How to Survive the Death of Your Child

by Glen Canning
How to Survive the Death of Your Child

It might not make sense to you unless you’ve lost a child to suicide — but you will not survive. You died. You will keep living, but it won’t be you anymore. That’s what I figured out and that’s how I manage to get up everyday. Get up — everyday — just get up.

You are loved and you are important. Keep going. One day at a time. 

1. Embrace all of your feelings and emotions. You’re entitled to whatever feelings come up. You may experience intense anger, guilt, denial, sorrow and fear, all of which are normal for a bereaved parent. Nothing is off the table, nothing is “wrong.”

2. Throw out the timetable. There is no timetable to your grieving process. Every individual is just that: an individual. Bereaved parents may experience many of the same emotions and difficulties; however, each parent’s journey is different depending on personality and life circumstances.

  • For years, we relied on the popular notion that people progress through five stages of grief that begin with denial and end with acceptance. The new thinking is that there is no series of steps to be completed in the grieving process. Instead, people experience a “grab bag” of feelings and symptoms that come and go and eventually lift. In a recent research study, scientists learned that many people accept the death of a loved one right from the beginning and report more yearning for the lost individual than feelings of anger or depression.
  • Because the grieving process is so personal to each individual, couples sometimes find themselves at odds because they can’t understand the other’s way of dealing with the loss. Understand that your spouse may have different coping mechanisms than you do and allow him or her to grieve in the way that suits them.

3. Don’t worry about numbness. During the grieving process, many people will experience a state of numbness. In this state, the world may seem like a dream or seem to go on separate from them. People and things that once brought happiness evoke nothing at all. This state could pass quickly or linger for a while; it’s the body’s way of offering protection from overwhelming emotions. With time, feelings and connections will return.

  • For many, the numbness begins to wear off after the first anniversary of your child’s death, and then true reality can hit very hard. Many parents say that the second year is the most difficult.

4. Take time off from work…or not. Some parents find the thought of returning to work unbearable while others prefer to throw themselves into the daily activity and challenges that work offers. Find out what the bereavement policy is at your workplace before making your decision. Some companies also offer employees paid personal days or the opportunity to take an unpaid leave.

  • Don’t allow fear of letting your company down force you to return to work before you’re ready. According to the executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute, companies lose about $225 billion a year due to reduced productivity as an after-effect of grief. “When someone we love dies, we lose the ability to concentrate or focus,” Friedman said. “Your brain doesn’t work right when your heart is broken.”

5. Turn to your faith if you can. If you find comfort in the beliefs, teachings and rituals of your faith, turn to them now to aid in your grief recovery. Know, too, that the loss of your child may damage your religious beliefs, and that’s ok. In time, you may find that you’re able to return to faith; either way, if you have been a person of faith, believe that God is big enough to handle your anger, rage and sorrow.

6. Delay decision making. Wait at least one year before making any major decisions. Don’t sell your house, change locations, divorce a partner or alter your life significantly. Wait until the fog has lifted, and you can clearly see the options available to you.

  • Be careful of impulsive decision-making in daily life. Some people adopt a “Life is short” philosophy that propels them to take unnecessary risks in the pursuit of living their lives to the fullest. Monitor your behavior to be sure you’re not engaging in potentially harmful activities.

7. Trust in time. The phrase “Time heals all wounds” may sound like a meaningless cliche, but the truth is that you will recover from this loss in time. Initially, memories will hurt you to your core, even the good ones, but at some point that will begin to change, and you’ll come to cherish those memories. They’ll bring a smile to your face and joy to your heart. Grief is similar to a roller coaster or the ocean’s tide.

1.Be very gentle with yourself. While your impulse may be to blame yourself for what’s happened, resist the urge. There are simply forces in life and nature that cannot be controlled. Beating yourself up about what you could have, would have, should have done is counterproductive to healing.

2. Get plenty of sleep. For some parents, all they want to do is to sleep. Others find themselves pacing the floors at night and staring blankly at the TV. The death of a child takes an extreme toll on the body. Science has shown that a loss of this magnitude is similar to a major physical injury, [3] so you absolutely need rest. Give in to the urge to sleep if you have it; otherwise, try to establish a nighttime routine–warm bath, herbal tea, relaxation exercises–that can help ease you into a good night’s sleep.

3. Remember to eat. Sometimes, in the days immediately following your child’s death, relatives and friends may bring you food so that you don’t have to cook. Do your best to eat a little each day in order to keep up your strength. It’s difficult to deal with negative emotions and everyday activities when you’re physically weak. Eventually, you may have to return to making your own meals. Keep it simple. Bake a chicken or make a big pot of soup that can last for a few meals. Find healthy takeout options in your neighborhood and restaurants that will deliver to your home.

4. Stay hydrated. Whether or not you’re finding it difficult to eat, try to drink at least eight glasses of water a day. Sip on a cup of soothing tea or keep a refillable water bottle with you. Dehydration is physically taxing, and your body is already being taxed enough.

5. Use alcohol in moderation and stay away from illegal drugs. While it’s understandable that you may want to blot out the memory of your child’s death, excessive use of alcohol and drugs can aggravate depression and create a whole new set of problems to deal with.

6. Use prescription medication under a doctor’s orders only. Some parents find that a sleep aid is a necessity, and that anti-anxiety or anti-depression medication helps them better cope. There are many varieties of these medications, and finding the right one that works best can be a daunting task, and one best undertaken with the help of a physician. Work with your doctor to find what works for you and to make a plan for how long you’ll be on medication.

