All grief experiences share common threads, but when your child dies, it is heartbreaking. The death of a child can shatter your assumptions about children outliving their parents. If your child was an adult, you may have assumed that they were now “safe” from a premature death. If your child was younger, it may feel unthinkable that someone could die so young. You may not know anyone else who has experienced the death of their child, and as a result you might feel very alone in your grief. You may be experiencing a range of thoughts and feelings that can change as time passes.
You may also have strong emotions or feel uncomfortable as you read this information. It’s okay to step away from it for a while, or it might help to talk with a trusted family member or friend. We encourage you to revisit this article whenever you need, as what you find helpful might change over time. You may also find that you can take in only so much information at once.
What is grief?
Grief is a normal response to loss that is often misunderstood. Whenever you lose someone or something important to you, you grieve, but not always in the same way. Some losses are more significant than others and have a greater impact on you. It doesn’t follow a straight line or have a time limit. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Only you can decide what is or isn’t helpful for you. Your grief may come and go and vary in intensity.
Not everyone expresses their grief in the same way. Even those experiencing the same loss may grieve differently. They might be overcome by sorrow or anger; talk openly or close down; get “busy” or avoid people altogether. You may feel alone in your grief if others appear to have different responses to the loss. Your grief is also affected by your relationship with the child, how the child died, your values, beliefs and supports as well as what else is happening in your life. Your losses may also be related to hopes, dreams, and expectations about the future.
Thoughts and feelings
Grief can affect how your body feels, your emotions, your thinking, and your behaviour.
At times, your grief may be felt as a physical sensation, such as a stomach- ache, a headache, or shortness of breath. You may have unpredictable or conflicting feelings, such as sadness and relief or feelings of isolation. Grief can interfere with thinking, making you more forgetful or affecting your ability to concentrate. You may notice changes in your behaviour, such as not doing things you used to enjoy and avoiding friends. Your beliefs may change, such as your faith or your trust in the future. This doesn’t mean forgetting your child. No matter how much or how little time you had with them.
Some of your feelings and thoughts may seem devastating. Others may seem conflicting or confusing, such as anger and sorrow. You may feel guilt or blame, helplessness and regret or remorse.
What may help:
Everyone manages the complex thoughts and feelings that can come with grief in different ways. These are some ideas that may help you with your grief.
1) Recognize that you have had a profound loss and may have many difficult or conflicting feelings for some time.
2) Give yourself time to identify your feelings and to acknowledge them as normal. You may wish to write or draw as a way to express them.
3) Find supportive people who can listen to your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Reach out to trusted friends, family members, your family physician, or a faith leader.
4) Many bereaved parents find it helpful to meet with others who have experienced the death of their child.
5) Consider meeting with an experienced grief counsellor.
6) Treat yourself with patience and kindness. Allow yourself the time to figure out what you need—or don’t need—at this time; and honour your needs.
If your child died after a long illness
As a parent, it’s extremely difficult to witness your child’s physical or emotional suffering. You may feel a sense of relief for them and/or yourself after their death. It’s not unusual to have vivid recollections of your child’s last days or the moments of their death. You may revisit or even question treatment or care decisions that were made. These memories can be very painful or distressing. Over time, they will likely lessen as you more easily recall memories of earlier times before your child became ill.
What may help:
It is normal to have a range of feelings at this time, some of which may be intense and unexpected. In addition to sadness, you may feel angry that you were “robbed” of your child or that no one was able to prevent their suffering.
Feelings of relief are normal
Keep in mind that one feeling does not “cancel” another. You may feel relief at the same time as sadness and longing for your child.
As you grieve, you may spend time revisiting past events, which may bring up painful memories. While some of these may never go away entirely, with time and support you will likely find ways to remember happier or more comforting times in your child’s life.
Acknowledge the emotional strain and physical fatigue. Be kind and gentle with yourself. Listen to your heart and do the things that work for you.
If your child died suddenly or unexpectedly
Your first reaction is likely to be have been shock. You may have felt “in a fog” for days, weeks, or months. You may have found it hard to believe your child is really dead.
In the weeks and months that follow, other feelings will surface, and they may be very intense. You may feel angry or dismayed. You may be dealing with many why or how questions. You may have feelings of regret or guilt about something that you weren’t able to say or do. For example, you may regret having had angry words the last time you spoke. You may be “beating yourself up” for not telling them how you felt about them, for not asking for forgiveness, or for not forgiving them.
What may help:
• You had no way of knowing that your child was going to die or that you would not see them again. No matter how much time you had, there would likely never be enough time to say everything.
• It helps to find ways to express your thoughts and feelings with supportive others or by writing them down. You may want to write a letter to your child, telling them all the things you weren’t able to say before they died.
• Recognize that taking in what has happened will take some time.
Your child’s legacy
There are different ways to think about legacy. It can be something tangible or material, but it can also be about the relationships and impact on others that a person had, both while they were living and after they died. You may want to think about all aspects of your child’s legacy—the way they lived their life; their values; the feelings they evoked in you and others; their friendships and relationships; and much more.
What may help:
• Give thought to what you understand was important to them? What were their “lessons learned?” What hopes did they have for their life?
• Consider an activity, such as planting a tree or garden; getting a tattoo; writing an article or book; or creating a scrapbook, photo album, or piece of music or art.
• You might want to join others in supporting a connected cause.
• Know that honouring your child’s legacy is a very personal choice.
• Part of your grief will come from the loss of hopes, dreams, and expectations. As you grieve your many losses, you will be dealing with changes to your identity, roles, and relationships. Even if you’re feeling alone in your grief, it’s vital that you reach out for support. Eventually you are likely to begin to re-engage with others.
At first, you may feel guilty
Remind yourself that it doesn’t mean you’re forgetting your child. They will always be a part of you as you carry your memories of them forward, and you will continue to have a relationship with them even though they are no longer physically present.
This resource has designed to help you understand and care for yourself as you grieve. It was developed by the Canadian Virtual Hospice in collaboration with national grief specialists and people who have grieved a child’s death. Visit mygrief.ca for the full version.
Online discussion forums for parents
You might be reading this shortly after your child’s death, or sometime down the road. Canadian Virtual Hospice provides online Discussion Forums where you can connect with others who may have experienced similar losses. You can also ask a confidential question to their healthcare team at Ask a Professional. You will receive a written response within three business days (not including Canadian statutory holidays).