For Parents

The death and loss of a child is frequently called “the ultimate tragedy”

 

The relationship between parents and their children is among the most intense in life. Much of parenting centers on providing and doing for children, even after they have grown up. In Singapore, it is not uncommon to find a single unmarried child living with their parents for many years.

When death happens to a child, regardless of the child’s age, it robs parents of the ability to carry out their role as it is “supposed” to be. Parents often feel an overwhelming sense of failure for no longer being able to care for and protect their child, duties that one was expected to fulfill for many years.

Common responses to a child's death

In addition to the usual grief reactions listed under Common Grief Reactions, there are many issues that make parental bereavement particularly difficult to resolve. The grief over the loss of a child can be exacerbated and complicated by feelings of injustice — the understandable feeling that this loss should never have happened.

During the initial days following the death of their child, most parents experience excruciating pain, alternating with numbness — a dichotomy that may persist for months or longer. Many parents who have lost their son or daughter report they feel that they can only “exist” and every motion or need beyond that seems nearly impossible. It has been said that coping with the death and loss of a child requires some of the hardest work one will ever have to do.

Guilt appears to be one of the most common responses to dealing with the death of a child. Parents often mentally replay their actions prior to the death and wonder what they could have done differently. Their minds also play out “what-if’s” scenarios in which their child could have been saved. In addition to feelings of guilt, parents often have a sense of powerlessness that is attributed to feeling that they were not able to protect their child from harm.

Anger and frustration are also feelings reported by most parents and are common to grief in general. If their child’s death was accidental, these emotions may be intensified. There may also be anger directed to others, when life seems to go on for others — as if nothing has happened.

After the death and loss of a child, parents grieve not only for their child, but also for the loss of their hopes, dreams and expectations for that child. Time will not necessarily provide relief from this aspect of grief. Parents often experience an upsurge of grief at the time they would have expected their child to start school, graduate, get married and other important time-points that may be relevant to their culture. Parents are rarely prepared for these triggers and the wave of grief they bring. Be aware of these triggers, and allow yourself to grieve. This is a normal, appropriate and necessary part of the healing process.

Do you ever get over losing a child?

It must be remembered that bereaved parents can mourn the death and loss of a child of any age, and that it feels unnatural to outlive a child. It does not make a difference whether the child is three or thirty-three when he or she dies. All bereaved parents lose a part of themselves when their child dies.

The resolution of parental grief may seem like an overwhelming task, but it is possible. It is important to be both realistic and optimistic — that as a parent, you will never get over the death and loss of your child. But you will survive it, even as you are changed by the experience of the loss. You will never forget your child or his or her death. You continue to journey through each holiday, each festive occasion, each happy and sad milestone in your child’s or your lives. These time-points may trigger another wave of grief, but you will gain greater strength and better tools for coping with the pain.

Surviving the death and loss of a child takes a dedication to life. As a parent, you gave birth to life as a promise to the future. Now you must make a new commitment to living, as hard or impossible as it may seem right now.

Know that you will survive this; even as the experience changes you.

Coping with "parental" grief

We have listed some tips for coping with grief under “For Bereaved Persons”. Here are some additional tips that are more closely related to parental grief after the death and loss of a child.

Don’t hide from your guilt:  If you have feelings of guilt – which are common but not always present — confront and admit them. Examine the reality of how your child died and your actual intentions and actions at the time. Consider your actions or reactions in a more positive light. Practice kindness and forgive yourself – you did and will continue to do the best that you can.

Accept happiness: One of the major hurdles parents experience in their return to the world of the living is their inability to accept pleasure — or acknowledging that it even exists. But happiness or enjoyment is one of the most important survival tools, even if for just a moment in your grief. It’s okay to laugh in the midst of tears, to smile at someone or something. You might feel that your laughter betrays your child’s memory, but you need to know you are not abandoning your grieving by enjoying yourself. The only way to survive bereavement is to step away from it occasionally.

Take small steps: It is important to break down the future into small increments, an hour or a day, and deal only with one portion at a time. Focus on tasks — feed the pets, do the laundry. These little bits of normalcy and focusing on the moment at hand will make grief more bearable.

Remember the positive: Focus on the positive events and experiences in the relationship you had with your child. At some point, consider making a journal of all the details you want to remember about your child’s life. Review your family photographs and include some in your book. You may not feel ready to do this right away or you may take great comfort doing this in the early days — each person is individual in his or her needs.

Let others know your needs: Many people want to be supportive but are at a loss for what to do — they are unable to process this loss or know exactly what to say. Bereaved parents may have to be the ones to take the first step in reaching out to others. Let friends and family know your needs, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re afraid of running into someone who might say something about your child, ask a friend to do some shopping for you. Others could help you deal with daily tasks. Maybe you would like someone to be available to listen to you or be around to ease your loneliness. Only you know what you need.

The resolution of parental grief may seem like an overwhelming task, but it is possible.

Pregnancy and infant loss

When a baby dies before it is born or soon after birth, parents face a difficult emotional task: they must try to say goodbye to someone they had little chance to know. They must accept that a life has ended, even though it barely began.

You are likely to experience some of the more common symptoms of grief which we have described in earlier sections.

