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Coping with the death of a child: finding consolation when the unthinkable happens

The deaths of a child or spouse are two of the most painful types of losses. Knowing the often-predictable cycle of life and death, the death of one's spouse, although devastating, is readily accepted as a "part of life." No one expects to outlive their child and when it occurs, life as the bereaved parents knew it no longer makes sense. It is not only a time of deep grief and sorrow, but also a time when the bereaved parent's view of the world is forever altered.

Nothing is as it should be and their strongly held assumptions of how things "are" can no longer be depended upon. The death of a child not only brings about a period of deep, unimaginable grief, but a time of fear and uncertainty as the bereaved parent struggles to incorporate this new reality into his or her existence.

Grief has many faces, all of which change and metamorphose as the bereaved parents journey through their grief. When a parent first hears that their child has died, it is natural for shock to cushion the reality of what has occurred. Rhonda, the mother of five-day-old twins Bobby and Kara, describes her feelings immediately following the announcement that Bobby, and one half hour later Kara, had died due to sepsis:

"I spent the day and a half that Bobby and Kara were in the PICU in tears. The vision of Kara trying so hard to open her eyes, but being too sick to keep them open kept playing over and over again in my mind. Each time I would gain my composure, I would see Kara's sweet newborn face and uncontrollable sobs would once again wrack my body. My pastor was with me during this time and I clearly remember how truly worried she appeared to be about my emotional state. I could not stop crying for a day and a half. It amazes me that we are able to produce so many tears.

After I was told that they had died, the tears just stopped. My mind completely shut down with one simple thought, "Bobby and Kara are dead, now what?" It was as close as I have ever come to an out-of-body experience. Everything from that moment on, for days and months, appeared to be happening to someone else. I felt completely numb, both emotionally and physically. I took a mini vacation from the devastating pain that would eventually envelop me, without my permission." ~ Rhonda

Shock gives way to denial as the bereaved parents continue to wrestle with the unimaginable fact that their child has died. It can take days, sometimes months, for shock and denial to fade and the numerous emotions brought on by grief to surface. These emotions include but are not limited to anger, fear, and sadness. It is common for many who suffer the death of a child to become clinically depressed. Help from a mental health care professional certified in the area of grief may be needed. Others may seek spiritual guidance through Christian Counseling, prayer or faith based support groups.

"A few months after Bobby and Kara died my aunt called to ask how I was doing. I remember telling her, "I just can't do this any more." I couldn't bear the thought of living another day carrying around the elephant-sized weight on my chest. My world was so dark and cold that I felt beyond rescuing." ~ Rhonda

The death of a child is not something that bereaved parents will "get over" in a period of a few months. A loss of this magnitude will take hard work for the bereaved parent to move on to the point of recovery. The thoughts and emotions brought on by the death of a child should not be repressed or suppressed. Every emotion must be felt and every thought acknowledged to journey through grief in a healthy way.

Keeping a written journal is a means for the bereaved parent to record all the intense thoughts and feelings that accompany the death of a child. It is not only therapeutic to write their feelings down, but a journal is a written record of the bereaved parents' progress and setbacks as they learn to live in a world without their child.

It's important to commemorate your child on anniversaries

It is also important for the bereaved parent to commemorate their child during special anniversaries such as Christmas and their birthday. The way in which the child is honored is not what matters, but the fact that it allows the bereaved parent to perform a meaningful gesture to accompany their feelings on a day when thoughts of their child are greatest.

"It would have been Bobby and Kara's 5th birthday this year. Our family had recently moved to a new state, so we could not visit their gravesite. I decided to make a birthday cake to celebrate their birthday. It is important to me that their memory lives on. They will always remain a part of our family, although they are no longer a part of this world." ~ Rhonda

As the bereaved parent continues to journey through grief, he or she may find it consoling to aid other parents who have experienced the death of a child. It helps bereaved parents to heal as they extend a compassionate hand to others going through a similar situation. It is also a means to honor their child by keeping their memory alive in the hearts of others.

Remember to be patient with yourself
The death of a child is one, if not the most traumatic and life-altering experiences a bereaved parent may endure. Ways to cope with the loss of a child are as unique and individual as the bereaved parent himself or herself. It has been noted that it can take up to two years for a bereaved parent to walk through the darkest period of their grief. Patience is required by both others and themselves, for a bereaved parent to heal. A loss of this magnitude is a life-altering event, but life can be richer and hold greater meaning in spite of their loss. A child is a blessing no matter how long or short their life may have been.
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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Children: coping with the death of a child section helpful too.

Visit our Amazon store to find books on coping with the loss of a child.

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