Coping With the Sudden Death of a Child

Keep the Family Bonded and Seek Help for Your Grief

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When someone close dies at an older age, people often take comfort not only in celebrating their life, but also in knowing that death is part of the natural process of living. This experience is not the same when you are faced with the sudden death of your child.

For parents who have lost a child, it makes no sense for life to end at such a young age—particularly when the death is sudden and without warning. The loss cuts so deep, it can be suffocating. If you are dealing with this type of loss in your family, here are some tips to help you and your family cope.

Stick Together

Stick together as a family and lean on each other for help. While everyone in the family will need to have their private time, you also can find comfort in each other. Being together can help you remember that you are not alone in your grief. Use the strength of your family's sense of belonging to help you manage your sorrow. Be there to consistently support one another.

Although it was once believed that the death of a child led to a high divorce rate among bereaved parents, scientific research does not support this. A study of parents of children with cancer (some of whom did not survive), published in 2010, found that among almost 5,000 couples studied, the divorce rate was not elevated except in a few particular circumstances. An older study reviewed the current state of research and concluded that "the majority of marital relationships survive the strain brought about by a child's death and may even be strengthened in the long run."

Seek Professional Help

However, since everyone grieves differently, facing the loss of a child can certainly put strain on a marriage and on each parent's relationship with surviving children. Seek professional help when coming to terms with your loss. Don't try to get through this situation on your own. Family counseling can give you and your family the skills you need to get through the tremendously difficult loss.

If death is sudden, grief is not necessarily greater than it would have been with an anticipated death. But it may be harder to cope with because it is so disruptive, according to Therese Rando, a psychologist and the clinical director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss. For this reason, it is important to find a professional who can help you find workable coping solutions. These strategies will help you manage the days, weeks, and months ahead. Meanwhile, your other children may also benefit from grief counseling to learn to manage their feelings.

Accept Help

Be open and willing to accept help from extended family members, friends, or neighbors. Allow them to help you with meals, watching your other children, helping around the house, running errands, and most importantly, being there to listen when you need to talk.

Also, allow others to do day-to-day tasks like your laundry or grocery shopping. Don't try to do everything on your own or without help. Give yourself the break you need. And, if people have said things like "let me know how I can help," take them up on their offer. Ask for their help when you need it. Those around you have the desire to help, but they may not know how.

Prepare for "After the Casseroles Are Done"

There are two distinct time periods after a loss that can help you understand the grieving process. The first is immediately following the death, when extended family, friends, and community gather. It is the time period when you are dealing with funerals and memorial services and there is lots of activity. The second is "after the casseroles are done," which describes the time when all of the food that was given to the family by neighbors and friends is gone. Everyone else gets back to life as they know it and the grieving family begins to face life without the one they lost.

Most people assume that dealing with a loss of a child immediately following the death is the most heart-rending nightmare. What they do not realize is that the heart-rending nightmare continues.

The family has to continue to cope with their nightmare long after the casseroles are done. They are facing the rest of their lives without the child they lost. This new reality is by far one of the most trying.

Although it is tempting to just shut down, it is important to keep the lines of communication open and spend quality time together. Talking to each other about your loss, the loved one who has died, and what you are feeling will help everyone in your family process their grief.

It also will help your family's bonds remain strong or grow stronger. Remember, knowing that their family is still strong can help your other children successfully navigate their grieving process, as well.

Continue Seeing a Professional 

While getting help to see you through the initial shock of your loss is very important, it is also imperative to continue seeking help. You will need support for any unforeseen issues that the loss may cause, especially as you move through the stages of grief.

Issues may crop up like a sibling's grades dropping, teen depression, or a family member no longer wanting to live without the loved one who died. It is much easier to get help in these situations when you are already seeing a professional who knows you and what your family is going through. Then, when problems arise, you have a person who can help you process what is happening and work through it.

Find a Support Group

Many parents find that it helps to join a support group, either as a family or alone. While it doesn't take the place of seeing a dedicated professional, groups can add another layer of support. Not only does it offer the opportunity to connect with people who are experiencing the same thing you are, but healthy support groups often provide a safe place to share what you are thinking and feeling with people who "get it." As much as your friends want to empathize and be there for you, there are just some elements about losing a child that they just may not comprehend. For this reason, support groups can be vital to the healing process.

Pay Attention to Your Health

More often than not, parents and their children are so overcome with grief over the sudden loss of a loved one, that they neglect their own health. They may forget to eat, stop exercising, and rely on fast food because they just don't have the energy to cook. They also might neglect regular doctor visits and checkups, too.

While it is important to make an effort to eat healthy and get some exercise, do not beat yourself up for not going to the gym or cooking elaborate meals. Take baby steps to get back on track. For instance, set a goal of taking a short walk through the neighborhood each day and eating a piece of fruit with your meals. As you start feeling better, you can incorporate more healthy lifestyle changes and routines back into your life. Most people find that when they feel better physically, they also start to feel better mentally.

Avoid Negative People

There are plenty of people out there that just do not know how to respond with compassion and empathy to what you and your family are experiencing. They may say insensitive things; or, they may put unrealistic expectations on you. They may say things like "you should be over this by now" or "at least you have another child." None of these things are healthy for you or your family.

Grief is a process. There is never a point where you are suddenly "over it." You will get to a point where you can smile and laugh again. But, that doesn't mean that you are over the fact that you lost a child.

Losing a child suddenly changes you; and if there are toxic friends in your life who cannot respect your feelings and treat you with kindness, you need to weed them out. You do not need more pain and sadness in your life. Surround yourself with people who are supportive and caring. Doing so will make the grieving process much more bearable.

Get Everyone Back Into Routines

Routines provide a sense of comfort and security, especially for children. As a result, it is important to incorporate your routines back into your life as soon as you can. This effort can include the daily routines of getting ready for school and work, having dinner together, or participating in family nights. It also includes being active with hobbies and interests you had prior to your loved one's death.

If kids are on a sports team, they should go back to practice. They also need to go back to school and get into a routine of studying. Meanwhile, if one of your family routines needs to be changed because your loved one is no longer there, acknowledge it. Getting back into a routine doesn't mean that you have to pretend like things are the same.

Use Creative Outlets

Get everyone a journal or sketch pad and suggest that they use it when they are feeling down. It often helps to express grief through journaling, drawing, or painting. Another option is to create a playlist in memory of your child, write a poem, or create a song—anything that provides a creative outlet for your grief. Creative outlets can help you make sense of your feelings. Make sure you are providing plenty of opportunities for you and your family members to express grief and heal.

Stay a Family

Be a family, and remember that your lost child is still a part of it. Everyone in your family will carry the lost child in their hearts for the rest of their lives. Create a family tradition that will help you remember the good memories you had together. For example, you could enter a community walk or a run in memory of your child, or start an event of your own.

Other grieving parents have performed random acts of kindness in memory of their child, donated to a cause close to their child's heart, developed a scholarship fund in their child's name, or planted a tree or shrub in their memory. Be creative and do something that makes sense for your family.

A Word From Verywell

The grief that accompanies losing a child suddenly is unlike anything you will ever experience. It shocks your system. And while coping with the loss will not be easy, if you make a concerted effort to stick together as a family and take care of yourselves, you will make it through. The important thing is that you rely on one another, communicate regularly even when it is uncomfortable, and continue to see a professional who can help you process your emotions and find workable solutions for continuing your life.

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