Any parent who has lost a child understands why there are no words in our language that could ever describe the gut-wrenching pain and grief. It doesn’t matter whether your child died after a long illness or if your child passed away suddenly – either way can leave you feeling broken, your heart shattered into a million tiny pieces. Healing seems completely impossible, and the stifling grief darkens your entire world. As impossible as it may seem, it is possible to learn to cope with the loss and go on living. It’s not time that heals all wounds – it’s what you do with that time that makes all the difference in the world.
Common Reactions to a Child’s Death
There is no right way to feel after the loss of a child. You may be experiencing intense confusion or shock even if you had known your child was going to die. Feelings of overwhelming sadness or despair are common as well. You may also be holding onto anger that your child’s life ended far too soon, or grappling with rage over circumstances surrounding his or her passing. You may also be in shock, or in denial that your child is even gone.
There is also no set timetable for these painful emotions. Intense grief may continue for several months, a year, or even longer. The pain may seem to lessen for a time, only to come rushing back during the holidays or your child’s birthday. Other milestones can also stir up grief, such as the first day of school or graduation. These waves of emotion are common and, while they may become less intense over time, they may never go away completely.
Although grief and the emotions connected to it may endure for some time, when they continue for an extended period – or if they trigger other symptoms – it may be that your unresolved grief is turning into major depression. Symptoms of clinical depression may include sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness and loss of interest in daily activities. Physical symptoms may include loss of appetite, disturbed sleep and fatigue. Excessive guilt – particularly related to your child’s death – is not uncommon. Suicidal thoughts may also be present; some parents may be in such pain that death is viewed as an escape – not to mention a way to be with their child once again.
Addressing Unresolved Grief and Depression
If your grief or depression is interfering with your ability to live, work, and handle your responsibilities, it’s important to talk to your physician or a mental health professional. While grief is normal, chronic unresolved grief and subsequent depression are not. Treatment typically involves talk therapy, but in more serious cases antidepressant medication may also be necessary. Because grief can be a prolonged process, many mental health professionals will not consider a diagnosis until at least two months after the loss.
Suicidal thoughts should be taken very seriously. It you’ve been contemplating suicide since the death of your child, reach out for help immediately. Talk to your physician, your pastor or priest, or your therapist if you have one. You can also contact a local mental health clinic, go to the nearest hospital ER, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or your local suicide prevention hotline.
Healing From the Pain
Nothing will ever completely take away the pain of losing a child. However, there are strategies you can use to cope with that pain in a healthy way that allows you to honor your child’s memory and move forward with your life.
Find an experienced therapist. Therapy is an effective way to help you express and work through the feelings surrounding the child’s death. The first step is to find a therapist who is experienced in handling grief. He or she will talk with you about the guilt, intense sadness, anger, frustration, and any other emotions you may be experiencing. You’ll also learn ways to express those feelings and handle the waves of grief that you’ll likely continue to experience.
Working with a therapist can help you address other issues that may affect or prolong the natural grieving process. For example, self-medication with alcohol or drugs will hamper your ability to cope in a healthy way. If you abuse substances, a therapist will refer you to a treatment program that addresses the alcohol or drug use so you can then deal with the loss.
Understand that grieving is personal. There is no right or wrong way to grieve for someone you loved so much. Some individuals wear their emotions on their sleeve, while others keep their feelings hidden from the world. While there are common stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), you may not experience every stage or go through them in the usual order. If this occurs, you shouldn’t feel guilty or as if something is wrong with you. Allow yourself to grieve in your own way and don’t compare your experience to that of someone else.
Consider marriage, couples or family therapy. A child’s death can cause significant stress on a relationship. In fact, your most significant relationship may already have been under major stress if your child had a serious or terminal illness. This strain has been seen in couples who had experienced a stillbirth as well; couples were 40% more likely to break up in the decade afterward than those who hadn’t experienced such a loss. Loss also affects relationships between divorced or estranged parents, which, in turn, can negatively affect living children the parents share. A marriage, couples, or family therapist can help you and your significant other find ways to communicate in an open and honest way – one that promotes healing while building a stronger relationship.
Join a support group. Losing a child is a unique experience that can be fully understood only by those who’ve gone through it. Find a local or online support group dedicated to helping parents or families work through the loss of a child. Groups may host regular meetings or events, as well as special camps for siblings of the loved one who has died.
Express your emotions. Losing a child produces intense emotions that can be hard to express. One way to work through that sometimes unspeakable grief is with creativity. Consider activities like art therapy, dance movement therapy, or music therapy. If possible, find a program specifically geared toward the grieving process. However, if you can’t find one, any artistic activity will help you express grief and other emotions.
Connect with your spiritual side. Faith does help some people work through tremendous loss. If you practice a specific faith, consider speaking with your pastor, priest, rabbi, or other religious leader. He or she will provide spiritual guidance and may also be able to refer you to others in the faith community who have experienced the same kind of loss. Some churches offer healing programs for the grieving, so you may want to consider using those resources. Even if you don’t follow a specific religious belief, you might find peace in a practice like meditation, which allows you to calm your mind.
The loss of a child is the most painful experience any parent can go through. There are no magic pills to make you feel whole again, but there is help. Contact a mental health professional today so you can finally begin to heal and move on with your life.