Judith Rollins, Ph.D. Department of Family and Human Development
The death of a child, at any age or for any reason, is probably the most traumatic event that parents must endure. In this current society, with its medical advances, people expect to die in a predictable sequence. Simply put, parents should die before their children. When some tragiccircumstance changes this order, parents are bewildered, not only by the overwhelming grief for the loss of the child, but also by the seeming unfairness of the death. The cause of the child’s death does not seem to affect the amount of grief that parents experience over time. A child’s death following a long illness appears to be just as difficult for parents as a death due to a sudden accident. Also,most parents grieve as intensely for a very young child as they grieve for an older child. For bereaved parents, there is no “standard” grief period. Compared to all other crises, the recovery period following a child’s death appears to take the longest amount of time. It is important for parents to understand that they are not abnormal if they experience periods of sadness and grief for manyyears afterward.
Common Experiences Following a Child’s Death
When a child dies, parents are confronted with very intense emotions. They need to know what emotions to expect following a child’s death and to understand that these feelings may affect their relationship with each other and with other family members. It is very important to understand that men and women in this society often grieve indifferent ways. Because men are socialized in our culture to “be strong” and allow their family members to lean on them in times of trouble, they often seem to deny their most painful emotions. While attempting to help other family members, fathers may feel very isolated during their own time of grief. On the other hand, mothers may express emotions more openly and not understand if fathers seemless emotional. Some parents (either fathers or mothers) find comfort in discussing their deceased child frequently, while other parents prefer to talk very little about the child. These differences may be difficult for some parents to accept because they may interpret the differences to mean that one parent is more devastated by the loss than the other parent. The devastation is probably equalfor both parents, but each one will cope with the loss in different ways. There is no right or wrong way to grieve for a dead child. However, for the sake of the marriage relationship, the couple must keep the lines
of communication open and talk about their feelings. It is important to accept the other’s feelings and affirm these feelings as legitimate ones, even when they seem hard tounderstand. Listed below are some common experiences that parents may have following a child’s death. Some suggestions are included for coping with grief responses.
Initially, many parents feel very angry. This anger may occur because the child’s death seems so unfair and parents feel so helpless. The anger may be directed towards oneself, one’s spouse, the medical profession, an outsider, oreven God. Parents often look for someone to blame, even each other, so they can “make sense” out of a needless loss. When anger and blame can be openly expressed, they usually give way to the more rational feelings of loss and grief. It is best to acknowledge the anger one feels and try to determine the source of the anger rather than deny the feelings. Repressed anger may resurface later asdepression. If talking about angry feelings with one’s spouse is difficult, perhaps a third person, such as a counselor or minister, might help minimize the stress of such an encounter and hopefully direct the negative feelings to their appropriate source.
Guilt is another emotion that parents often feel. Society expects parents to be able to protect their children, and a child’s death may...