Coping with the Death of a Child

Practical suggestions to help you grieve and find ways to heal after the loss of a child

Last updated: 29 November 2016

Coping with the loss of a child is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to live through. Coping with this kind of grief can often feel impossible, but you can and will discover a new way of living with time.

If you have experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth, the challenges you face when dealing with the loss of your child may be slightly different depending on the circumstances.

The pain of losing a child

Although you may have feared losing your child, you may not have expected it. Losing a young child is particularly shocking because we prefer to think that death only happens to the elderly. This means that you, and those around you, probably have no idea what to do or say when a child passes away. There are very few people who will be able understand what you are going through.

As you come to terms with the reality of losing your child, you may experience many symptoms of grief, including denial, anger and depression. Parents who have lost a child often report similar emotions, however, and you may find that you experience the following:

  • Feeling as though you have lost a part of yourself. You might feel, sometimes physically, that a part of you has been taken away, or that you are empty inside.
  • Wondering if you are going mad. The intensity of your emotions may frighten you and make you question your ability to cope with the grief. You may think you see or hear your child in your home or elsewhere.
  • Being irrationally angry at anyone and everyone. Anger is a common part of grief, but this may be particularly intense with the feeling of injustice that often comes with the loss of a child. You may be angry at a world that takes away innocent lives while allowing others to continue.
  • Feeling numb and unable to cry. Sometimes grief is so strong that you cannot process your emotions enough to truly feel them.
  • Feeling guilty or responsible for the loss. A parent has an ingrained need to protect their child and you may feel it was your job to save them, even if this was physically impossible.
  • Jealousy of happy families. You may find it difficult to be around children, particularly if they are of a similar age to your child.
  • Feeling as though you want to join your child, wherever they are. You may feel as though you cannot carry on without your child and want to be with them again. This is a natural emotion, but if you are thinking about taking steps to make this happen, such as suicide, contact a bereavement support organisation or call Samaritans' 24-hour helpline on 135 247. If you have taken steps to end your life, call 000 immediately.

It is important to acknowledge that parents of older or adult children experience grief just as intensely. Often family and friends fail to recognise the grief of these parents, as the focus may be on a grieving partner or children.

No matter the age of your child, your grief will be overwhelming and difficult to cope with. Even if your child was 40 or 50 years old, with their own children and partner, you will likely still experience feelings of emptiness, guilt and protectiveness. It is natural and okay for you to grieve for them as if they were your baby. You never stopped being their parent just because they grew up, and it is vital to acknowledge what you are feeling.

Supporting bereaved children

You may have other young children affected by the loss of their sibling. While you are trying to cope with your own grief, you may find yourself having to support them in their grief too.

Children who have lost a sibling are often overlooked and can easily feel ignored. Some children may feel as though their sibling has become more important, more special than them, because they passed away. As these children grow up, they often report feeling as though they wanted to say, “I am still here, you can still love me.”

People may tell your child things like “be strong for Mummy” or “don’t let your dad see you cry.” Though well-meaning, comments such as this can make your child feel unable to express their grief. They may go many years without grieving properly because of this pressure to be okay.

The first thing you have to accept is that their grief is important and they need to be given the space to express it. If they are old enough to understand what death means and what a funeral is, you may want to ask their opinion on certain parts of the funeral planning process. Something as simple as asking what colour flowers their sibling would like, or if they think the music is okay, will make them feel more included.

Be aware that the way young children grieve can be very different from that of an adult. Read more about supporting a bereaved child to understand how grief affects young children.

Supporting your partner

Many people fear that their marriage or relationship will inevitably break down after the loss of a child. You may find that you and your partner drift apart, start arguing more, or even blame each other for the loss.

However, according to bereavement charity The Compassionate Friends which supports families after the death of a child, statistics show that the rate of divorce among bereaved parents is not significantly higher than the general population. This means that losing a child does not always mean the end of your relationship. Indeed, many partners find comfort and support in each other following a loss and their bond is strengthened.

Your current partner may not be the parent of your child, but you may still experience changes in the relationship. They may not be grieving in the same way as you, and may therefore be able to offer additional practical support. If they were very close to the child they may be experiencing difficult emotions and may need to grieve themselves.

As at all times in a relationship, it is important to keep communicating and tell you partner how you feel and what you need. Bear in mind that they may have a very different way of dealing with grief. They may feel differently about certain decisions you need to make, or they may need more time alone while you want constant support. Try to respect their way of grieving while also looking after your own needs.

Moving towards healing

Coping with the loss of a child can feel impossible, but in time you may be able to begin to heal. Here are some practical suggestions that may help you cope:

  • Look after yourself. Grief can disrupt sleep patterns, cause you to lose your appetite and even affect your immune system. As much as possible, try to eat well and sleep when you can.
  • Ask friends and family for support. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help, whether it is asking them to cook a meal, do some household chores or simply sit with you so you are not alone. You need support and they will likely be more than happy to offer it.
  • Avoid drinking excessively. Alcohol may be tempting as a way of numbing your emotions, but drinking heavily and regularly will ultimately leave you feeling even worse.
  • Consider joining a support group. Meeting up with other parents who understand the pain of losing a child can really help your grieving process. You’ll feel less alone and more able to talk about what you are going through. Ask a bereavement support organisation to help you find a local group.

If you need extra support as you come to terms with your loss, contact a bereavement support organisation for advice or counselling across Australia, or read more practical ways to cope with grief.