Coping with the death of a child

Posted on: August 9th, 2012 by Hope And Cope No Comments

The loss of a child is something no parent wants to even consider. When you have a child, you never expect your child to die before you do. If you have the unfortunate experience of outliving your child, you are faced with the loss of one of the closest relationships humans have. Many parents have endless hopes, dreams, and aspirations for their children, and these wishes are dashed with the death of a child. Those who lose a child often say that they feel as if there is no reason to continue living without their child. Yet somehow, you must muster the strength to continue to engage in daily activities. Going to work may provide a mental break from grief for some, but become increasingly difficult and meaningless for others. No matter what your experience is have patience with yourself, and respect your reactions.

Some of the normal experiences (in addition to typical grief responses) of someone who has lost a child can include:

  • Feeling numb
  • Feeling intense despair
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Anger
  • Guilt

While the loss of any family member is extremely difficult, the loss of a child poses some unique challenges. Parents often experience a more intense grieving process because of the strong bond they had with their child. The attachment between parent and child that begins before the child is even born, and strengthens over time, makes the loss deeply painful. Not only do parents feel the loss of a family member, but they also feel the loss of part of themselves. The bond that a parent and child share is a special part of the relationship that remains within a parent. Parents continue to feel bonded to the child as they were when they were alive, and as to the “immortal” child that continues to live in their memories. There is also a perception that a child’s death, regardless of age or method of death, is unnatural. It seems unnatural in the sense that most expect grandparents and parents to die before their children. While they may anticipate the loss and subsequent grieving for other family members, they expect their children and grandchildren to continue to thrive past their own lifetime.

One experience that is particularly helpful for parents who are grieving the loss of a child is attending a support group. Parents frequently feel very lonely in the grieving process but resist attempts from others who offer support. A support group for grieving parents allows space to discuss shared difficulties, and offer support to those who are going through a similar process. Parents may feel like their friends and family members cannot truly relate to what they are going through, but strangers in a support group can come together to provide support and feedback coming from their own experiences. Many grieving parent support groups even offer space to share and celebrate the memory of their child. The sharing of memories can help parents to feel as if they are keeping their bond with their child though they are gone.

The following phases have been identified as those parents move through following their loss. There is no specific amount of time expected for each phase, and many move back and forth between phases:

  • Numbing
    • You feel shocked that you lost your child and this shock makes you feel emotionally numb
    • You may feel as if the loss isn’t real, or cannot be real
    • Yearning
      • You feel a deep emotional longing for your child
      • You may look for your lost child in dreams, strangers, or their belongings
      • You search for anything that was part of your child as a way to remain connected
      • Disorganization and despair
        • You recognize that it is hopeless to recover your lost child
        • Your attention shifts and you become less focused on the deceased
        • Reorganization
          • You accept the loss as permanent
          • You make shifts in your life to continue without the living presence of your child


After the loss of a child, parents are at greater risk of psychological suffering, and declines in physical and mental functioning. It is important to monitor your mental, physical, and emotional health as you go through the grieving process. Couples who lose a child also face a potential strain on their relationship as they address their own grief, and that of their partner. Not only do parents have to work through their own grieving difficulties, but they must consider the feelings of their partner, and the support they both need. This is where support from other family members and friends can help each individual and the couple. Supportive loved ones can provide extra understanding and help with logistical needs to help with the grieving and mourning process.

The goal when going through the grieving process following the loss of a child is not to sever the bond with the child. In fact, successful grieving ends when parents are able to integrate the child into their life and social networks. This integration takes time and effort to achieve, and the child will be integrated in a different way than when they were alive. For some this integration looks like creating memorials and giving back to other parents who lose children. For others specific rituals are set up around birthdays and holidays to include the deceased in celebrations. Parents often keep symbols to provide positive reminders about the energy and love the child embodied throughout their lives. This is a healthy and affirming way to keep the child with you. Parents often search to make meaning of the loss of their child and this meaning may never be resolved. However, parents can empower themselves to help others who go through similar losses, and assist them through the grieving process. Parents who have lost a child say you don’t get over your grief, but it doesn’t stay the same. This is to say that the loss is painful, but the pain lessens over time.

Remember, seeing a mental health professional for group and/or individual therapy can be a helpful and healthy way to process your loss.

Additional sites that may be helpful:

Some books that may be helpful:




Alexy, W.D. (1982). Dimensions of psychological counseling that facilitate the grieving process of bereaved parents. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 29 (5), 498-507.


Keesee, N.J., Currier, J.M., & Neimeyer, R.A. (2008). Predictors of grief following the death of one’s child: the contribution of finding meaning. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64 (10), 1145-1163.


Klass, D. (1997). The deceased child in the psychic and social worlds of bereaved parents during the resolution of grief. Death Studies, 21 (2), 147-175.


Wijngards-de Meij, L., Stroebe, M., Schut, H., Stroebe, W., van den Bout, J., van der Heijden, P., & Dijkstra, I. (2005). Couples at risk following the death of their child: predictors of grief versus depression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73 (4), 617-623.



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