An only child
When an only child dies, parents may feel that they have lost their identity as a family. However, while your parenting ‘role’ is gone, you will never stop being a parent. Your child will always be a part of your family.
“I felt robbed of my identity. When Phillip was alive I was a mum, and I was doing all right thank you very much. Next minute, I was nobody. I had no son. I wasn’t a mother anymore, and here are all my friends and their nice, perfect babies having a nice time. I found that really hard.” (Susan)
The death of a twin is always a tragedy, and it is not lessened because you happen to have another baby the same age. Not only are you grieving over the death of your child; you’ve lost that ‘specialness’ that goes with having twins, and you may worry about the effect of the child’s death on the twin.
“The greatest day of my life was when I had twins, Stephanie and Natalie had a special bond between them. The day Stephanie died we came home, and seeing Natalie standing at her sister’s cot looking for her was heartbreaking. I cry because I know Natalie will never get to grow up with her sister – never get to have that bond that twins have. It’s hard because you are constantly reminded of a lot of things, because you have one twin here and one is not. It helps when you talk to someone who has been through what you have been through”. (Bridget)
“When Saffron died, a part of me died as well. The pain was so intense it felt like someone was ripping my heart from my body. I have never felt such emotional and physical pain. I didn’t want to continue in life but I had to. I still had Elliott who needed me for his own survival. It was really confusing. I was grieving for my baby Saffron while I was caring for my baby Elliott. I still struggle with this issue 16 months later and probably always will.” (Lisa M)
“We had spent nine months trying to work out how we were going to cope with two babies and congratulating ourselves on how clever we were to have the’ perfect family’ (boy and girl) as our first children. When Tahlia died we were left in a state of shock and disbelief. How could Luke be so perfect and healthy and Tahlia dead? How can you celebrate and bond with your new son and grieve for your daughter at the same time”. (Chris)
An adopted or foster child
There are special issues for families when an adopted child dies. Adoptive parents have gone through a lot to get their child. If you are an adoptive parent you have probably endured the grief associated with infertility and the long process of assessment, approval and placement. The grief associated with the death of your adopted child can be compounded when others don’t acknowledge that the child was indeed your child.
Foster parents may also find that their grief is not fully acknowledged or understood by others.
“James was our adoptive child. James had been with us for a year when he was murdered. However bureaucratic processes being what they are, the adoption had not been formalised and we were in a bit of limbo as to whether we were legally his parents, which caused some problems. But the reality was we were his parents. We were the ones who had to face the media and appeal for information when he was missing – the hardest thing I have done in my life. We were the only people who could organise a funeral that appropriately reflected the wonder and beauty of his life…There was also something very special about the way James came into our lives and I believe the drawn out process of approval and placement meant that we never took him for granted. We lived life to the full with him because even though his life was so short, I have no regrets about anything we did.” (Jack)
A child with a disability
If your child has special needs, you probably devoted a great deal of your time to caring for him or her. You may find that you can’t even begin to imagine how you will fill the hours you previously devoted to your child.
“Our daughter Stephanie was born with Charge Syndrome. When she died we thought, “How could this happen?” We had her for thirteen months. She’d been in and out of hospital. Stephanie had multiple problems. I felt like maybe I didn’t do enough for her, why did she have to go, I didn’t deserve this – she was my child. Then I thought, “How could I be so selfish?” Stephanie fought for thirteen months of her life, never really complained and was always happy. I am thankful because I got to have that special time with my daughter.” (Bridget)
“When Julian was born we embraced a life on an emotional rollercoaster of which one day was never even similar to the next. It was a life of chaos, beautiful chaos, not even similar to anyone else we knew, but we loved this life. A day never went by when I was not thankful for Julian and I openly felt that I was wrong because I never wished him to be any different than he was. We were thankful for what he gave to our other children and ourselves and we believed that this was how it would be for the rest of our lives. This was our purpose. I was so proud of Julian. He spoke through his lack of words and his inability to walk, and the understanding and patience that he demanded from others. Then so suddenly and unexpectedly he died. The pain was so great. The thought of the emptiness from the minute we woke until we slept was unthinkable. From that day on life would once again change and a bitter calm filled the air and we knew that life would now be easier but never ever better. I felt that we had lost what made us special, privileged and unique.” (Therese)
Murder or another crime
Although some other deaths, including many accidents, can be violent, a murder is unique because it is intentional. If your child was murdered, not only will you be experiencing the thoughts and feelings other bereaved parents go through, you will most probably experience intense anger and rage at the perpetrator, including thoughts of revenge, and possibly a preoccupation with thoughts of your child being terrified and unprotected.
Also, if your child died violently through murder or another crime, you will probably find yourself having the added stress of dealing with the police investigations, the media, lawyers, trials and other aspects of what may seem to be an impersonal or even unjust criminal justice system. These legal processes will almost always take some time.
