Parental grief is the most devastating form of grief. It is true that when a child dies, parents often wish they could follow close behind. That’s because part of the parent dies with the child. While bereaved parents must learn how to manage and overcome their pain, it does stay with them. Parental grief is a contradiction. There is no way to manage it other than to go through it — yet there truly is no exit.
The trauma of parental grief
Parental grief is very traumatic, no matter the age of the child or the cause of death. The impact of the child’s death stays with parents for the remainder of their lives. Not only do the parents have to grieve the loss of the child, but they also have to grieve the dreams, hopes, and wishes they had for their child. They will also have to grieve the lost part of themselves, the lost part of their partner, and the lost part of their family that died with the child.
The death of a child shakes up the entire family structure. The child’s presence is forever gone and their role in the family will never be replaced. While any death will shake up a family, the death of a child brings a major blow to the family unit because family life is so centered on the children. When that child’s laughter, antics, wisdom, sweetness, and uniqueness is taken away, it can leave the family with a large void that nothing can fill.
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How losing a child affects the parents
The death of a child greatly impacts the identity of the parents, and it often leaves them with a sense of being a failure. After all, parents are programmed to be the preserver and protector of their children. When a child dies, many parents have an identity crisis. Why? They could not protect their child against death. Many parents feel a great sense of powerlessness when a child dies and may even begin to question their abilities to even parent surviving children.
Parental grief is different from other forms of grief because of the number of issues that have to be processed. Grief symptoms and stages will be more intense and painful. Grieving parents have major work to do in regards to guilt, anger, depression, and separation pain.
Sadly, while society recognizes parental grief as the most intense of all grief – it knows little about how to support grieving parents. Society has yet to even give parents who have lost a child to death a name. Children without parents are called orphans. Spouses who have lost a partner are called widows or widowers. Yet, there is no word for parents who have lost children. Perhaps this is because there is no word in the human language to describe such a devastating loss?
How to help grieving parents in the early days
There is nothing that you can say or do to ease the shock and pain that a parent feels when a child dies. However, there are some things you can do in the short term to help as many newly grieving parents may not have the energy to cope with the many details and duties surrounding the death:
* Offer to make telephone calls to family, friends, and co-workers to notify them about funeral or ceremony arrangements.
* Offer to greet any visitors which may come to the home. You can also field any telephone calls that come into the household and screen them for the family. Keep a running list of everyone who calls or stops by to visit the family.
* Work with others and arrange food and drinks for the family for up to a week. Do not forget things such as ice, napkins, paper plates, toilet paper, and tissues.
* If the deceased’s family has guests coming in for the funeral from out of town, offer to pick them up at the airport or give driving directions.
* Keep the household neat and orderly and tend to any children which may accompany visitors.
How to help grieving parents in the weeks and months ahead
1. Offer to help write thank you cards.
2. Arrange to help with household chores and outside yard work, or find people who will do it for the deceased’s family if you are unable.
3. Keep an eye on the grieving family’s pets. Sometimes four-legged family members go unnoticed. They may also grieve and need extra attention that the family may not be capable of giving.
4. Run errands and do the shopping for the family.
5. Give support to the family by asking them if they would like to visit the cemetery.
6. Encourage the family to talk about the deceased.
Lastly, while no two parents will grieve the same, it is important that parents who have lost children to death find a way to connect with other parents who have experienced the same loss. This can be done through support groups, reading, or going to forums for bereaved parents on the Internet. However, parents shouldn’t be pushed into this. What you can do is supply the information and place it in their home for them for when they do become ready to reach out for support.
Recommended reading on coping with the loss of a child
For more information and advice on coping with the death of a child, take a look at the following books: