Death is inevitable, yet the loss of a child often unleashes a flood of wide-ranging emotions. One day we might be able to push the feelings of pain and anxiety aside by thinking of others things. Other days, it seems as if life is beginning to return to normal until a word, a scent, or a circumstance triggers the intense feelings all over again. Without question, our life has been changed dramatically. Our future will be different than we planned.

Despite the pain and intensity of emotions, grieving for a loved one helps us both cope and heal. The emptiness and pain begins to be sorted and healing can begin. Moving forward doesn’t mean that the loved one is forgotten. It simply means that life does include loss and that grief can run its course. While there is no single path to healing, people share common responses of grieving.

The loss of a child is the most devastating experience a parent can face. The missing child is noticed at every event and at every family gathering. A piece of the parent is taken away. Studies have shown that the age of the child at the time of death really does not lessen the hurt or pain that is felt. It always feels unnatural for a parent to outlive the child. Many grieving parents will wonder whether life can ever have meaning again.

As you are beginning to cope with the loss and understand the grief, here are some important things to keep in mind.

Emotions During Grief |Expect the feelings to be intense

It is common for the feelings of grief and sorrow to be excruciating. You are likely to feel sadness and despair of such a nature that simple daily tasks seem impossible to undertake. Many parents feel overwhelming guilt that they have failed to adequately protect the child. They question if there is anything they could have done differently to alter the outcome. They may feel bitterness and resentment against parents who have healthy children. They often question their spiritual beliefs. The pain is so extreme that they spend a great amount of time wishing to be released from the torment – a pattern of behavior that leads many to contemplate suicide.

Support |Realize that you are not alone

It is important to consider that the loss of children isn’t an isolated event. This year over 57,000 children under the age of 18 will die in the United States alone. Yet, many grieving parents indicate that the most overwhelming feeling throughout was the isolation they felt in their grief. Friends and family are often at a loss of what to say. They may also stay away, just to not have to deal with the circumstance.

There are several major types of loss resulting in the death of a child. Miscarriage affects about 25% of women who become pregnant. Stillbirths occur in about another 1% of pregnancies. Another form of infant death is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), the most frequent cause of death for those under the age of one.

Approximately 2,000 children are reported missing every day. The unbelievable turmoil that is caused when the parent does not know the outcome is far too often turned into total despair with the news of a death. The parents of murder victims also face unique grieving characteristics.

Finally, every day 46 children are diagnosed with cancer in the United States and over a third of them will die. Cancer remains the number one disease killer among children. The wild emotional ride begins with the diagnosis. The heart of the parent wants to hope for a miraculous outcome; at the same time, the heart tries to protect itself by building walls and preparing for the death.

Passage of Time | Things will gradually return to normal

If you have recently lost a child, you may be wondering if things will ever return to normal. It may seem like every holiday or birthday sends you reeling into a flood of emotions. Here are a handful of things to remember to help you through those difficult days:

  1. No parent is ever prepared for the loss of their child, even if a long illness has set the stage for it. The intensity of the pain surrounding the loss is not determined by how long the child lived. It is normal to feel an incredible hollow emptiness. Expect the pain to be severe, the process of healing to be long and slow to begin, and the haunting questions to be piercing and long-lasting.
  2. It is important to regain a sense of meaning in life. Some parents find that fulfillment by turning their attentions to the lives of the remaining children. If the loss was of an only child, the parent may become actively involved in something that was important to the child. Volunteering at the cancer center of the local hospital or becoming a leader in the athletic or music programs at school can help by becoming active and busy with something that honors the life and death of the child.
  3. Keep a journal, writing down your feelings and observations. Even if you do not consider yourself a writer, making a chronicle of the events and emotions is a helpful tool in healing. You will be able to see how your feelings have changed. You will recount challenges and triumphs as you continue on the path of healing.
  4. Don’t be afraid to talk about your child to others – especially family and close friends. People may be afraid to mention your child because they do not want to cause you pain or they may not know what to say. It will be up to you to let them know that talking about your child is important to you. You will also feel the support that can only come from those closest to you.
  5. Because of the unique nature and the intensity of parental grief, you may want to seek out a support group where you can share your experiences with other parents who understand similar grief and can offer strategies for coping. The opportunity to share with others may provide you a foundation for renewed hope. Religious organizations, counselors and some communities often have access to such groups.
  6. Remember that during the first year, any holiday or family gathering will trigger your grief. It may be beneficial to start some new traditions on these special days.

Understand that healing happens gradually. It cannot be placed on a time table. Some people start to feel better in weeks. For others, it may take over a year for the pain to subside and a sense of stability to form. Whatever your circumstance, it is important to be patient with yourself and others and to allow the healing process to develop.