Coping with the death of a child | Cruse Bereavement Care

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When a child dies

The death of your child is one of the most painful things anyone can experience.

When your child dies it is the worst bereavement imaginable. It is common to struggle with finding meaning in life after such a loss.

Whether your child was still young or died as an adult, the effect of such a loss is massive, and hits us right at our core.

Because death of a child is also the worst fear of so many people, others around you may also struggle to know to react. This can make someone whose child has died feel very alone.   

Feelings and experiences after death of a child

All the normal feelings after a bereavement are present when your child dies, but magnified many times. There are some specific things which make the experience different from other bereavements.

Loss of role: When your child dies your role as their parent is also gone. For many people being a parent is a huge part of their identity. 

It's against the natural order: However old your child was when they died, the expectation is that parents will die before their children. Even if the death was expected there can still be a very strong feeling that the order of things has been turned upside down. If the death was sudden or unexpected the shock is very strong. The death of a child will be extremely traumatic however it happened.

Feeling guilty: Guilt is very common in bereavement, but when your child dies the feeling that you should have been able to protect them can be overwhelming. Sometimes parents might feel like they are being punished for not doing something right.

Anger and unfairness: Parents may feel very angry at the unfairness of the death of someone who should have had so much more life in front of them.

Loss of the future: If your child dies when young it is very painful not to know how they might have changed and grown up.

Affect on the family: Death affects the whole family, and the death of a child can put a lot of strain on relationships. Partners may find they are grieving differently from each other, or going through different feelings at different times. It can be difficult to support each other.

Sibling grief: If you have other children they will be grieving and may also be finding it difficult, and if they are still children themselves coping and helping them can be very difficult when grieving yourself.

Other people's reactions: The reactions of others can be difficult to cope with. Because the death of your child is acknowledged to be the worst pain possible people find it very difficult to know what to say. This can lead to them avoiding you which can be very painful. 

Loss of meaning in life: Because the death of a child is has destroyed so many assumptions about the world, parents can find that they struggle to find meaning in life afterwards. Those with a religious faith may find that it is difficult to find comfort there either. 

Coping after your child dies

There are no easy answers as to how to carry on after your child dies. The loss will always be with you. But there are some things that people find can help them to cope.

1. Finding support

One of the most helpful things is making sure you’ve got people you can talk to, whether that is friends, relatives, or professionals. 

It can be difficult to find the right people who are willing and able to help. Talking about the death of a child is something that can seem almost forbidden. You can’t spend your time worrying about other people’s reactions, but you do need to be prepared for the fact that some people cannot cope. This doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong. In time you will realise which of your circle are willing and able to listen to you, and these are the right people to have around you.

Many people do find that with an experience like the death of a child, it is easier to talk to other people who’ve lost a child. They may be the only ones who can really understand what you are going through. A peer support group can also be a valuable source of help and advice. See more about finding help

You can also talk to Cruse, to other support organisations, your GP, or a faith leader.

2. Cherishing memories

You will never forget your child, and making sure that memories are kept alive can help to keep that feeling of connection. In particular as time goes by and those around you are less likely to mention your child it can feel very important to talk about them, remember their lives, and say their name. 

Some people struggle with how much to tell people who don’t know what’s happened. Well meaning strangers will sometimes ask questions about whether you have children or how many children you have. It can help to have an answer ready. It’s important to find something you feel comfortable with, and it’s completely up to you what you share, but many people find it helps to acknowledge their child’s existence. For example: ‘I’ve got three children but one is no longer with us.’

There are lots of different ways of remembering and celebrating someone’s life, from creating memory boxes to holding a yearly event in their honour.

3. Finding a reason to go on

After a major bereavement like the death of a child it is going to take a long time to feel anything other than extreme grief or shock.

Losing a child is not something that will ever leave you. You don’t ever ‘get over it’, and any progress is going to be one very small step at a time. Set very small goals, doing one more thing than you did yesterday, spending a little time with another child or someone else who we love, and so on.

Even with such a traumatic bereavement people do usually find that the feelings become easier to cope with over time, and there are periods where they are able to carry on with life, while always remembering the child they have lost, and keeping their memory alive.

Some people find the idea of 'growing around grief' helpful. While you may feel like the pain of losing a child never really goes away, in time your life will grow and become 'filled' with other things. Read more about growing around grief

How to support someone after their child dies

  • Let them grieve at their own pace. Don’t rush them or get impatient with them.
  • If you feel they aren’t coping encourage them to seek support.
  • Try to stay in contact and let them know you’re thinking about them. 
  • Let them talk about how they are feeling and about their child – talking can be one of the most helpful things after someone dies even if you find it difficult to hear because of your own grief or you are unable to make their pain go away. Just listening will help.
  • You might like to make a note of significant dates like birthdays, the anniversary of the death, and let them know you are thinking of them. 
  • Offer practical help if you think they need it, or let them know about Cruse if they are struggling.

Read more about helping someone who is bereaved

Further support

If you need to talk to someone after the death of a child, you can call the Cruse Helpline or speak to someone online using our CruseChat service. We also offer a range of support services through our local areas including individual and group support. Find out more about how Cruse can help.

The following organisations can also help after the death of a child.