You will probably be experiencing shock, disbelief and grief at a child’s death. Whether in an unexpected accident, through suicide or after a lengthy illness, the death of a child turns the world upside down. Regardless of whether the “child” is a toddler, a teenager or a middle-aged parent herself, a child’s death upsets the “natural order” of life. It is natural to ask “why”. Why has a life been cut so short? Why our family? Why couldn’t things be different? Why didn’t we have a chance to have more time? Partners, grandparents, brothers, sisters, family, friends and neighbours are all affected and may experience and show their anguish in many different ways.
A big part of the grief process for parents is described as a “search for meaning.” In early grief, finding meaning in a child’s death is an impossible task, and for some, no sense is ever made of the death. Eventually, though, most bereaved parents, family members and friends do find meaning in the loss-or at least in spite of it. You might embrace a cause to prevent other families from experiencing the same tragedy or fondly recall the rich living crammed into a few short years by a young person gone too soon. You may eventually find a depth to your own strength or vitality in your faith you never knew existed.
The Child’s Siblings and Friends
Siblings and friends of the child who has died need an extra measure of patience and support and there are many practical ways friends and family members can provide help. Be honest with them, consider their age and level of development, include them in ceremonies if appropriate. Though parents desire to shield surviving children from the pain, and even if the other children have not been told what happened, siblings sense the tension in the family, realizing intuitively, “something is wrong.” When they do not get honest information about their brother, sister or friend, they sometimes erroneously conclude that parents are upset because of their actions.
The Child’s Grandparents
Grandparents also experience the loss deeply. In the words of author and bereaved grandparent, Mary Lou Reed, “Grandparents cry twice.” Not only must grandparents bear the grief after their grandchild’s death, but they also must helplessly witness the intractable pain their own child experiences as the grandchild’s now-bereaved parent. If you know a bereaved grandparent, inquire not only about the well-being of the bereaved parents, but also ask how he or she is doing, too.
Your Marriage, Family and Coping
Do not believe common cultural “myths” about parental bereavement. Your marriage is not “doomed,” though a child’s death does put an unprecedented strain on even the best marriages. And ignore the well-meaning suggestion of friends or family members who suggest something like, “Since you’re young, you can have another child.” Children can never be replaced, regardless of their age at death.
A child’s death is a life-altering event, but for parents and other family members, it does not have to be a life-ending event. Grief shakes us from “top to bottom,” leaving no part of life untouched.
When a baby dies
Family and friends will often find it easier to talk about what has happened if they are able to refer to the baby by name. In Australia the Registry of Births, Deaths and marriages formally records the birth of all babies born after twenty weeks pregnancy. Parents often take this opportunity to officially record the name of their baby. Some families take the opportunity to bathe, dress, nurse and cuddle their baby. Or we can assist you to organise foot and handprints as a keepsake.
Some bereaved parents may find it helpful to talk about their loss. A counselling professional or support group can assist you with your loss.