The death of a child, at any age, may bring on such excruciating pain that it can be challenging to move past it. A parent’s love for their child doesn’t end or diminish once that child reaches adulthood. It is also no consolation for a parent to lose their child as an adult versus losing them at a younger age.
The death of a child is one of life’s ultimate tragedies that’s difficult for most parents to recover from. In a sense, the loss of a child is one that you’ll never get over, and the grief will never entirely go away. The best you can hope for is to learn how to cope with your loss so that you can move forward from your pain.
1. Allow Yourself to Grieve
For many parents, the search for meaning in a child’s death may grip them to the point where it becomes their only priority. It’s only natural to try and find a reason why your child has died. Their death represents a deviation from the natural order of things - the way life’s supposed to happen. A parent is seldom prepared to survive the death of a child.
Many bereaved parents who’ve suffered this type of loss describe their feelings of grief as shock, disbelief, indescribable pain, suffering, and that of numbness. Not everyone will experience grief in this way, but these are some of the more common ways that grief manifests in parents who’ve lost a child.
2. Give Yourself Time
Bereaved parents may mourn the death of their child at any age and often do so for the rest of their lives. The initial waves of pain and suffering may last for several months or even years. Give yourself time to work your way through all of the stages of grief without rushing the process.
The stages of grief for a parent who’ve lost a child are often more profound than for any other type of loss. You can expect to go through some or all of the following stages:
Not everyone goes through these stages, and when they do, they’re not always in linear order. However, this list can provide a framework for what to expect when you’re grieving.
Each of these stages takes weeks or even months to resolve. A parent’s grief will likely be a more profound and harrowing experience than that of any other and may never fully resolve.
3. Find Somewhere to be Alone
Coping with the loss of a child will cause an ebb and flow of painful grief and sorrow for many months after their death. Find a place to be alone with your suffering. Being away from it all will allow you to process what you’re going through in private.
It helps to be alone with your thoughts in a safe place where no one will interrupt you. Set boundaries and let others know that when you retreat into your space, this is your time to be left alone.
You can create a simple space or a more elaborate one that honors the memory of your child. Consider having items that belonged to your child safely tucked away in this space so that you can reach for them when needed.
4. Accept Your Grief
What does it mean to accept your grief when you’re already surrounded by it every day?
It means acknowledging it and making it a part of your healing process instead of avoiding it in hopes that it’ll go away on its own. While sometimes grief does go away on its own, the process may take longer than usual.
There are many types of grief you can experience. There’s the type that hits you to the very core, and you can’t function beyond a few minutes at a time. And, then there’s the internalized type. You can learn more about the different kinds of grief and how they affect you by reading books on grief geared at helping you work through yours.
5. Talk to Your Family and Loved Ones
A natural reaction to grief is to withdraw from others and to self-isolate. Being alone in your grief may seem like a noble thing to do as you go through all the emotions associated with your pain and suffering.
But holding in your feelings will not only harm your grieving process but may lead to a more severe form of depression that goes beyond the depression generally associated with grief.
Open up to your family and let them into what you’re feeling. Having open communication with them will help all of you understand what each of you is going through during this painful time. You may not be strong enough to be anyone’s emotional support while you’re trying to cope with your grief, but being open about what you’re going through will help keep you from falling into the rabbit hole of depression and isolation.
6. Share Your Grief
Many people are afraid to let others in on how they’re feeling. The list of reasons is plenty. One of the most common reasons people hold back from sharing their grief is that they think that they’ll be a burden to others or seem crazy and unable to hold it together.
Sharing your grief not only helps you process it but enables you to understand it. The more you open up about what you’re going through, the more you’re able to see specific patterns in your thought processes, your feelings, and your grieving.
7. Be Honest with Yourself
Your feelings of grief and your experiences are unique. Don’t compare your suffering to that of other bereaved parents. Some people are better able to handle these types of losses, or they may be mourning in ways that aren’t apparent to you or others.
Be honest with your feelings and emotions regarding the loss of your child. Don’t feel the need to express your grief in any particular way. Your relationship with your child plays a large role in how their death affects you. In cases where the relationship was strained or estranged, it may be that your grief reaction is not what others expect of you. Be honest with yourself, and allow the grief process to take shape in a way that makes sense for you.
8. Be Kind to Yourself
When you experience the death of a child, you may find yourself going through every detail of their death. Your brain can formulate a narrative regarding the circumstances surrounding their death, and you can find yourself exhausting all the possible things you could’ve done and should’ve done to protect your child.
These feelings of guilt and regret are normal. Try not to be so hard on yourself when assessing your child’s death. The more negative self-talk you build into that narrative, the more difficult it’ll be for you to accept they’ve died and to heal from your grief. Consider practicing being compassionate with yourself to help you through this difficult time.
9. Take a Step Back
If you have a partner, spouse, or significant other, or are a parent to other surviving children, they may be pulling you in directions that you aren’t emotionally prepared to deal with while you’re grieving.
Taking care of others in your family may not be one of your immediate priorities at this time. It may even seem an impossibility in the first few days after suffering this type of loss.
It’s okay to take a step back from your responsibilities while you adjust to your loss. Ask your circle of support to step in and help you with things like managing your household and looking after the children for a few days. The overwhelming grief you’re feeling is understandable. You don’t need to be anyone’s superhero or save anyone’s day.
10. Take Things in Stride
Prepare yourself emotionally for the insensitive comments coming from others. Many people tend to say the wrong thing when expressing their feelings of condolences. Most of the time, it’s a lack of knowledge or education in this regard. In Western society, death is still very much a taboo subject, and there’s no formal education to teach people what to say when consoling someone after a loss.
You may hear awkward expressions of condolence that will make you cringe on the inside. To avoid feeling resentment toward others, try and understand that what they’re saying is coming from a place of love, and they don’t mean to cause you further pain.
11. Seek Counseling
Seeking and obtaining counseling is still seen in parts of our society as there being something “wrong” with you. Some people see it as a sign of weakness and won’t seek counseling or ever admit to ever needing it. Men, in particular, suffer from this way of thinking. Our society has placed a higher level of pressure on men to be the strong ones responsible for holding their families together.
There’s nothing wrong with getting the help you need. You can now do it from the privacy of your home or office - even your vehicle - by logging in to online therapy or counseling sessions straight from your laptop, notebook, or smartphone.
Experiencing the Death of an Adult Child
Often the most enduring grief is that of a parent who’s lost a child. The death of a child at any age is devastating. Having an adult child die versus a young one does not change the pain and sorrow you can feel. You’ll survive the death of your child, but this experience will have forever changed you.
If you're looking for more help with getting through your grief, read our guides on unresolved grief and anticipatory grief.