The loss of a child is an extremely difficult and traumatic event that changes the lives of everyone in the family and that often leaves an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. There are many stages of grieving the loss of a child, as well as ways to help you and your family cope with the loss.
Allow Yourself to Grieve
There is no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a child, and it's important to allow yourself time to grieve both on your own and together as a family. Allow yourself to feel and sit with your emotions as they come, and try not to assign judgment to them, or yourself, whatever they may be.
Be Gentle With Yourself
Losing a child can feel like your whole world is falling apart, and can bring with it feelings of confusion, devastation, and overwhelming sadness. No parent is prepared for the death of their child, and it's important to remember to be gentle with yourself and your feelings. Heartbreak and loss are not easy things to experience, so be kind to yourself as you experience an array of emotions.
Ways to Help Yourself Grieve
If you find yourself struggling with experiencing or moving through the phases of the grieving process, know that is completely normal. There are some ways to support your grieving that may help you better connect with, experience, and understand your emotions, including:
- Talking about the child you have lost often.
- Using their name.
- Allowing yourself plenty of time before going through their belongings.
- Preparing for the fact that people around you may not know what to say.
Take Care of Your Physical Health
Grieving the loss of a child is emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting, which is why it's important for you to look after your health during this time. It can be easy to neglect your medical needs when your grief can feel all-encompassing, but your health is still important at this time. Some common health side effects of grief are:
- Increased stress
- Lowered immune system
- Increased inflammation
- High blood pressure
- Worsening of diabetes
- Changes in appetite
Importance of Physical Activity
As mentioned, grieving can take a toll on your body. Physical activity has been proven to have positive health benefits for both the body and mind and is often utilized in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy regimens. It can feel difficult to even get out of bed when you're grieving, but exercise increases endorphins in your body and will help break the cycle of thoughts, physical sensations, and behaviors of grieving. Don't feel like you need to go on a mile run or even go to the gym. Aim for small, simple amounts of activity throughout your day, and try not to judge yourself or your body for whatever you can accomplish. Find what feels good for you. Some ways to increase physical activity are:
- Going on a walk
- Doing a simple yoga flow
- Caring for pets
It may be helpful for you to set boundaries with your friends and family at this time in order for you to focus on your healing. It's okay to let loved ones know that their phone calls of sympathy feel more like a burden than support at the current moment, and that their invitations to hang out aren't what you need right now. If you need space during your grieving process, ask for it. Know that you don't need to explain your choices or feelings to others, even if they push you to explain. Some helpful phrases may be:
- I appreciate you calling, but it's really hard for me to answer the phone right now. I'll call you when I'm ready.
- I know you invited me over to give me comfort, but I'm not ready for that yet. I'll let you know when I am.
- I appreciate you stopping by, but I don't have the energy right now and it makes me feel like I have to put on a brave face.
Ways to Find Comfort and Cope
There are many ways that you and your family can find comfort and support throughout the grieving process, whether it be through therapy, support groups, creative outlets, or a combination of them.
Seek Professional Help
Finding a supportive mental health professional will help you explore the stages of grief, manage and understand your emotions, and find coping strategies that work for you. Accepting help after the loss of a child can be difficult, as it is a natural response to want to isolate and grieve in private. However, therapy offers a safe space for you and your family to express your feelings with a professional who is dedicated to helping you.
Join a Support Group
Joining a support group is a good way of finding a sense of community for parents who are grieving the death of a child. Losing a child is a heartbreaking event, one that may only be understood by others who have gone through it themselves. There are several support groups dedicated to helping parents who have lost a child aimed at garnering comfort and support during this difficult time through sharing stories and building a community. Some support groups are:
Explore a New Hobby
Finding a creative outlet for your grief, whatever it may be, is a way of helping you express and understand your feelings. It can be a welcome distraction that helps you turn off intrusive thoughts, and maybe even find a moment of joy during your day. Some ways to get creative are:
- Creative Writing - This can look like writing fictional short stories, poetry, or even journaling. Studies have found that creative writing can help heal trauma, as well as build resilience.
- Knitting - Studies have shown that knitting can actually lower blood pressure and improve mental health. Now, it is often referred to as "mindful knitting."
- Coloring - Coloring helps people refocus their attention away from their thoughts and to the task at hand, and it reduces stress and anxiety. There are several adult coloring books available, and many coloring pages are available online.
Setting small, manageable goals for yourself is one way of maintaining a basic routine. A routine can help bring about a sense of normalcy into your life despite the fact that you are grieving. To start, keep your goals small. Listen to your body and don't push yourself beyond what is comfortable. As time goes on, your activities can become more elaborate, and maybe even be related to socializing or trying to have fun.
Planning small activities is a good place to start when trying to establish a routine. Try to make your goals as specific as possible and keep them timely in order to increase your chances of achieving them. Some small goals to set at the start of the grieving process are:
- I will eat a healthy meal this afternoon.
- Tonight I am going to make sure I brush my teeth.
- In the morning, I am going to change out of my pajamas into clothes.
As time goes on and you move through the grieving process, you may want to start planning bigger activities into your routine. These don't have to be set in place every day like the small activities, but planning one big goal every week can be helpful. Some bigger activities to plan are:
- Going to visit a friend or relative on the weekend.
- Planning a trip to the movies.
- Making a nice dinner for yourself/others.
Create a Tradition to Honor Your Child's Memory
Losing a child can feel as though it changes the entire family dynamic because a space is now created that was once filled by a loved one. It's important to remember that you are still a family and that the child you lost will always be a part of that. Making a tradition, such as eating their favorite meal on their birthday, always celebrating their favorite holiday together, or taking a yearly visit to their favorite place, can help celebrate their memory. Find a tradition that makes sense for your family and loved one.
Rediscover Purpose in Your Life
As a parent, it is normal to never "get over" the loss of a child, and you shouldn't expect yourself to bounce back into being the exact same person you were before. Losing a child is something that you will carry with you throughout the rest of your life, and it may make you reflect on the bigger picture, but it's important to actually allow yourself to live your life. You are not betraying your child or their memory by finding and re-engaging in activities that make you happy.
There Is No Timeline
There is no set timeline for grieving the loss of a child, as it depends entirely on the individual and the specific situation they are facing. However long it takes for you to grieve is right, and it shows that you are working at your own pace. It can be frustrating to move back and forth between different stages of grief, and it may leave you wondering if you are making progress and if the end of your grief is any closer than when you started. Know that this is normal, and try not to judge yourself for your feelings. Healing isn't linear, and you are doing what is right for you.
Resources for Grieving the Loss of a Child
There are many resources that provide support and community for parents who are grieving the loss of a child. Some resources that are available include:
Grieving the Loss of a Child
Grieving the death of a child is an extremely painful endeavor that can leave parents feeling confused, angry, and devastated. The grieving process is not easy, but there are ways to find a sense of support in community and find meaning in life again. Being gentle with yourself and your emotions is an important thing to keep in mind as you experience grief, in order to find acceptance and move forward.