Grief and Feelings of Loss
In the beginning you may feel so shocked that your body and mind cannot even begin to comprehend all that has been lost. Your investment in such a precious life is immense and deep-rooted.
Other than stating that it is perfectly normal to feel depressed after a sudden and unexpected death, there is little anyone can say to ease the continuous, crashing waterfall of pain. You may experience strong physical pain, struggling to complete even the most basic tasks of daily living.
“I just wanted to curl up and die.”
Feelings of shock, disbelief, and a sense of numbness or unreality, too, are completely normal immediate reactions. They may serve to cushion the impact of the loss until you are more able to face the devastating reality of your child’s death. This numbness often begins to wear off after six to eight weeks when you may experience your grief more intensely. This sometimes coincides with the time when visits/calls from family and friends slow down too.
“I felt so alone and immobilised, watching everyone else getting on with their lives.”
After the death of your baby/child, it is not unusual to feel isolated and lonely. Telling others of your child’s death can be extremely difficult and may cause much distress. Going shopping, meeting neighbours in the street and taking other children to school can all seem overwhelming.
There may be times when you withdraw into yourself and lose interest in everything around you. It may take weeks and often months before you feel able to return to daily activities.
“I totally broke down. I isolated myself from my family and had no energy for anyone — only enough for survival”.
Below are some normal and common responses experienced in the first weeks and months following the death of a child:
* A feeling of shock or numbness is a very usual response to a sudden loss. This is often what gets people through the first few months. It is the way your body protects you from the full force of the tragic reality.
* “If onlys” — This continuous inner dialogue is an understandable way of wanting to go back in time and try and change things so that your child does not die. Feelings of resentment and anger can be overpowering. The implicit belief that bad things should not happen to good people is seriously challenged.
“If we are really good people and we give our whole heart to the bloody community and to everyone, our friends and family, there is the fact that we just don’t deserve it. And it’s so annoying. I know so many people … actually I shouldn’t say it … well, you feel like saying that person deserves it, not me. They’re the assholes, not me.”
* It is not unusual to get ‘flashbacks’, especially of the moment that your baby/ child died. These strong mental images are a reaction to trauma and may appear ‘out of the blue’. They may cause tension, anxiety, guilt, bad dreams, and the feeling that you are losing your mind. These should soften and reduce in frequency over time.
“I always have flashbacks since then, from the moment the doctor told me that X’s heart stopped, and my wife started to cry. God, this is the worst feeling I ever had, and it is still going on. Crying might help a little bit.”
You may experience panic attacks and feel out of control. Letting the feelings run through you, taking slow, deep breaths and consciously relaxing your tense muscles will help the feelings of panic disappear. You may like to join a yoga class or use a relaxation tape to help you go through relaxation exercises.
* Feeling irritable with little things others consider important — Your world has been turned upside down, yet others continue as if nothing has happened. It is perfectly normal to be offended or perhaps feel anger at the unfairness of it all!
“I was inwardly screaming about how incredibly unfair life can be! I find it hard when you read about the kids who have had these horrible things done to them by their parents, or that they just don’t care, and you do care absolutely. It’s a very hard point.”
* It can be hard to make decisions on practical matters – Most grieving parents experience great pain and distress deciding what to do with their child’s belongings. Some people feel frozen in time when their child dies; others seem to throw themselves into action. For many parents, it seems to be perfectly fine to leave things just as they were the day their child died, yet for others, the belongings are too sad a reminder of their loss. In most cases it is best not to make any big decisions about belongings for a while, as you can change your mind about how different things affect you. It can take some time before you will be able to think rationally and constructively.
Holding onto any experiences, memories, or mementoes you have of your child can be affirming and restorative in the future.
“We have a back cupboard and you can open up the cupboard with all her play things there. Bethany’s room would still be as it was, had we not moved house.”
“Sometimes I can be with Sian’s things without crying and sometimes I can’t. Her school bag is still in the laundry, where it was every night after school and her room is the same. I have bought things to put into her room since she died, and people give us things for Sian’s room. I can’t ever imagine, unless I suppose if we ever had another baby, that we would pack it up. It gives me peace that her room will be her room and Dane, her little brother, can go in there at any time and play with her things, just like they used to when she was alive.”
