Our section Living Through Grief explains what happens to us – physically, mentally and emotionally – when we experience the pain of loss and seperation. This section highlights aspects of the grieving process, which may be experienced when grieving the death of a child.
The death of a child is often called the ultimate tragedy and is one of the most difficult deaths to grieve, as it goes against the natural order if parents have to bury their child. Whether your child is very young, young or middle aged the emotions are similar.
With the death of your child you not only lose his/her physical presence but also all of your dreams, expectations and plans for him/her. You lose part of yourself and your connection to the future. As their friends and your other children celebrate life’s events, – confirmations, graduations, marriages, etc. you will be reminded that your child will never experience these and this can be a cause of deep sadness for you at times of joy for others.
Couples and families often feel torn apart by the death of a young person. Relationships within the family and particularly between the parents can become very strained. As a family you are all grieving one death. Yet everyone has had a different relationship with the person who has died, i.e. father, mother, brother, sister. Everyone’s loss is different and everyone’s grief is different. One cannot bear the pain for another, nor can one shield the other from the pain.
Marital friction may develop out of ordinary everyday irritants. Your nervous system is raw; you may lose your patience and your sense of proportion. You may find that you have no tolerance and allow petty things, which could have been easily handled before the death, to become gigantic irritants. You may tend to dwell on the disagreeable aspects of your partner rather than the agreeable. This is the time when you really need to acknowledge that your partner’s pain is just as great as yours and that you need to give each other space. Try to be patient with each other and give as much comfort as you are able to.
One of you may want to talk about your dead child while your partner does not want to talk. One of you may want to change things around in your home and the other wants to change nothing. One of you may want to stay at home and the other wants to continually go out. One of you may rely strongly on your faith while the other loses their faith. These differences may lead to severe friction. It is so important that you recognise the differences, and give support and space to each other. You can also feel guilty at doing something happy. Often this can inhibit you from returning to a normal sex life. You may start to make love and then one of you may be overcome by an overwhelming feeling of guilt at the pleasure you are feeling and all the enjoyment goes. The other partner may not be able to understand this feeling and this can lead to friction. You need to be patient, gentle and understanding with each other and seek professional help if the problem persists. You have lost so much try not to lose more.
It is important that your child is mentioned regularly at home, but be careful not to make him/her ‘the perfect one’ thus belittling the surviving siblings. Try not to use the date of the death as the landmark for all other life events. Try, too, not to become overprotective of your other children when, in so doing, you curb their freedom.
You may feel a loss of confidence. Parents are seen as protectors of their children and you may feel that you have failed, in that you couldn’t save your child. You may worry about where she/he is now and who is caring for him/her and loving them. If your child dies from an inherited disease, you may have feelings of guilt. The parent with that gene will often be consumed by guilt. It is important that you examine all feelings of guilt to see if they are valid and, if not, try to let them go. If, however, you know that you have reason to feel guilty, ask if your child would forgive you, look for forgiveness from your family, from God and from yourself. If you feel that your partner is to blame, it is essential that you seek immediate help to work through this.
Anger can be one of the strongest feelings when grieving. Often the anger is directed at the person closest to you, so make great effort to appropriately direct it or it could destroy your relationship.
Sometimes, bereaved fathers may put their grief ‘on hold’ in order to support the rest of the family. Sooner or later grief will have to be gone through and it is better that you all grieve together. It is a good idea to set aside a regular special time during which you can both remember your child.
It will be hard for you to fully recognise your children’s grief when you are in deep pain. It is important to make sure that some caring relative or close friend is taking time to give them special care.
Grandparents also suffer. They are shocked and bewildered by their grandchild’s death. A grandchild is very precious. Grandparents suffer a double grief, the death of their beloved grandchild and the grief of seeing their own child’s sorrow and pain.
It takes courage to grieve, as it is difficult and painful. Often, to protect each other, you do not say how you are really feeling. You need to talk about your feelings. You can choose to avail of a bereavement service or you can choose to talk to a friend, whom you can trust to honour your confidentiality. It is possible, with time and effort, to recover and lead a rewarding life.