It’s never easy to lose someone close to you – but the grief can threaten to swallow you whole if the person in question is your child. “Studies show that the process of grieving a child is more intense and takes longer than losing a significant other loved one. Grieving a child may seem like an impossible challenge,” explains Dr Fabian Saarloos, German Neuroscience Center.
Dr Saarloos explains the emotional backlash of losing a child
1. Loss of identity: A recent Canadian study has shown that parents frequently experience losing a child as losing part of their identity. Generally, life changes the moment one becomes a parent, and the future evolves around the child – the loss is a big blow you a person’s sense of self.
2. Emotional upheaval: After having lost a child, people may experience a variety of emotions: hopelessness, helplessness, the sense of complete loss of control and power, but also loss of self-worth, emptiness, loneliness, and unsafety. Some may even experience guilt because they may feel having failed in their responsibility as a parent, or not having spent enough time or given enough warmth and protection.
3. The sense of emptiness after the loss of a child, especially if the child was highly dependent and required a lot of care and attention, can be immense.
4. Loss of hope: “After having lost a child many parents lose hope and trust in life. Parents may lose the meaning and purpose in life, and their sense of justice may get affected. Parents who have more children may experience intense anxiety of losing another one, and may become controlling and clingy, or they may fear having another a child as they do not trust life and nature anymore.”
5. The question of what could have been will always routine.
How can you help a grieving family?
Support counts: The most important factor, explains Dr Saarloos, in dealing with grief is support. Parents who receive support, most importantly social, but also practical, instrumental and financial, are able to go more smoothly through the grieving process and show better and faster adjustment to the new situation.
A focus on the future: Good memories of the child or the family as a whole may form a major source of support. Many parents focus on survival after having lost a child, and studies have shown that people who focus on adjusting to the new situation and the future are better able to mourn and process their loss, and less susceptible to clinical depression.
Remember things differently: Psychologists advise not to focus too much on the loss itself, but rather on establishing a new, more symbolic and metaphysical bond with the deceased. In therapy, parents are taught how to focus on feeling the presence of the lost child when remembering the child, in all their senses (eg images, sounds, touch, smell), thus having the child live on in their hearts.
Tips for parents who have lost their child
Every experience is different and complicated by a number of factors. Here's some general advice:
Trust yourself: Don’t listen too much to what others have to say. Grief is an individual process, and there is no right and wrong response.
Don’t expect others to understand your loss. Sympathy and compassion are helpful, but sometimes difficult to accept. Other parents who also lost a child may find it easier to fully understand and provide support to you.
Write down what you are feeling: If you find it difficult to express your emotions, try to write them down (maybe in a letter to the child which can then symbolically be burnt or left at the grave), or draw.
Give yourelf time: Allow yourself to get some rest and relaxation, and do not feel guilty when there are moments of joy. Find your personal moments and glimpses of happiness again. Try being creative, take a walk, do some sports or hobby. Pray and find acceptance, peace and guidance in religion.
Shift in perspective: Accept that grieving a child is one of the hardest things in life, and may never fully be processed, but can be made bearable and even become a source of energy. Try to establish a symbolic or more spiritual connection the lost child, let your child live in your heart and mind, and try to experience his/her presence even if he/she physically is not around anymore. Electricity cannot be seen, yet it exists. Similarly, as long as the child lives on in the mind, he/she is still there, just in a different form.
Talk to a specialist: If your feelings and emotions of sadness, anger, anxiety or guilt and hopelessness take control, and after several months still cause incredible pain, consider talking to a professional, e.g. psychologist and/or psychiatrist. Mental health services, especially those specialized in trauma and bereavement, may better be able to understand and support you, and help you in coping with your emotions and going through the grief process together.