If your child’s killer is not found, or many of the facts surrounding your child’s death are unknown, you will justifiably feel that nothing feels finished and that justice has not been served.
You will probably find that these unique complications keep the wounds open for longer than other parents, it is crucial that you find good support, and someone you can really talk to.
“Murder is so hard to comprehend. I don’t believe I will ever be able to comprehend it…I always made sure I was there for Braddon through every step of his life, but I wasn’t there when he left. It’s such a helpless and overwhelming sadness…Braddon’s innocence tears at me. He has suffered the cruellest betrayal and lost the life he loved. My anger and sadness are immeasurable.” (Lisa P)
“Murder is OUTRAGEOUS. It is unacceptable. There is no excuse. It is so shattering – so impossible to comprehend. I felt the English language failed miserably in helping me, or giving me the words to talk about how I felt, or what was happening to and for me. James’ death affected thousands of people, but we are his mum and dad, and we had a different journey of police interviews, information not available to us because we were witnesses (not to his murder but his abduction) dealing with the media and dealing with sudden and distressing information from the media to which we could not even respond because we are witnesses. I know who killed James. At the moment I have no idea why – I may never know, and frankly there may never be a good enough reason. I seek to know as much and understand as much as I can, to that I am open, albeit painfully. I don’t want to add to more suffering, and certainly not more violence or abuse. There will be a legal process to which we are a part, many questions will be asked, not necessarily the ones I’d ask, because the crime is against the state, not James and not us. But I will ask if certain questions can be asked. I believe that people need to be called to account for their behaviour. Some people whose child is murdered may never know who that person/s are or it may take inordinate and impersonal amounts of time. The injustice is enormous and at times immeasurable. And at times we feel insignificant to the justice process. Perhaps the thing that is most important for us is to somehow survive this and for me obsessing about the person who killed James doesn’t help me…The journey is bloody hard – everything, everything has been challenged. I walk on this earth differently. We have grief and we have trauma and we still need support.” (Fiona)
“Everything about that time was so mixed up. We had to deal with police and the media when James was missing while dealing with our own concerns about whether he was alive or not. After he was found it seemed like ages before his body could come home because there had to be a coronial autopsy in Sydney first. So we had all these things we had to do before he came home and we could touch him and really start to accept that he was dead. Now it’s nine months later and there are still lots of things the police can’t tell us because there might still be a trial at which we would be witnesses, and that could still be a year away. At one level we had to realise that the legal system is a world unto itself and it’s not about a process that helps us understand or deal with what happened to James. The important processes for us have been the ones we had control over, the memorial service by Daylesford Lake the day after we found out he was dead, his funeral, what we did on his second birthday. The legal processes are still there, they have to be dealt with and they may be important to us in getting some information that helps us understand what happened and why, but we had to learn not to see them as the resolution of our grief.” (Jack)
The decision to turn off life support is probably one of the hardest decisions anyone ever has to make.
“We rode the roller coaster where they would say Henry was going to make it and then no, he wasn’t going to make it. I watched my child die. I gave the nod to turn off the life support. That is a trauma in itself.” (Sue W)
“My head told me that giving permission to withdraw treatment was the best thing for Hemani but my heart still tells me it wasn’t the right thing for me. I wanted my daughter in any condition. Understanding and accepting this selfishness has been very hard.” (Megan)
“My husband and I went through months of wondering whether we did the right thing in giving permission to withdraw life support. But, I feel our little girl is at peace and that she’s God’s little angel for all to see.” (Bridget)
“Our daughter was born with Muscular Dystrophy. My feeling about turning off life support is that we could have kept our daughter alive with machines, but this was not her. Jessica helped us with this decision. She was never happy doing nothing, her eyes told me she had had enough. She is in God’s care now, doing things she could never do here and I know she is at her happiest now. Although 18 months later the thought can still cross my mind – “Did we really do the right thing?”” (Karen)
“The decision to turn the life support off was easy, hard and heart rending. The easy part sounds heartless but a parent does everything and anything to save their precious baby from pain and suffering. I don’t recall if I nodded or spoke out loud, but somehow the doctors knew that I wouldn’t let Ethan suffer any longer than necessary. I feel comforted knowing that my son is no longer in pain. I feel at peace knowing that my son will never suffer. I am pleased that Ethan and I were surrounded by family and friends; and I am honoured that Ethan chose to die in my arms and not alone.” (Tracy)
This article was prepared using extracts from Always Your Child1 and Your Child has Died: Some Answers To Your Questions.2 The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.
Last reviewed: 8/12/19
- Bereaved Parents & SIDS and Kids Victoria. (2000). Always Your Child: A Booklet by and for Parents whose Baby or Young Child has Died Suddenly and Unexpectedly (V. Bateman, Comp.). Malvern, Vic.: SIDS and Kids.
- 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.