“It does not appear to make a difference whether one’s child is three, thirteen or thirty if he dies. The emotion in each of us is the same. How could it be that a parent outlives a child?”
Schiff The Bereaved Parent
No-one expects their child to die before them. It is out of the natural order of things and something that should
never happen. For some the tragedy feels too overwhelming. They go through the motions, unable to rebuild
their lives around their grief. At Child Bereavement UK, we believe that with the right help and support, lives can
slowly be rebuilt. This leaflet includes quotes from bereaved parents who attend the CBUK child loss groups. It
contains information and guidance on ways that might help you start to make small steps towards learning to live
a new life, one that will continue to have a place for your child, but a different one.
“I know that we cannot see our child by our side, we cannot hold them, but the love we felt for each other is imbedded in our soul, runs through our veins and inhabits every breath we take.”
Sue White whose son Paul died age 18 years.
Age makes no difference
When a child of any age dies, parents and carers lose much more than a precious son or daughter. Life as they
knew it has been irreversibly changed. They lose a future which included a child they nurtured, cared for, loved
and who has now been cruelly taken away from them. With younger children the milestones are different from
those of a teenager, or a young adult, but the pain surrounding shattered dreams is no less whatever the age.
How you might be feeling
Everyone is different and everyone grieves the death of a child in their own way. What you feel is what you feel.
That doesn’t make your response right or wrong, it is just how you are. Grief is made up of a surprising number
of responses of varying intensity. It is normal to shed a few tears, sob uncontrollably, do neither, or anything
inbetween. There is no set formula and no predictable timescale.
The families we support at Child Bereavement UK talk about some common responses. These include:
- complete exhaustion, particularly in the early days
- physical aches including a tightness in the throat or chest
- being unable to concentrate on anything else making the simplest task a challenge
- a sense of “what’s the point?“ to life, a feeling of complete helplessness
- a great void or emptiness that will never be filled
- feeling that life will never again hold any pleasure or happiness
Emotions might include complete disbelief but mixed in with flashes of a reality too awful to contemplate. You
may suffer feelings of guilt, believing the child was your responsibility, it was your duty to keep him/her safe, that
there should have been something you could have done to prevent their death. Some feel a need to blame
someone, something, or even themselves. For others this is not an issue. However irrational, these feelings can
be strong and replay over and over again as you try to make sense of what has happened.
“I think my body has let me down, I think I have let my husband down.”
Grief as a consequence of the death of your child can be all consuming and all powerful. It has a habit of
catching you unawares. Familiar routines may trigger unwanted, painful memories. “I avoid people in
supermarkets, hide up another aisle, I don’t want to talk to anybody.” Sudden waves of emotion overwhelm you when you are desperately trying to keep them under control. This is usual. It might help to protect yourself a little by doing things such as the shopping in a different supermarket until you feel a bit stronger and a bit more in
control. Gradually the grief softens, you become aware that the good days are increasing in number. Eventually
it becomes a part of your life, a part of who you are, and a part of your relationship with your child. Some
describe it as a new way of being.
Grief and relationships
Parents may change so much after the death of their child that to each other they become unrecognisable as the
people who met and began a family life years before.They will need to discover who they are all over again and
both partners will need space and time as they grieve for their child in their own way and on different timescales.
“My partner cannot talk about our child or look at photos, I want to and need to.”
Marriages and partnerships may shake or crumble under the heavy weight of grief and loss but in time many will
find a path forward. They can become stronger and life will mean something again. Others will be different.
Some adults find the death of a child too painful to contemplate and cope by “switching off“. It can be hard if your
partner appears unaffected or is behaving in what might come across as an insensitive or inappropriate way. It
might help to remember they are still grieving, just doing it differently. See our information sheet Women, men and grief for more on this subject.
The families we support tell us that only other parents who have experienced the death of their child can truly
appreciate the depth of pain and distress. They explain that this is why they feel so isolated. The bereaved
parents we see do find comfort from support and concern offered by family and friends but what is lacking is a
real and deep understanding of what it is like to lose a child and how life changes as a result.
“People think I am OK because I am dressed and out, they don’t know how I feel inside.”
Some people will struggle with what to say to you and therefore say nothing. Others will unintentionally say
something hurtful or insenstive. It takes energy you might not have, but people will follow your lead. If you start to
talk about your child, probably they will too, but sometimes it is a conversation stopper which you feel obliged to
manage. Others may have expectations of how they think you should be feeling and what you should be doing.
Try to remind yourself that this is your grief, for your child,and you know better than anyone what is going to get
What might help
The families we support at Child Bereavement UK say don’t expect anything of yourself and take each day as it comes. There is
no time scale, and it will probably take longer than you would want before you start to get some sense of life
being back on track.
Many of our families have found the support of people who are prepared to listen to them going over the death
time and time again is key. Some will find these people amongst their own families and friends, others will prefer
to seek help from professionals, many use both. Try to be open minded to the various types of support on offer.
Counselling offers time with someone whose job it is to listen and who has the training and experience to
understand. You can say exactly what you think or feel and know that you are not upsetting them in the same
way as family and friends. Couples we support tell us that counselling provides the only time in which they feel
safe enough to honestly talk to one another about thoughts and feelings. Our freephone Helpline on 0800 02 888 40 can help you to find counsellors or bereavement support services in your local area.
You can share experiences by going to a group to meet other families whose child has died. Child Bereavement
UK runs parent groups in some of our centres around the UK, or contact The Compassionate Friends for groups
throughout the UK.
“Meeting other parents who are also going through the devastating loss of a child has shown us that some of the difficult emotions that we feel are ‘normal’ and it has helped enormously to know we are not alone.”
It might help to share stories over the telephone with others who have “been there” with the free Child Death
Helpline on 0800 282 986. This is available for anyone affected by the death of a child. It is staffed by volunteers all
of whom are bereaved parents.
Physical wellbeing – looking after yourself
Grief can be exhausting, and you may feel helpless and overwhelmed at times. It may not feel important to look after yourself physically, but this can help in managing the impact of grief. Emotional pain shows in physical ways, such as sleep and appetite problems, or physical aches and pains. Having a routine, getting social support from other people, exercise, and managing sleep and diet are all ways to maintain your physical wellbeing. These can help to reduce stress, anxiety and isolation, and give you more energy to be able to focus on what is most important to you.
Our leaflet Maintaining your physical wellbeing: support for bereaved parents has more information and suggestions for small, achievable ways to look after yourself.
Going back to work
This can be a daunting prospect for both a mother or father. The amount of leave people are given, or take, after
a bereavement varies enormously. However much time you have had, you will still be grieving for your child and
the decision to go back to work can be a difficult one. For others, returning to work is a positive step, providing
some routine to the day.
Try to meet with your manager to discuss how you would like your return handled and how best to let everyone
know what has happened. It might help ease the transition if you arrange to go in for a short time before your
actual start day to meet colleagues. This is a way to help overcome the hurdle of seeing everyone on your
firstday back, some of whom might be uncomfortable with what to say to you. Your employer only needs to have
as much information as you want to give them, but it is important that they are aware. You may be anxious about
becoming tearful or emotional. This may well happen but if people know the reason why, it will help them to
understand your upset.
Be realistic about what you can manage at work and if you can, find quiet moments for a bit of peace, or time to
shed a few tears if you need to. Child Bereavement UK has helpful leaflets Guidance for Employees and
Guidance for Employers on returning to work after your baby or child has died.
Farewell My Child
Stories told and memories cherished, shared experiences of child bereavement. A collection of family stories telling their own personal experiences of bereavement. Available from our online shop.