Losing a child is one of the most heartbreaking experiences any parent will ever face. It feels wrong and unnatural for a child to die before a parent, and you may be questioning yourself, wondering if you could have done more to protect your child. You may feel like life will never be normal again. Or that maybe it shouldn’t be.
As you try to process losing your child, keep in mind that grief is different for everyone and follows no timeline. You may be experiencing intense emotions, such as anger, guilt, doubt, fear, depression, extreme pain, and deep sadness. As a mother or father, you may have very different feelings from those around you. Losing a child can strain your relationships with your spouse, other children, or extended family members as you all try to process the loss in your own way.
As you begin your grief journey, remember that the goal is not to “move on” or “move forward” but to move toward healing, peace, and reconciliation with the loss. Renowned grief expert Dr. Alan Wolfelt says that those mourning the death of a loved one have six needs that must be met as they grieve. While it takes time to begin healing, meeting these needs can help you process your loss in a healthy way.
Acknowledge the reality of the death
According to Dr. Wolfelt, the first need of mourners is acknowledging the reality of the death or, in his words, “gently confronting the reality that someone you care about will never physically come back into your life again.” The death of a child or a teenager is often sudden and completely unexpected. When hearing of the loss, parents, siblings, friends, and other family members may respond with shock and denial. Even if your child had a prolonged or terminal illness, you might struggle to wrap your mind around the fact that they are really gone.
To help yourself begin to heal, you can take small actions to come to terms with the new reality. Viewing your child’s body before burial or cremation can be helpful. Using the past tense when telling their story can also help. It may be painful at first, especially if you wake up thinking that losing your child was just a nightmare. The mind needs time to adjust to new realities, so be gentle and patient with yourself throughout this process.
Move toward the pain of loss
The next need of mourners is to move toward the pain of the loss. As Dr. Wolfelt says, “It is in confronting our pain that we learn to reconcile ourselves to it.” When faced with strong negative emotions, many of us try to block the pain to protect ourselves. When grieving the loss of a child, you aren’t just grieving their death – you’re also grieving the loss of all the hopes and dreams you had for them. We may try to avoid the pain of the loss through numbing activities that temporarily bring relief. But this only stalls the healing process. As Dr. Wolfelt often points out, there is no way around grief. The only way to the other side is through it.
Instead, focus on grieving in a healthy way. Slow down and let yourself feel. Try going on walks or runs or writing in a grief journal. Visit your child’s grave, talk to them out loud, or speak with a friend or family member that you trust. Let yourself cry, scream, and vent your emotions in a way that helps you. It may feel unnatural to you at first, especially if you tend to bury your emotions. Remember that it’s okay and healthy to fully feel your emotions and set them free, as long as you aren’t hurting yourself or anyone else. By facing your grief and emotions head-on, you can begin to understand them and continue healing.
Honor your child’s memory
After moving toward the pain of the loss, the next need of mourning is to transition from a physical relationship with the person who died to a relationship of memory. Whether your child was with you for minutes or years, they made an impact on your life, and they live on in your memories of them. Dr. Wolfelt says that “remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible.” By holding your memories of your child close and sharing them with others, you will continue to keep their memory alive.
There are many ways you can honor your child’s memory. For example, you can share stories about them with your friends and family, journal your memories, or write a letter to your child. Doing creative projects, like making a memory box or a scrapbook, can also help you process your grief. These physical memorial projects are a great option to do as a family, with your spouse or your other children. You may find it painful at first to think about your child, but learning to treasure the moments you were able to spend with them will bring them even closer to your heart and allow you to find hope for the future.
Develop a new sense of identity
The fourth need of mourners is to develop a new sense of identity. As Dr. Wolfelt explains, “We all have mirrors in our life that remind us of who we are. But after a death, we experience identity diffusion, a sort of confusion about who we are and the purpose that we serve in the greater scheme of things.” Your relationships with your closest friends and family members are a part of your identity, and your child made up an even bigger part of who you are. Your brain is likely struggling to understand life without your child, and you may feel like a part of yourself died with them.
A funeral or memorial service can be the first step to recognizing your new identity. While you wrestle with your change in identity, don’t be afraid to seek the support of family and friends who know you best. Losing a child can also strain your other relationships, especially with your spouse or other children. Life can become even more difficult if you, your spouse, or your children avoid talking to each other or close yourselves off. Instead, take time to sit down as a family and talk regularly. By opening up lines of communication, you and your family can work through your new identities together and learn how to continue life in your new identities.
Search for meaning in the loss
As you grieve, you’ll also need to search for meaning in the loss. After your child’s death, you may ask yourself many questions – especially “Why?” You might feel like you’ll never understand. As Dr. Wolfelt says, “The death reminds you of your lack of control. It can leave you feeling powerless. At times, overwhelming sadness and loneliness may be your constant companions.” The death of someone we love makes us confront mortality – our loved ones’ mortality and our own.
It’s completely normal to ask these questions, but remember that death is a mystery, and some questions will be left unanswered. That’s okay! Exploring deep questions, even without finding answers, can help you examine your own life and consider whether you are where you want to be. Take this time to ask yourself what you can do to live a meaningful life. You can use this experience and your questions as an opportunity to make positive changes to become the person you want to be. While you may not find all the answers you’re looking for, asking these questions can help you find meaning in your continued living and discover hope for the future.
Receive ongoing support
The final need for mourners is ongoing support. Grief comes and goes in waves – you’ll likely struggle more on some days than others. That’s why finding ongoing support from your family and friends is important. As Dr. Wolfelt says, “Drawing on the experiences and encouragement of friends, fellow mourners, or professional counselors is not a weakness but a healthy human need.” As you work through your grief journey, don’t be afraid to reach out to a grief or family therapist or join a grief support group. It can be hard to reach out for help, but taking this step can give you the support you need on the hardest days.
Special days, like your child’s birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or holidays, can be especially difficult. Plan ahead for those days, and don’t be afraid to let your friends and family know if you need extra care on a certain day.
Losing a child is heartbreaking, and it will take time for you and your family to heal. As you begin your grief journey, be patient and gentle with yourself, and allow yourself time to heal and grieve so that you can find healing, reconciliation, and hope.