Traumatic events like the unexpected death of a child can profoundly impact a parent who's suffered through this type of loss. Coping after a child's traumatic death can have life-long effects and may even develop into a mental health condition known as PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Can the Death of a Child Cause PTSD?
- What Does PTSD After the Death of a Child Look or Feel Like?
- Examples of PTSD After a Child’s Death
- Ideas for Coping With PTSD After a Child’s Death
- Ideas for Supporting a Loved One With PTSD After a Child’s Death
PTSD is a complex mental health disorder that carries a lot of stigmas. But, in reality, it makes up a natural part of the grieving process for many people. You should never be ashamed of experiencing PTSD. The disorder is now widely recognized and isn't anything anyone should ever have to keep hidden.
Anyone can develop PTSD after witnessing or suffering through extreme or life-threatening events. Whether from natural causes or otherwise, the death of a child can have long-term effects on a surviving parent's mental health.
Learning to cope with PTSD may be challenging, but there's help out there to help you regain control of the recurring thoughts and emotions caused by this trauma.
Can the Death of a Child Cause PTSD?
Experiencing the death of a child can cause a surviving parent to develop PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Surviving the traumatic death of a child means witnessing or suffering through one of your children’s unexpected, sudden, or violent death.
These traumatic experiences sometimes lead to the development of PTSD. Anyone can develop it, and this diagnosis doesn’t signal that a person is mentally or emotionally weak or unstable. Adults suffering the death of a child have an especially heightened vulnerability for developing PTSD. The violent death of a child, death by suicide, drug overdose, or other unexpected or violent death can create ongoing emotional responses for months and years.
What Does PTSD After the Death of a Child Look or Feel Like?
There are common signs that you may have PTSD after the death of a child, like fear and panic entering into certain situations, along with flashbacks of the child’s death.
A child’s death by accident, suicide, violence, and drug overdose is more challenging to cope with because of the stigma attached to the manner of death, making it hard to open up to others about your grief.
PTSD can trigger substance and alcohol abuse and is another marked result of PTSD for some sufferers. Some parents will turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain.
Some of the following factors predict the onset of PTSD after the death of a child and how well a parent copes with loss:
- The child’s cause of death
- The parent’s gender
- The parent’s self-esteem
- The availability of social support
- Their grieving style
Examples of PTSD After a Child’s Death
The burden of loss after the death of a child manifests as being haunted by the trauma and having flashbacks, nightmares, fear, and anxiety. Seeing your dead child in the faces of strangers is another recurring phenomenon sometimes linking back to PTSD.
Being overly worried about the health and wellbeing of your other living children might also become an obsession leading to an overbearing parenting style.
The signs you may have PTSD after the death of your child are:
- Re-experiencing traumatic events
- Symptoms of anxiety
- Negative self-talk
- Uncontrollable thoughts about the event
- Symptoms interfere with your day-to-day life
Ideas for Coping With PTSD After a Child’s Death
Getting through the trauma of the death of your child can be emotionally devastating. Navigating the aftermath can be complicated for the surviving parents and everyone else affected by their death.
Parents usually have to learn to cope with their loss while helping other family members get through their grief. When suffering from a child's death, you may not know how to cope with the following stress and anxiety effectively. Below are some coping strategies to consider.
1. Learn about PTSD
Learning how trauma and the causes of PTSD affect you is beneficial for anyone navigating through the loss of a child at any age. Understanding how PTSD works, what causes it, and how to cope with the signs and symptoms is necessary to regain control of any misdirected thoughts and emotions. Survivors who have PTSD benefit from getting educated on why and how this disorder affects some people.
2. Identify your triggers
The unexpected death of a child provokes strong emotional reactions in almost every parent. Going over all the “what ifs” can trigger someone trying to cope with their child’s death. That means asking yourself things like, “What if I hadn’t allowed them to walk to school that morning?” or, “What if I would’ve answered their call?”
Learn to reframe your thinking process to include all of the things that you did right and recognize those situations that were beyond your control
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3. Connect with your support group
Talking about your experience with the people you love and trust will help you cope with some of the difficulties associated with PTSD. Open up to others to let them know how you're feeling or what you’re going through.
