How Grieving the Loss of a Child Who’s Still Alive Works

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The loss of a child is one of the most profoundly painful experiences for a parent to endure. When a child dies, goes missing, or the relationship is otherwise severed, it can create a profound personal grief reaction in those left behind. A family may struggle to cope with the uncertainty of this type of loss until there’s some resolution. In some instances, the changed circumstances may create a lifetime of unresolved grief. 

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Regardless of the type of loss a parent or caregiver faces, the grieving process for a missing loved one can feel very much the same under any circumstance. However, the grief dynamic surrounding children who are still living but missing, removed from the home, or detached due to illness or addiction is more complex and may take years to resolve. 

What’s It Called When You Grieve a Child Who’s Still Alive?

Grieving the loss of a still-alive child is a type of ambiguous loss, which leads to experiencing unresolved grief. This type of loss presents many complexities for the affected parents, caregivers, and other close family members. Unlike when a child dies, grieving for a child who’s still alive creates a domino effect of stress that complicates the grieving process. When suffering from ambiguous loss, you can never fully resolve your grief until you find closure or finality. 

Can You Grieve the Loss of a Child Who’s Still Alive?

Grieving for a lost child isn’t always the result of the child’s death. Many people can and do grieve their children who are still living. When suffering through the loss of a child who’s still alive, the recurrent grief can sometimes last a lifetime.

Grieving a child who's still alive happens to many individuals and families suffering the loss of their child to circumstances other than death. Many bereaved parents and caregivers may find themselves alternating between hope and despair as they cope with the uncertainty of their loss. When faced with the loss of a child who's still living, typical grief reactions may include feelings of shock and disbelief, anger, sadness, and guilt.

Parents of children who disappear due to tragic events such as kidnappings face the added pressure of grieving without closure. The weeks, months, or years of not knowing what’s happened to their child lead to anticipatory grief as they await any news or developments in their child’s disappearance. 

But not all loss is as shocking or eventful as that. Some parents and caregivers grieve children they’ve lost to addiction, injury, or other events. The losses incurred in these circumstances relate to lost relationships. A parent may also suffer the dashed hopes and dreams they had for their child’s future and every significant milestone in between. 

Examples of Grieving the Loss of a Child Who’s Still Alive

Ambiguous loss has some of the same characteristics of normal grief in that bereaved individuals will experience at least some of the stages of grief used to gauge where a person is at in their grief journey. This unclear or senseless loss that lacks closure happens every day. People who grieve a child who is still alive may face their child's physical or psychological absence.

Some examples of the physical loss of a child who's still living may include:

  • A child who's gone missing or abducted
  • Losing parental custody through a divorce or other traumatic event
  • Stillbirth
  • Separation 

Parents facing grief associated with an incapacitated child often experience ongoing grief, especially when their child's incapacity lasts throughout their child's lifetime. 

Other ways to grieve the loss of a child who's still alive include psychological losses attached to the following traumas:

  • Brain injury
  • Terminal illness
  • Addiction
  • Depression

Parents often exacerbate the grieving process because of their continued hope for their child's safe return.

How to Cope When Grieving a Child Who’s Still Alive

There isn’t any closure when grieving the loss of a child who hasn’t died and yet is missing or otherwise no longer a part of the parent’s life. The coping strategies of parents whose children are still alive but missing or no longer present are similar to those of parents whose child has died. 

There are many different motivations for why a parent grieves over a child who is still alive. A common reason is that mourning a child’s loss is a coping strategy that helps a parent cope with the unknowns surrounding their child’s whereabouts. Here are a few suggestions that might help you cope with the grief of ambiguous loss.


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1. Find ways to release your grief

Pent-up grief tends to bottle up and explode when least expected. Whenever there’s no closure in a tragic situation, it’s not unusual to hold on to the hope that your child will one day return or that you will see them again. Because of these disturbing and mixed grief reactions, people will react differently to ambiguous loss. 

You can expect different or mixed grief reactions that can lead to discord within your relationships or even your family. Some healthy ways of channeling your grief include resuming your daily life and work routines as you await further news and channeling your anger or adverse grief reactions in a way that champions your child’s cause. 

2. Turn to your support community

Your core family and other loved ones are the best sources of strength and support for you as you focus your energy on either finding your missing child or finding a cure for their condition. Friends and family act as a cushion between your frustration and your grief. They can help you adapt to the varying roles and functions you now have within the family dynamic.

Loss of support networks sometimes falls to the wayside. It's not unusual to see people start falling off despite your close relationship with them because they don't always understand your pain and sorrow. They sometimes don't know what to say, so they don't say anything at all and withdraw from you until you're in a better place where they feel comfortable resuming your friendship. 

3. Mobilize others to take action

People seem to always want to help whenever tragedy strikes. An excellent way of coping with your grief is to take your extra energy and focus on finding your child, finding a cure for whatever condition afflicts them, or helping others in similar situations. 

Finding something productive to do takes your focus and energy away from your grief. Your pain and sorrow won’t all of a sudden disappear, but you’ll be less focused on it. Over time, you’ll begin to feel useful once again, now that you have a renewed sense of purpose in life. 

4. Seek professional intervention

Parental or caregiver grief attached to mourning a child who’s still alive has the added struggle of dealing with feelings of shame, guilt, and blame leading to a tremendous psychological loss that remains unresolved in many individuals. 

Grief counseling helps parents and caregivers healthily process their loss and adapt to their changed circumstances. A grief counselor or therapist familiar with the grieving process attached to ambiguous loss will help you see things differently. They’ll also help channel your grief energy in ways that make sense for you and your family.

5. Find meaning in your loss

Just like many parents dealing with the loss of a child, you've probably lost hope in ever getting back the life you had. While the love, hope, and dreams you had for your child may have vanished, there's still hope for you to lead a productive and meaningful life. Volunteerism after suffering a significant loss is only one aspect of channeling your grief into something valuable. 

Some individuals need to take time off from their grief to search for new meaning in life while reinventing themselves. Still, it's an excellent place to start whenever you're feeling lost and without direction. Some things to consider are volunteering for organizations that help find missing or exploited children or setting up a non-profit foundation to help bring justice and attention to your child's cause.

6. Celebrate your life

Remaining in the present is one of the most effective ways of coping with the grief of ambiguous loss. Things may never go back to what they were before your experience, but as with everything, there’s always something more rewarding or fulfilling waiting for you if you allow it to come forth. 

While there’s undoubtedly no replacing a child, and there’s no way to ignore the fact that they’ve gone missing, you can certainly learn to forgive yourself and celebrate the little things in life that give value to yours. Learn to take one day at a time, and each win, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, and appreciate the value it adds to lessening your sorrow. 

Dealing With Grief and Loss of a Still Living Child

Because there’s no closure in grieving the loss of a child who’s still alive, that period of unknowing sometimes leads to false hope. In a bereaved parent, that can delay the grieving process that complicates individual grief reactions. Each person dealing with the effects of ambiguous loss will need to adapt to their particular coping methods to get them through the darkest hours of their grief. 

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