What Is Parental Grief and How Does It Work?

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A child's death is one of the most incomprehensible and devastating losses anyone can ever experience. A parent's grief will typically last a lifetime. Experiencing the death of a child creates complex emotional responses to grief that are challenging to understand unless a person experiences this loss first-hand. 

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Living with grief following a child's death is a life-altering experience that presents many resuming life challenges after a child's loss, including marital, familial, and social implications.

Parental grief stems from strong connections between a parent and child regardless of the child's age at death. Grief following the loss of a child isn't any more manageable than dealing with the death of an adult child.

A parent will suffer the loss of a newborn child as much as they'll mourn their child dying well into adulthood. How they handle that grief and come up from under it will make the difference between healing from their pain or falling deeper into despair.

What Does ‘Parental Grief’ Mean?

Parental grief is the emotional pain and sorrow that afflicts people who've experienced the death of a child. The way a parent responds to their child's death will vary significantly from person to person. Most often, a parent's relationship with their child affects their grief response.  The child’s age has no bearing on their pain.

A parent whose child has died as an infant will experience the same kind of heart-wrenching devastation as a parent whose child has died as a teenager, young adult, or in middle age. However, we aren't to assume that a parent who didn't have a close relationship with her child will mourn their death any less than a parent who had full custody.

Parent-child relationships are complex, as are the bonds created with each child. A parent who wasn't very close to their child when the child was living may more significantly mourn their death than when a child with whom they had a more intimate relationship with dies. 

One reason for this is that the parent may feel remorse, shame, or regret for not having cultivated that relationship with their child before they died. A parent may expect that a child will outlive them. A person's expected life expectancy creates an illusion that there's time to mend broken relationships and fix any estrangements.

What’s the difference between parental grief and sibling grief?

There's a significant difference between a parent's grief versus a sibling's grief when a child in the family dies. There's no comparison between the two as the relationships tend to be vastly different.

A parent will grieve the loss of a child and the hopes and dreams they had for them. They’ll also mourn the missed opportunity of seeing them grow up into adulthood. All of the promises of significant life milestones wipe away in an instant when a child dies. Losing a child creates a profound type of grief that's immensely more devastating to a parent than other types of relationships.

That isn't to say that a sibling's grief isn't valid. On the contrary, a sibling who's lost a brother or sister will often suffer through their grief alone. Siblings who survive the death of a brother or sister tend to take a backseat to their parent's grief experience.

Society, in general, will express their condolences and offer support to the parents, but rarely will acknowledge that the surviving children in the family are also grieving their sibling's death. Ultimately, this creates a sense of isolation leading to withdrawal. 

Some of the expected results accompanying sibling grief are the experiences of compounded or secondary losses. A child who's experienced sibling death typically has to learn to cope with their parents' grief. Then, they must also try to process their loss without much guidance.

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How Does Parental Grief Typically Work?

There's nothing that can ever prepare a parent for their child's death. The pain and suffering that ensues are unimaginable. As with other types of suffering, the effects of grief subside over time but never really go away. Parents who've lost a child may feel the pain of their loss for the remainder of their lifetimes. 

Parental grief can affect many aspects of a person's being. This type of grief creates intense emotional reactions and stress that can affect a person emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically. Additionally, a bereaved parent may suffer a loss of faith and hope.

Coming to terms with the emptiness following a child's death may seem impossible. A grieving parent may also find it difficult to express their emotion and be stuck in shock and disbelief for several weeks following their child's death.

Tips for Getting Through Parental Grief

There isn't any way to get over the loss of a child. A parent can, at best, hope to get through the pain and learn to live life once again following their child's death. Many complexities follow a child's death. The following tips for getting through this type of grief may help you find hope and a new sense of purpose.

1. Allow yourself to feel

There isn't any typical grief reaction that's the same for everyone who experiences a child's death. However, you can expect some commonalities in the shared grief reactions with others who've experienced this type of loss.

Going through the stages of grief as appropriate can help you move past the initial excruciating pain that accompanies a loved one's death. Allow yourself to mourn your loss without comparing your grief to others or expecting others to have the same grief reactions as yours.

2. Accept love and support

Often, a parent who's mourning their child's death wants to be left alone in their grief. They may feel that their world has ended and there's no hope for the future and no purpose in living.

Although there isn't anything that can take away your loss's pain, having the love and support of your loved ones can help get you through the initial phases of your grief.

3. Understand your grief

Reading books about grief may help you understand your loss and the grief reactions that follow. Grief is very unpredictable. Your suffering may ebb and flow, making life unbearable at times and joyful at others.

Feelings of shock and disbelief, intense sorrow, confusion, and even anger are part of the grief process. Sometimes you may find yourself questioning your feelings and your identity following the loss of such an integral part of your being. 

4. Take care of yourself

Some of the physical and psychological reactions that you can expect after a child’s death include the inability to sleep, eat, or function. All of these grief reactions are natural and normal following a significant loss.

Taking care of your health is essential to your overall well-being as you learn to cope with your grief. Try and allow for some time alone to process your feelings and come to terms with your sorrow. 

5. Know that you’re different now

After a child's death, every parent experiencing this type of loss will become a different person. There's no going back to the person that you were before. It's impossible to turn back the clock and continue to live your life as before your loss.

You'll have to learn how to adapt to this new person you've become and learn to live life accordingly. Taking on this challenge may help you find a new purpose in life and help move you past your pain.

Tips for Supporting a Loved One Who’s Going Through Parental Grief

When offering support to a loved one who's experiencing parental grief, you’ll need to know some basics of how to comfort someone who lost a child. Their grief may be incomparable to any other, and it’ll help you to know what to say and do to show your support at a time of one of their greatest needs. 

6. Keep things simple

Many times it's challenging to know what to say to someone who's lost a child. When we mean to show our support and offer condolences, we end up saying the wrong thing. Sometimes, it's safer to express condolences in the most straightforward ways instead of trying to come up with something profound and meaningful.

Never say to a grieving parent, "I know what you're going through." These words can be hurtful and offensive to them because their pain and loss are unique. Consider saying instead, "I'm sorry for your loss. I can't imagine the pain you must be experiencing."

7. Ask them how you can help

Expect that your loved one won't be thinking of all the things that need taking care of at home after experiencing their child's death.

Be direct and ask them for exact ways and how you can help make things easier for them. You can suggest helping them with household chores, meal prep, or entertaining their children while they sort out everything that's happened.

8. Be their sounding board

Offer to sit and listen to your loved one as they tell you how they’re feeling and coping with their child’s death.

Allowing them to express their grief is healing and can help them release some of those negative emotions they may have suppressed. Listen patiently and without judgment. 

9. Suggest professional help

Having thoughts of death and hopelessness following a child's death are natural and normal grief reactions that typically subside after these initial stages of grief wear off.

However, at times a bereaved parent may need help outside of their support group to help get them through. Consider connecting your loved one with a grief counselor or therapist to get them through this stage of grieving.

Moving Beyond Parental Grief

For parents, having to live with the emptiness a child's death leaves behind seems almost unbearable. They may find it highly impossible to move forward with the enormity of this loss and devastation.

Most parents will often experience a profound sense of despair along with the feeling that life's no longer worth living. Parental grief may last a lifetime, but there’s hope that one day their suffering will ease and life will get better.

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