Although they may not know how to help you initially, it helps them understand the signals and what the best course of action is to help you get through an episode of PTSD. You'll need to first learn about your symptoms to instruct others on what to look out for.
4. Practice self-care
Self-care can take on different meanings for different people, depending on who you ask. Generally, self-care encompasses eating right, getting exercise, and engaging in comforting activities.
Allowing time for spiritual practices and taking time out for meditation and reflection is also part of taking good care of oneself. It also includes refraining from abusing drugs and alcohol and finding healthier outlets to release stress and grief.
5. Join a PTSD support group
You’ll find a variety of grief support groups for parents who lost a child online. You may want to set aside some time to go through a few of them to see which ones resonate with you according to the type of loss you've suffered. Support groups help you connect with other people who've experienced a similar loss as yours. They can offer you firsthand knowledge of the best coping strategies that worked for them.
Ideas for Supporting a Loved One With PTSD After a Child’s Death
Grief changes over time, and often it never goes away, especially for parents whose child died. Recurring memories of a child’s death and the circumstances surrounding the loss make it difficult to move past certain aspects of the trauma. You can help a loved one who has PTSD after their child’s death in some of the following ways.
6. Offer support
Grief can rob you of the energy to face everyday life challenges when dealing with the death of a child. Having PTSD can make coping with daily tasks even more challenging than usual. Your loved one may need added support to help take care of ordinary, everyday things, like household chores and caring for other children.
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7. Suggest professional help
Grieving individuals benefit from getting professional help to help identify and manage PTSD. There’s trauma-focused mental health and grief therapy to help survivors suffering from this isolating condition.
Getting mental health counseling and treatment to understand the signs and symptoms of PTSD will help a loved one manage the symptoms and get medication when needed to help them overcome the darkest moments of their sorrow.
8. Listen to them
A loved one who’s experienced the death of an adult child or a child of any age may share feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame. This is a normal part of the grieving process whenever a child dies.
Surviving parents may have a psychological need to connect with others who’ll listen to them without judgment. Especially those parents trying to survive the grief of an overdose death or death by suicide. These types of deaths make it challenging to open up to others because of the stigma that attaches.
9. Don’t look for blame
Whenever a family suffers an immense tragedy, such as the death of a child, the child's parents' relationship tends to break down. The overwhelming grief and sorrow accompanying a child's death can pit parents against one another until they learn how to cope with their grief.
Some couples may work through their loss, but others may not survive the relationship intact. Try not to blame yourself or one another for the tragedy. Focus instead on coming to terms with your loss and finding a way to heal from the pain.
10. Only offer advice when asked
The pain of dealing with a child's death is unimaginable. There's nothing anyone can say to alleviate the heartwrenching agony of this suffering for a grieving parent. One of the best courses of action when supporting a loved one after the death of a child is to offer them love and support without trying to make things better.
There's no easy way to get through the effects of PTSD. Even your best-intentioned advice or comforting words may trigger unwanted emotions in a grieving parent.
Healing Trauma after the Death of a Child
A child's death at any age brings trauma and grief to their parents that never goes away. Healing from profound sorrow can take many months and can lead to developing PTSD for many people.
How a person deals with the challenges of this disorder affects the family's reunification after loss. Almost everyone benefits from professional mental health counseling or grief therapy after the death of a child. You can heal from your loss and learn to manage your stress and anxiety with the proper help.
- Keyes, K. M., Pratt, C., Galea, S., McLaughlin, K. A., Koenen, K. C., & Shear, M. K. (2014). The burden of loss: unexpected death of a loved one and psychiatric disorders across the life course in a national study. The American journal of psychiatry, 171(8), 864–871. doi.org
- Murphy, S.A., Johnson, L.C., Chung, IJ. et al. The Prevalence of PTSD Following the Violent Death of a Child and Predictors of Change 5 Years Later. J Trauma Stress 16, 17–25 (2003). doi.org