Bereaved Parents


Author: Peggy Rainone, EMT-B

Recently, a father shared his story of grief following the murder of his daughter. His closing words were simply, “I lost my baby. When I promised her at birth that I would protect her and keep her safe, I obviously lied.”

The death of a child, regardless of their age or the cause of their death, is the most traumatic loss experience. When a child dies, it will take many years for the parents to cope with their pain and sorrow. They must learn to survive in a world without their child. Family and friends who have not had a similar experience do not understand the day-to-day struggles and the unique grief that accompanies the death of a child.

Shortly after your child has died, people may suggest or even demand that you “get over your grief and get on with life.” In reality, though, you never get over it. You learn to weave your grief into your life. What was normal for you before your child’s death is not normal now. Your life will never be as it was. It will take many, many months before you will want to reinvest in life and living. Your world has been turned upside-down. During the early months of your grief, every minute of every day is a struggle.

If you have experienced the death of a loved one, multiply the pain and emotions you felt by ten thousand. This will give you some idea of how a bereaved parent feels. His or her grief is undeniably the worst pain that anyone can experience. Bereaved parents may feel anger, guilt, intense sorrow, hopelessness, and loneliness; similar to a deep void inside their very being. A void they are afraid will never go away. Thoughts of suicide are commonplace.

For many years, I facilitated a monthly support group for parents who had had a child or children die. It was a safe and loving haven. Bereaved parents were offered suggestions for coping with their grief and pain. Our format was simple. We would begin our meetings with each parent telling their personal story of how their child died. A video or audiotape of interest was often a highlight of our meeting. We discussed our daily struggles, coping with our job and social commitments, or helping our surviving children heal their grief. During our sharing sessions, we learned that we were not alone in our suffering and pain and that most bereaved parents experience similar emotions such as fear, depression, anger, and guilt.

Although you have never experienced the death of a child, you can help bereaved parents in several ways. Be present in their lives. Allow them to talk about their child as often as needed. They may cry uncontrollably. They may rant and rave. They may scream. They may ask "why.” Why THEIR child? Why did this happen? Why didn't they die instead of their child? You do not need to have ready answers for these questions because there are usually no exact answers or solutions.

Bereaved parents may feel inadequate as a parent. They often believe they failed their child in some way. They believe it was their responsibility to raise their child and protect him or her from any harm or sickness. Now their child has died and the parents question their role as a "good parent.” All of these behaviors and feelings are normal.

Thoughts of suicide are common for bereaved parents. If you are concerned, do not be afraid to ask him or her what their true feelings are. Do they have a suicide plan? If you believe they are very serious about completing suicide, get professional help immediately. I would suspect they feel there is no reason for living without their child. However, as they journey through their grief, these thoughts of suicide will wane. Bereaved parents need tender, loving care. Hold them tight and lend emotional and physical help as often as needed.

I recommend the following books for coping with the death of a child. A more extensive booklist can be found on our website at www.hugstraining.com/ReadingResources.cfm.

  • The Bereaved Parent by Harriett Schiff
  • Don't Take My Grief Away by Doug Manning
  • When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner
  • Recovering from the Loss of a Child by Katherine Donnelly
  • Just Us by Wanda Henry-Jenkins (homicidal loss and grief)

Another good resource is The Compassionate Friends, a non-profit organization for bereaved parents and siblings. You may visit their website at www.compassionatefriends.org to locate a support group near your hometown.

Alive Alone (www.alivealone.org) is a support resource for bereaved parents with no surviving children. Kay and Rodney Bevington provide a newsletter as well as a self-help network.

From personal experience, I would like to share this advice. Please be gentle with those of us who are bereaved parents. Please listen to our story. If we cry just hold us close. Please mention our child's name often. Our greatest fear is that our child will be forgotten. On the anniversary of our child's death, their birthday, or other painful days, a loving hug or a "thinking of you today,” will make the hurt ease somewhat. We know most of you are uncomfortable around us and don't know the right words to say. We truly understand, for once upon a time, we did not know the right words to say to our friends who had a child die.

You may see us smile or hear us laugh, but always remember that every day we think about this child and miss them very much. We are slowly, very slowly, coping in this world without them.