7. Re-evaluate your relationships if they become hurtful. It’s not uncommon for friends to pull away during this grieving period. Some people simply do not know what to say, and those that are parents may feel uncomfortable with the reminder that the loss of a child is possible. If friends urge you to “get over” your grief and try to hurry you through your grieving process, set boundaries with them regarding what is and isn’t an acceptable topic for conversation. If necessary, distance yourself from those who insist on dictating your grieving process.

Honoring Your Child’s Memory

1. Host a memorial gathering. A couple of weeks after the funeral or at a time that feels right to you, invite friends and loved ones to a party or dinner in honor of your child. Make this gathering about sharing the good memories everyone has. Invite people to share stories and/or photos of your son or daughter. The gathering can be at your home or choose a place your child loved–a park, playground or community center.

2. Set up a web page. There are companies that provide web space where you can share photos and videos of your child and even record his or her life story. You can also create a Facebook page that memorializes your child and restrict access so that only family and friends can see it.

3. Create a scrapbook. Gather photos of your child, artwork, report cards, mementos and organize them in a scrapbook. Write captions or stories to go with the photographs. This scrapbook is something you can look at when you want to feel close to your child. It’s also a way to help younger siblings learn about their brother or sister.

4. Make a memorial donation. You can provide funds for a project in the name of your child. For example, you may be able to donate to your local library asking them to purchase books in honor of your child. Depending on their policies, they may put a special label in front of the book with your child’s name on it. Think about activities and organizations that represent the kinds of things your child liked or cared about.

5. Set up a scholarship. You can contact the development office at a university or work with a community foundation to set up a scholarship fund. You need about $20,000 to $25,000 to endow a scholarship that pays out $1,000 every year, but each institution sets its own rules.[4] A scholarship fund also give your friends and family a way to honor your child by making a contribution.
6Become an activist. Depending on the circumstances of your child’s death, you may want to get involved with an organization that calls attention to a particular cause or advocates for changes to our legal system. For example, if your child was killed by a drunk driver, you might want to join Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

  • Be inspired by John Walsh. After his six-year-old son Adam was murdered, he went on to help sponsor legislation to toughen laws on those convicted of violence against children and hosted a TV show focused on catching violent criminals.

7. Light a candle. October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, a day to honor and remember babies who died during pregnancy or as newborns. At 7 p.m. on that evening, participants around the world light a candle and keep it burning for at least an hour. Because of different time zones, the result is what’s been described as “a wave of light that spans the globe.”

8. Celebrate birthdays if it feels right. Birthdays may initially be intensely painful, and you might choose to simply do your best to get through the day. On the other hand, some people find solace in celebrating their child’s life on this special day. There are no right or wrong ways to do this–if it would give you comfort and allow you to celebrate all that was good, funny and bright about your child, then plan a birthday event.

Getting Outside Help

Talk to a therapist. A good therapist can be helpful, especially if it is someone who specializes in grief counseling. Look online to find someone in your area. Plan to interview therapists over the phone before committing to a session. Ask about their experience working with bereaved parents, their process for working with a client, whether they incorporate a religious or spiritual component (something you may or may not want), their rates and their availability. Based on the circumstances of your child’s death you might be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If so, locating a therapist who has specialized in PTSD training and counseling would be helpful.

Join a bereavement group. Knowing that you’re not alone in your grief and that others are facing similar challenges can be comforting. Bereavement support groups for parents are available in many communities; check online for groups near you. These groups offer a number of benefits including the chance to tell your story in a supportive, non-judgmental environment, a decreased feeling of isolation and people who validate and normalize each other’s emotional reactions.

  • Groups are of two varieties: time-limited and open-ended. Time limited groups typically meet once a week for a pre-determined amount of time (six weeks to 10 weeks) while open-ended groups follow more of a drop-in format in which attendance may vary from meeting to meeting and the meetings may occur less frequently (monthly, bi-monthly).

. Find an online forum. There are many forums online dedicated to supporting people living with loss; however, be aware that many include all types of loss (parents, partners, siblings, even pets). Look for one that is specifically for parents grieving the loss of a child in order to receive better understanding of your specific loss.

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Helpful Tips

  • Do what feels right to you as you grieve. You do not owe anyone an explanation for the way you need to express your grief.
  • At night, when no one is there for you and you can’t sleep, write a letter to your deceased child about your love for them and how much you miss them.
  • Try not to sweat the small stuff. As a bereaved parent you are surviving the worst! Nothing else that happens in life could be more painful than this. If you can, remind yourself that the strength you have discovered in living with the death of your child means you can survive anything now.
  • Try to remember that no one can truly understand your grief unless they have lived it themselves. Try to let your loved ones know how they can help you, and ask that they respect your feelings.
  • Don’t put time limits on your recovery. It may be years before you begin to feel normal again, and that normal will be a new normal. It may be that you never feel quite the same again, but that will not mean your life is not worth living – it will not be the same, but it will be different, changed forever by the love for your child, and his or hers for you.
  • Know that you are not alone. Just reach out for help, it is out there.
  • Cry when you need to, smile when you can.
  • Don’t expect a day to ever pass without thinking about your child – nor should you even want that. You loved your child dearly, and will deeply miss him or her for the rest of your life, and that’s okay.
  • When you find yourself becoming manic, it’s OK to stop, relax, do nothing, watch a movie, read, sleep, slow yourself down.
  • Pray as often as possible if you’re a person of faith.