Losing a child - bereavement in the family
Losing a child at any age is devastating for a parent. It is where their world can stop. In this article, I hope to help you to understand and support a parent’s grief.
It is a given in today’s world that parents die before their children, so the grief that comes from the death of a child is like no other. A child carries its parent’s emotions, fears, joys and hopes for the future. It is part of the parent and once a child is gone, that part of the parent is also gone forever. This loss can be accompanied by overwhelming feelings of dread and disbelief, and a parent can take a long time to accept it.
There is no time limit on grief, and the support you need to offer is great patience, understanding and the willingness to stay with them no matter how long the grieving process takes.
Grief is universal, yet ultimately very personal. Everyone grieves differently; some may wish to push their feelings back, while others will cope by talking about their child all the time. Just be there for them; follow whichever path they take and let them heal at their own pace. Even if you have gone through loss yourself, it is your loss, not theirs. You can empathise and support, but do not impose your solutions on them as you cannot fully understand another’s grief.
The loss of one child can alter the relationship with other children in the family. For some parents it can bring them closer to the remaining children, for others it can make them more distant. They can become anxious and overprotective, fearing another loss. If the child was an only child, the loss can be even more unbearable, bringing with it a feeling that they have lost everything.
Birthdays and Christmas can be especially painful reminders of the loss and a new upsurge of grief can be expected on these occasions. These anniversaries can become easier to deal with as time passes.
The other children may feel lost and confused, not knowing how to react to this unknowable situation. They may feel excluded as all the energy of the grown-ups is directed towards their bereavement. They might think they are to blame for what has happened or may not be able to put the whirlpool of emotions they are experiencing into words.
Within a family crisis like this, the other children can be ignored in the torrent of grief as being too young to understand what is happening. They may be too young, but they understand that something is happening. Offer help to them, even if it is only listening to them as they try to understand what is happening. Just taking them out for a while can give space to both parents and child.
What can you do to help in this situation? The best thing is just to be there and help the parents share memories of their child’s life. This can give great fortitude and comfort to them. Offer practical help, like looking after their other children, but be careful not to intrude. Remember that it is not just in the early days that the parents need support and help. Grief can last for a long time, sometimes many years, so offer your care and support without a time limit.
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