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5 Ways to Cope with the Loss of a Child
13 September 2016

By Geraldine Tan-Ho, Counsellor (Star PALS, HCA Hospice Care)

The loss of a beloved child is the most devastating experience a parent could go through. Contrary to popular belief and teachings, there are no specific ‘stages of grief’ that a person will undergo after a loss. Rather, there are universal emotions that a bereaved person will experience, such as sadness, anger, guilt, disbelief and a great sense of longing for their loved one.

Grieving the loss of a child is a lifelong journey. This does not mean that the pain a parent feels, will always be just as intense as it was in the beginning. Many parents describe making meaning from their child’s life and death, finding inspiration from their child’s strength and loving personality and feeling gratitude from having time together with their child, no matter how short. These reflections help them greatly, in coping with the loss of their beloved child.

Grief is a multi-layered response to loss and is therefore not simply about having painful emotions, though these are generally the first to be felt. The sadness and pain of the grief journey is also often accompanied by heartwarming moments and memories, uplifting thoughts and revelations, as well as appreciation for life and the love received from supportive family and friends.

(Star PALS Memorial Evening 2016)

Just as how each parent’s love for their child is unique, so will their grief journey also be unique to themselves. Some general guidelines that may help in this journey:

Grief has no time limit

Expecting yourself to stop crying about your child or missing them in 6 months or 6 years after their death will simply put additional stress and other negative feelings such as guilt and anger on yourself (and sometimes others). Grief is a lifelong journey. Some parents find that their painful emotions come in smaller and less frequent waves as time goes by; others maintain that these emotions stay the same. Everyone goes through a different process – there is no ‘too short’ or ‘too long’ duration to grieve.

Give yourself permission to feel

There is no wrong or right way to feel after the death of a child. Some parents feel relief after a long and tumultuous caregiving journey, while others could feel numb and emotionless. Some parents feel disappointed with their child for ‘giving up’ after all their efforts for treatment. Others feel angry with God for allowing their child to die. Do not blame yourself for feeling what you may think are ‘inappropriate’ emotions. Should these emotions be overwhelming and disturb you greatly, talk to someone whom you know would be empathetic and non-judging.

Give others permission to grieve in their own way

Perhaps your spouse seems unaffected by your child’s death, going to work and watching soccer matches as if nothing has happened. Or perhaps your children do not want to talk about their sibling at all and you wonder if they even miss him or her amidst their busy school life. Not seeing others grieve the same way as us may feel isolating, confusing or upsetting. Keep in mind that everyone grieves in their own way and copes with their grief in their own way too. Give them time and space, just like how you would appreciate your own time and space to cope with your grief.

Spend time with yourself and others

The sadness of grief can be overwhelming physically, emotionally and mentally. Some parents prefer to fill their day with activities in order to distract themselves from the pain. Try to take some time to be with yourself and your emotions. This can be scary and painful, but suppressing grief constantly could be damaging to your grief journey in the long term. Because grief is unique and personal, other parents may find themselves wanting to be alone all the time because they feel that nobody would understand them anyway. Giving yourself the opportunity to experience love and support from those who care about you, can be a great source of comfort. Some parents who are not ready to meet up with family and friends find comfort in simply connecting via text messaging or social media.

Be aware of how you are responding to your grief

While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are times when the pain can be so intense that you may find yourself responding in ways that are harmful to yourself or others. This can include binge-drinking, being reliant on drugs and medication, having thoughts of harming yourself or others, or being unable to perform basic care for yourself (eg. bathing, eating). Talk to someone you trust or a social service professional if you find yourself or your loved one responding to grief in harmful ways.

Be A Source Of Support

If you know of a family grieving the loss of their child, here are 4 simple ways you can support them in their time of need.

You don’t have to ‘make things better’

We come with our own emotions and opinions about what has happened, or what should have happened. Be sensitive and respectful to the bereaved parent. They need our love and support, rather than opinions or judgments. Being with a bereaved parent requires an open mind and an open heart. Avoid using cliches like “Time will heal all wounds” or “Be strong, your child would not want to see you cry”. Be prepared to be with someone in great pain and instead of aiming to ‘make things better’, aim to be supportive and loving.

Talk about the child and use names

Some people are worried that ‘reminding’ the bereaved parent of their child would bring further sorrow to them. This worry is unfounded, because parents remember their children everyday, whether or not someone mentions them. Bereaved parents find comfort in hearing their beloved child’s name spoken and knowing that others remember their child as well. Talk about the good memories you have of their child, or respectfully ask them to tell you more about their little angel if you have never met them.

Ask them what they need

Trying to support a bereaved parent can be stressful if we are filled with uncertainties about what they need and how much we should do or say. The best way to eliminate unnecessary stress for both sides would be to ask them what they need. Simple questions like, “Would you be okay if I check in with you every now and then?”, “May I come to visit you this week, or would you prefer to let me know when you’re ready for a visit?” and “Would it be helpful if I bring over a cooked dinner for the kids every Monday?” help family and friends get a better idea of what their bereaved loved one really needs.

Understand that parents need time and space to grieve

Perhaps you are worried or even a little hurt that your good friend or close relative is not turning to you or not letting you visit them in their time of grief. Try to understand that this is normal and think of other ways you can show your concern and love. A simple check-in or ‘thinking of you’ text message can go a long way in giving a bereaved parent comfort. Respect their boundaries and they will contact you when they are ready.

(Source: The Barnabas Center)

The loss of a child is a life-changing experience. It brings uncharted pain, renewed self-discovery, meaning-making and unexpected insights. Whether we are making this journey ourselves, or sharing in a part of it, the grief journey of a bereaved parent is a sacred and essential tribute to the life and memory of a dearly beloved child.