You might find a time comes when holding on to your child’s possessions no longer feels right or circumstances may arise that break the connection.
“The back room has the double wardrobe and it’s full, just full of her things. I had to go and look for something and it was the first time that I opened the wardrobe and saw her special boxes and I was a mess. Charlotte was helping me and goes ‘Mummy, these are all cupcakes’. Everything was cupcakes, a cupcake clock, a cupcake hook thing. I wish I could actually enjoy those things but they all smell awful now. They don’t smell like her at all, they smell like storage. It sucks! I didn’t expect it to be there still but I couldn’t believe how different it smelt.”
“Every Friday night, I would light candles around the house and in front of her photo. Her brothers were at the age that when they saw a lit candle, they would blow it out. That was OK. I couldn’t get cross with them.”
* Feeling disconnected with the world – After a sudden and unexpected death of a child, it is common for bereaved parents to feel isolated and alone and unable to really identify with the rest of the world. You can find yourself becoming forgetful, impatient and unable to concentrate. You might experience anxiety, guilt, despair and overwhelming confusion and life suddenly seems to be “out of control”. Physical reactions such as changes in appetite, sleeping difficulties, fatigue and a general feeling of being unwell can also be experienced. These are all part of grief and are common responses to loss.
* Dealing with the reactions of others – There may be people who are too uncomfortable or too overwhelmed to visit, call or send a note at the time of your tragedy. Later they may feel too embarrassed to cross paths with you. Others may minimise or misunderstand your grief. Many people do not understand the power, depth, intensity or duration of parental grief, especially after the death of a child.
“Sadly there have been some friends who have found our journey too confronting or difficult and we haven’t seen or heard from them since Iris’s funeral, and perhaps we’ll never see them again.”
The fact is that most people in our society have not had open discussions about life and death issues nor do they seem to know how to talk to others after a death. Many parents feel they have reluctantly become the ‘expert’ and so you may find yourself needing to take the initiative in talking about your child so others will know that it is okay.
Family and friends are often deeply distressed when someone close to them has a child die. They may feel incredibly helpless and powerless and wonder what they can possibly do to make the family ‘feel better’. Sometimes they add to your sadness through insensitive remarks.
“Sometimes, well-meaning friends have said things like: ‘She’s in a better place now’. Comments like this have upset and angered us, since the very best place for her would be with us.”
Writing a letter to let family and friends know how to support you can be easier than telling them face to face. Here is a poem that you might like to show someone you know:
PLEASE, don’t ask me if I am over it yet.
I’ll never be over it.
PLEASE, don’t tell me “He/She is in a better place.”
He/she isn’t here with me.
PLEASE, don’t say “At least he isn’t suffering.”
I haven’t come to terms with why he/she had to suffer at all.
PLEASE, don’t tell me you know how I feel.
Unless you have lost a child.
PLEASE, don’t ask me if I feel better.
Bereavement isn’t a condition that clears up.
PLEASE, don’t tell me “At least you had him for so many years.”
What year would you choose your child to die?
PLEASE, don’t tell me “God never gives us more than we can bear.”
PLEASE, just say you are sorry.
PLEASE, just say you remember my child, if you do.
PLEASE, just let me talk about my child.
PLEASE, mention my child’s name.
PLEASE, just let me cry.
At the same time, the support of family and friends can be invaluable to bereaved parents. In fact, it can greatly affect how a family will ‘get through’ the months ahead.
“Good friends have been able to hear our distress and we have weathered the storm of well-intentioned, but poorly thought out comments.”
“Watching my parents has also been harrowing. Iris was their first and only grand-daughter and they were totally smitten with her. Not only have they experienced their own extreme grief over losing Iris, but they have also agonised over seeing Rob and I so broken. Through all of this they have helped us with amazing emotional and practical support”.
This article was prepared using extracts from Your Child has Died: Some Answers To Your Questions.1 The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.
Last reviewed: 22/9/23
- Same, D. & Bereaved Parents & Red Nose Grief and Loss Services. (2016). Your Child has Died: Some Answers To Your Questions: A Booklet for Bereaved Parents whose Young Child has Died Suddenly and Unexpectedly. Malvern, Vic.: Red Nose Grief and Loss Services.