You may also experience the profound effects of shock and trauma due to the sudden nature of the death. All of these elements can feel completely overwhelming, and you may feel isolated and lost. Whatever your thoughts and feelings, grief is a deeply personal experience, it has no set time and everyone deals with it in their own way. There is no wrong or right way to grieve; your feelings may seem strange at times; interchanging from crying one minute and laughing the next.
It can be a turbulent time, although there may be periods of calm. Intense emotions, which had seemed to fade, can return. You may feel confused or find it difficult to make decisions, or concentrate for any length of time. Even if you can sleep you may still feel exhausted. Grieving people can sometimes fear they are going mad. Many parents say that their child is always on their mind, that they experience aching arms, and hear their child cry. Some people have a strong need to continue with routine childcare tasks.
Parents often go over and over in their minds everything they did or did not do, which they worry, could have caused the death. They sometimes blame themselves or each other, or feel angry with the doctor, health visitor or anyone who had seen the child recently. These feelings of guilt and blame are normal, very common, and will lessen with time. Talk to someone if you feel able to. Someone outside of the family can talk through those questions and thoughts.
Almost all grieving parents feel anger, at some point. Parents sometimes find helpful outlets for anger, such as crying and shouting in an outdoor open space, or exercise like walking/running/jogging. Some people start to doubt or question their religious beliefs. It is also not unusual to feel anxious or to fear something happening to other family members.
If you are finding it hard to imagine carrying on, have suicidal thoughts or are thinking about harming yourself, it is important that you tell someone about the way you feel. If you can’t face talking to your loved ones or friends, you can talk to someone at The Lullaby Trust, where we have a helpline especially for bereaved parents and family members 0808 802 6868 Mon to Fri 10am – 5pm, Sat and Sun 6pm – 10pm
The Samaritans are open 24 hours a day on 116 123.
You can also turn to your GP or Health Visitor who should be able to offer support if they know how you feel. They will understand that a parent who has experienced the sudden unexpected death of their child may possibly be depressed or suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and can help you to access services, such as counselling/ therapy or mental health support, which will provide extra support for you. There may be waiting lists to access this support, but charities are always available to listen to you.
You will need to give yourself time to grieve. Be kind to yourself, avoid trying to block your feelings with drugs or alcohol, this only tends to postpone the grieving process.
Take each moment as it comes, don’t think too far ahead and give yourself credit for getting through each day.
Most parents who experience the death of their child describe the pain as the most intense they have ever felt. You may wonder if you will be able to tolerate it and survive or be able to feel that life has meaning again.
It can feel as though you are functioning in a fog during the first few weeks after your child’s death. Some parents describe their experience of the funeral as of being an observer or not really being emotionally involved.
One mum described how isolated she felt:
“After the funeral and people have gone back home, you have to get back to some kind of normality. But many nights can be spent in solitary grief, feeling that you cannot keep bothering people time and time again, just because you feel upset.”
A dad emailed The Lullaby Trust, describing how he felt after his son’s funeral:
“After the funeral, part of me felt that I couldn’t carry on. The other part of me was searching for normality – doing routine and mindless things to block out the pain, trying to avoid thinking about what had happened. I returned to work after a week, but I just couldn’t concentrate; I couldn’t see the point.”
Birthdays, holidays and the anniversary of the death can trigger periods of intense pain and suffering. These are all normal reactions. You and your partner may experience your grief differently, and may have difficulty in sharing feelings. You may feel isolated, even though you are part of a couple. One of you may want to talk often about your child while the other may not even want to hear their baby’s name spoken.
One mum told The Lullaby Trust:
“He didn’t want to talk, that was his way of dealing with it, whereas I wanted to talk about our son all the time, to keep his name on people’s lips. I would lie awake at night and there he was, forgetting all his worries, asleep. Losing our son put an enormous strain on our relationship, but in the end it bonded us together completely. It would take an atomic bomb to split us apart now.”
One dad said:
“We coped in different ways – she grieved, I didn’t. I began to feel overwhelmed by the burden of supporting my wife and children while at the same time trying to cope with my own feelings.”
Friends and relatives often treat parents differently after the death of a child. Fathers are often asked “how is your wife?”, and people may forget to say “how are you?”
Fathers may feel it is their job to discourage looking back, and to encourage facing the future. Men often refuse help, or may not ask for support when it might be helpful.
Parents’ relationship with each other may suffer further as one of you may find comfort in physical contact, but it is not wanted by the other. You may feel differently about making love, or the possibility of having another baby.
It is possible to misunderstand the reasons for each other’s responses (sometimes one partner feels that the other’s way of expressing their grief means they loved their child less intensely) so try to be open and honest about your own needs and feelings, accepting that each person’s response is valid.
In time, couples who can respect each other’s different ways of grieving often find that they can begin to talk, share and support each other more easily.
If you are on your own
For a parent on his or her own, the sudden and unexpected death of a child can be particularly difficult.
One mum told The Lullaby Trust:
“It is very hard to describe the loneliness which grief brings when you have no partner to share the loss of a beloved child. The burden becomes only yours. You seem to drive into a dark world of your own, shutting out everyone around you. All you want is a partner to comfort you in the sleepless nights, to hug you and dry away the tears, to share memories. It is so easy to fall apart when you’re on your own.”
Many parents turn to their own parents in times of need, but some have no family to support them. The Lullaby Trust’s Befriender programme could be of some support to you. We can put you in touch with a Befriender, who is a bereaved parent to talk about some of the thoughts and feelings you may be struggling with. Please phone The Lullaby Trust on 0808 802 6868 to talk to a Befriender directly.
You may find this helpful straight after your child has died, or even months or years later.
If you do not feel up to talking, you may find it helpful to keep a journal or write letters. One mum told The Lullaby Trust:
“I wrote letters to Michael all the time. I still have those letters and although I don’t write them anymore, I do sometimes still read them.”
Even if you are not on your own you may find writing such letters to your child helpful.
You may find it useful to contact Gingerbread, an organisation who offer support to single parents
Life after your child’s death
The death of a child inevitably changes the dreams and hopes parents have for the future.
One dad said:
“I miss my son as much for the things we didn’t do together as for the things we did. What strikes me most of all these days is the fundamental way in which his death has changed and continues to change us. He was only with us for five months, but I doubt if anyone else will make such a profound impression on our lives.”
People may suggest at some point that you should be ‘over it’. This is a meaningless concept for a bereaved parent, so try not to let others suggest that you should be ‘moving on’. With support from friends and relatives and perhaps discussion with a Lullaby Trust Befriender or adviser, you will make your own decisions about what helps you to cope and carry on. It is almost always a good idea to talk things over when you feel especially low, or if you are tempted to use alcohol, medication or drugs to numb your grief temporarily.
Such a profound bereavement may change your priorities or make you look at life differently.
One mum said:
“One thing that grief has done for me is to make me wiser and the future brighter. No matter what comes along, you know that you can cope with anything; nothing can ever be as bad again for you. I will always keep my son in my heart and I am glad to have had such an angel share my life.”
Talking about your child’s death can be a great help. Many people turn to close relatives and friends for comfort and you can also talk with your GP, health visitor or the midwife who knew your child.
If your child has died you may feel that no one can help with any of your feelings, but emotional support in the short term may help you to keep going.
The Lullaby Trust offers a Helpline for bereaved families, carers and professionals involved with bereaved families and anyone concerned about or affected by the death of a baby or young child. Specially trained advisers staff the Helpline, and your call will be answered personally. The information you give will be kept confidential 0808 802 6868