Healing when your child dies-a lifetime journey

A 98-year-old mother was asked, “Where would you like to be buried after you die?” She responded, “With my baby son, Johnny.” Sixty-eight years previously, Johnny died shortly after birth, and his mother wanted to be reunited with her son, even in the grave. This mother was my mother, and her request symbolizes the eternal feelings of loss and of connection parents have with a child who predeceases them.  Healing from the loss of a child is a parent’s lifetime journey.                                                                          Bob Dorsett

“Why do I grieve so deeply?”

No one can truly answer this question except a parent who has lost a child. The breaking of this earthly bond prematurely leaves parents grieving not only the death of their child, but also for their own feeling of loss of self…parents whose child has died often say that a part of them has died.

There is a land of the living

And a land of the dead

And the bridge is love.


Thornton Wilder


“Can I survive the shipwreck of my hopes and my dreams?”


Your grief is great, and yet I shared this very simple and true message: “Your life is forever changed yet you can survive this ordeal, and heal. The journey is long and difficult; however, if you understand the healing process, and are willing to do the work by taking small steps, your heart naturally wants to heal, and will heal.”


“I feel as if I am going crazy! Am I?”


What you are feeling is normal. This is a time in life when intense reactions, which are usually thought of as being abnormal, are perfectly normal:


  • You may feel stunned as though you are in a dreadful dream. Life may not seem real.
  • You can’t believe that your child has died, and you may fantasize that your child is alive.
  • You may search for something you could have done to prevent your child’s death.
  • Your body may protest the death in a physical way through sighing, weeping, or no tears at

all, exhaustion, shivering, inability to eat or sleep, or have symptoms similar to your child.

  • You may experience outbursts of anger at God, yourself, the doctor, or even at parents who

have healthy children.

  • You may have feelings of despair and depression, hopelessness and helplessness. Your

inner world may seem flat and colorless, and a dull ache of sorrow may inhabit your being.

  • Like the waves of the ocean, your emotional life and your tears alternate between quiet seas

and turbulent waves.

“How can my family cope?”


Siblings: After the death of a child, siblings are at times referred to as “the forgotten mourners,” and their grief is often misunderstood because children grieve differently than adults. In addition, depending on the age of the child, their understanding of death may be different than that of an adult. It may be helpful to read the article in this book, “talking to your child about death,” and “helping your teenager cope with grief.” Siblings could feel guilt because they survived their sister or brother who died, or perhaps because they said something negative to their sibling before the death. Because you may be preoccupied with your own grief, your child could feel abandoned. The most important thing to remember is your living children do need help and yet you may feel exhausted and not available. Consider reaching out to others for support. For example, there are groups for children who are grieving. Perhaps check with your local hospice, or “The Dougy Center,” which has a list of available children’s groups and counseling services: http://www.dougy.org. Also “The Healing Center, a place for loss and change” has information to offer: http://www.thehealingplaceinfo.org/index.html


Your Spouse:  The death of a child may put strain on your relationship. Often this is the result of different styles of grieving. One person may express their grief outwardly and another may be private about their sorrow. Grief may have an isolating effect…some people prefer to be alone in their grief, and may not be available as they once were. Try to remember that different styles of grieving are perfectly normal. The Compassionate Friends is an organization dedicated to helping parents whose children have died, and they may have a local chapter for you to contact: http://www.compassionatefriends.org/home.aspx.


Grandparents:  Grandparents are often referred to as “the forgotten mourners,” yet they grieve not only for the loss of their grandchild, but also for the grief that their child is experiencing.  Very often grandparents have the same intense grief reactions that their children have.


“What can I do to heal?”

  • Try to be patient during the healing process, and to recognize that it will be gradual, and there is no specific timeline. Healing is a lifelong process.
  • Also try to admit to yourself and others that your grief will at times be overwhelming, unpredictable, and exhausting, and should be expressed.
  • Look for those people who can listen to you without judgment, and with

understanding. Consider grief groups with parents of deceased children.


  • Choose ways to express your feelings that best suit your needs. Some

suggestions might be: journaling, art, poetry, or any creative activities.

  • If you have a particular spiritual path, it may be helpful to ask for support from your group.
  • When you are asked, “How many children do you have?” include your deceased child, who is still your child and whose life had, and has significance, no matter how short.


  • Acknowledge the need to desire to talk about your deceased child as well as the events that will

be missed and also those that have never been experienced.

  • Commemorate your child’s life through rituals. (See the article: “rituals that heal.”)
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle that will include emotional support, healthy foods and exercise.
  • If it is appropriate, volunteer for organizations that in some way help children.


Comforting parents whose child has died:  Try to recognize the complexities and let go of any preconceived ideas. The death is overwhelming and may seem overly intense, contradictory, or even puzzling. Listening to the parent’s story over and over again, and without judgment, is very supportive. Also, helping parents with chores can be extremely helpful.

Consider These Helpful Reference Materials:  “beyond tears, living after losing a child” by Ellen Mitchell;   “When the Bough Breaks Forever… after the death of a son or daughter” by Judith R. Bernstein, Ph.D.; “when your child dies: finding the meaning in mourning,” by Nancy Stevenson and  Cary Straffton;  “The Death of a Child-The Grief of the Parents” found on the Internet: http://www.athealth.com/consumer/disorders/parentalgrief.html

Provided by Gerard’s House, a grief support center for children, teenagers and their families in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For more information please contact us at (505) 424-1800 or gerardshouse.org.

This article was published in “The Grieving Heart,” written and edited by Bob Dorsett, LLC, www.silentseas.net

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