that don’t feel great to you. You may hear that “this is nature’s way,” or “it was for the best,” or “you can always try again,” or “at least you already have one child” or “at least the child is in a better place now,” or “he’s no longer in pain” or “at least you know you can get pregnant.” Usually, the person who is making the comment isn’t being intentionally cruel, but just doesn’t know what to say or do. These comments can sting. In addressing your own grief, you probably won’t have the energy to provide a lot of education or counseling to others about why these comments don’t make you feel better, so it’s usually helpful if you just say, “thank you” and then decide whether you’d like to address it at a later point.
- Limit your exposure to Facebook. After you’ve experienced a loss, a glance at Facebook can be like looking at a perfectly airbrushed album of the picture-perfect lives of others and a glaring reminder that others have exactly what you don’t have and desperately want. Sometimes just seeing a pregnancy announcement or ultrasound picture can send you running for the ladies room while sobbing. If many of your Facebook friends have children the same age as the one you lost, might be likely to announce pregnancy or are pregnant, or frequently post happy family pictures, you may want to temporarily block those friends so you don’t have to see pictures that might be upsetting. Some people find it helpful to take a social media sabbatical for a period of time until the painful feelings begin to decrease in intensity. It can also be helpful to apply the old adage that we often “compare our insides to others’ outsides” and to remember that we never really know what is going on for another person based on their Facebook wall. Chances are that even that perfectly-airbrushed friend has experienced loss or a hardship at some point.
- Say goodbye. This is different for everyone. At some point in your grieving process, it will be helpful to do something personal to recognize the loss. Deciding to honor your loss with a ritual is a very personal decision and there are many possible options. Some parents choose to hold a very public and large funeral or memorial service. Others choose to host a small memorial service and then might send out announcements with information about the loss. For parents who experience a miscarriage, they may find it helpful to recognize the loss in a more personal way, perhaps purchasing an ornament or piece of jewelry or releasing a balloon. Other parents may choose to plant a tree or flower in memory of the child, offer a monetary donation to a meaningful organization, or provide a book or other gift to a church, library or school. Such rituals are concrete actions that can help give the loss meaning and serve as a way to honor your own grief. Many people also find it helpful to create a memory box filled with memories. I’m a huge proponent of writing. Journaling and letter writing can be very effective tools in the grief process.
- Soothe yourself. Self-care is critical for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. Follow-up with your healthcare provider as needed, drink water, walk, rest. When you are ready, you may find it helpful to try yoga or other gentle exercise. Or you may find it very helpful to engage in more strenuous activity like running when you have been cleared by your doctor. Take care of your physical needs. While the emotional impact of a loss is clearly painful, the physical pain is also significant.
- Prepare for “the firsts”. The first holiday season, birthday, anniversary, Halloween, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are incredibly painful for most parents. Expect that the first year is a roller coaster.
- Get therapy! I know that as a therapist, I’m biased, but I truly believe that everyone can benefit from counseling and support from a third party. Especially if you are struggling with sadness, guilt, and anger and these feelings aren’t seeming to decrease with time, working with a grief counselor, therapist, chaplain, and/or psychiatrist can be very helpful.
If you’ve lost a child, I am truly sorry for your loss. If you’d like additional resources, or would like to talk to a therapist, call me at (402) 595-8368. Omaha Psychotherapy would be happy to help walk with you through this difficult experience.