Guilt is a common reaction, and can be particularly acute for parents who lose an infant or an unborn baby. Parents of unborn babies who die often mistakenly blame themselves for the death. The mother may believe she may have done something unknowingly that harmed her baby. Both parents may tell themselves they should have sensed something was wrong and alerted their doctor. This can be normal reactions following the death of a child, but eventually you must find compassion for yourself and realize that none of you were responsible for your child’s death. Knowing that it was not in your control has both an upside and a downside: you cannot blame yourself, but you may also have an increased sense of powerlessness. Getting through this is part of the process.

Many parents feel overcome by a tremendous sense of emptiness. Pregnancy brings with it a number of expectations, dreams and fantasies – you spend months planning not just the birth of your child, but also his or her life in all the years to come. Now, just as both parents are emotionally preparing to welcome a child into the world, you must instead accept the loss of both the baby and all of your expectations for their future.

For parents of infants, you will have a different set of triggers and potentially painful situations in the months following your baby’s death. Your home may be filled with baby clothes, bottles and a crib. If you registered with any new mother websites or infant sites, subscribed to any magazines or registered with a company to plan for a baby shower or celebrations, you are likely to receive coupons for baby food or formula and more in the mail. Walking past the baby and child department in a mall may initiate tears of mourning.

After the death and loss of a child it may be difficult to resolve the grief you feel for the baby you lost. Even before you can accept your baby’s death, you must accept his or her life — their existence as a person.

Remember, no matter how brief your baby’s life, you have just as much right to grieve as any other bereaved parent.

You may wish to connect with other parents who had lost their child through Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Group in Singapore

How the death of a child affects marriage

Studies have shown that the death and loss of a child will not necessarily strengthen a marriage. In fact, grief as a result of child loss can sometimes lead to increasing challenges faced by the married couple, which could lead to the eventual demise of a marriage.

It is important to take note that each partner as they become deeply involved in his or her own grief, may be dissatisfied with the quality or depth of their spouse’s grief. Complicated with the anger, frustration, guilt and blame that often surround a child’s death, parental bereavement can be a time of extreme volatility in a marriage. Just as one should not judge themself for their reaction to the loss, they should refrain too from judging their spouse’s reactions.

No two people grieve alike, and there can be a wide range of differences in the expression of grief between spouses. These differences may cause spouses or partners to conclude that their spouse has rejected them. A bereaved couple may also find it almost impossible to give comfort to each other when both are feeling an equal intensity of grief, albeit in different expressions.

It is extremely important that both parents understand the importance of communication during their shared grief, which includes the sharing of feelings.

Accept that you both are deeply hurt. Many of the reactions and stresses you are feeling result from your pain, not from something lacking in your relationship.

How surviving children are affected

One of the most difficult roles for a parent after the death and loss of a child is to continue being a mother or father to the surviving children. Parents must continue to function in the very role they are grieving, which can be an enormous challenge. But the surviving child or children should not feel that they are alone or have been set aside, as difficult as it may be to find the emotional reserves to support them.

Parents have the difficult task of switching roles constantly, from being comforted to being the comforter, at a time when they may have little capacity to do so. Some parents swing to the other extreme and become extremely overprotective of their other child or children, determined to keep them safe.

Children of all ages process grief differently. The following information sheet made available from Child Bereavement UK talks about Children’s understanding of death at different ages and can help you to better relate to them during their bereavement, or pick out signs that they may require referral to professional services to help them cope with their grief.

To ensure the healthy survival of your family, your children’s needs can be addressed by other family members who may have greater emotional reserves at this time. Reach out to them. Know that others can help you support your child. While you are critical to their healing process, you do not need to be the only provider of comfort to your children.

 

Connecting with professionals

You may wish to highlight the death of your child to your surviving child or children’s school teacher or counsellor, so they could be an additional resource or support to help keep a look out for them.

For additional resources, Children’s Cancer Foundation has a programme called Very Important Brothers and Sisters to support siblings of children who had passed away from childhood cancer.

To contact Grief Matters to support children impacted by their siblings’ death, please call Grief Matters Helpline at 8181 0448 or email us at griefmatters@montfortcare.org.sg

Support for bereaved persons

Child Bereavement Support (Singapore) is an informal network of bereaved parents offering support to anyone who has lost their child. Bereaved parents have found that meeting other parents who have lost their child has offered them the biggest support, hope and comfort as they grieve.

If you are a bereaved parent, and would like to connect with this network for support, more information and resources are available on their website. You could also email them at help@cbss.sg

 

Connecting with professionals

If you notice that you or others are exhibiting the following signs after losing your child, having the opportunity to speak to a professional about your grief experience can be helpful, even if it is just for someone to provide that reassurance that you are on the right track.

  • Prolonged difficulty in managing daily activities
  • Neglect of personal care and grooming
  • Extreme preoccupation on the loss of your child
  • Extreme anger or bitterness
  • Increased use of intoxicants
  • Hallucinations related to the loss
  • Prolonged withdrawal from social activities
  • Inability to enjoy hobbies or interests
  • Persistent thought of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Worsening of existing mental health conditions

To contact us for an appointment, please call Grief Matters Helpline at 8181 0448 or email us at griefmatters@montfortcare.org.sg

(Relevant content in this section has been adapted from Healgrief, a social support network for those we are grieving.)