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The pain of child bereavement

All deaths bring sadness and grief, perhaps none more so than that of a child.

We would never expect that our child would die before we do. When a child dies, parents experience all the ‘normal’ feelings of bereavement: disbelief, shock, horror, guilt, anger, blame, regret, loneliness and anguish, but these grief feelings intensify because it is a child who has died. The age at which our son or daughter died will not matter as much as our appalling sense of loss that their life has been cut short, as have our expectations and dreams for the future.

The circumstances vary: In some cases, a parent may have anticipated the loss of their child, having cared for them through an illness or disability, but even so, it is probable that they will be in a state of shock. Sudden deaths, either unexpected such as through a road traffic incident or suicide, or following a sudden or prolonged illness can particularly devastate families. Each parent is experiencing their worst nightmare from which there is no waking up, and their loss will have a profound impact on them.

If their ‘child’ was an adult, parents may suddenly be faced with new responsibilities for grandchildren or face financial implications. For others, the death has left them without any child or descendants. The future can seem bleak.

As bereaved parents, we may feel isolated. Society at large has lost many of the mourning rituals, once routinely accepted, that helped families in their sadness. People tend to react with embarrassment and withdrawal at the mention of death.

Although this section is written primarily regarding bereaved parents, there are others who will be affected by the loss of a child for whom this advice could be applicable, such as adult brothers and sisters, grandparents and other close family members.

Bereaved parents need

People to understand that whilst we have many things in common, we are all different

It is well recognised that grief has an impact on a person’s wellbeing in physical, emotional and psychological ways, and a profound loss, such as the loss of a child, can intensify this impact. Although many aspects of grief are common, we are each a unique individual, with our own personality, family relationships and belief systems. We also have our own cultural and religious customs in terms of funeral practices and responses to death. It will be helpful if you could take this into account and not make assumptions about our wishes or behaviour.

To hear our child’s name

It is very important for most parents to hear our child’s name rather than a more de-personalised reference. Getting the name right is of course vital; the name we call our child, be it a pet name or a short form, is most likely what we would like to hear, although we realise that in formal situations our child’s full name will be used.

Safe places to express our emotions

Every parent responds differently to their loss, but most of us will benefit from having someone who will take the time to listen to us without judgement, acknowledging that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Empathy with the multiple challenges we are facing, from the practical to the emotional, can also help. Grief itself can be an extremely exhausting process, and even the simplest tasks can feel overwhelming.

Consideration for our circumstances

Some of us have a partner or close family members who will support us; others are coping alone. Some of us have other surviving children to care for; others do not. Some of us may be struggling financially, including such matters as taking care of our child’s funeral. We may have to navigate the benefits system or manage expectations of our employer.

Some issues might seem mundane but can be mountains for us to climb, such as needing to return medical equipment to a hospital or to visit our child’s school to collect their belongings. Other issues could tend to overwhelm us and last for a long time: If our child’s death was unexpected or violent, we may be dealing with media attention and the prospect of an inquest and/or trial involving those responsible.

Any and all of these issues will compound the grief that we are dealing with. It may take us some time to get on top of practical matters. Your kind consideration of our circumstances could make a big difference in how we cope. Being able to accommodate us, even arranging home visits, could be an extra step of kindness.

Patience and support in decision-making

Our child’s death will have many practical implications. If our interaction with you involves any decision-making, please be patient with us. Although we may ask you questions and try to listen to the information you provide, we may find it difficult to concentrate and to take everything on board. As a result, we may need extra time and an opportunity to return later to continue the conversation, if possible.

Providing us with information on paper could be helpful, and/or possibly in alternative formats, depending on our particular access needs.

Signposting to The Compassionate Friends

The Compassionate Friends (TCF) is a national support group composed of parents and relatives bereaved of a child or children. A ‘child’ can be anyone from an unborn baby to an adult. All members of TCF have lost children or adult siblings, and can remember the initial helplessness and the need to talk about our loss. Our particular strength lies in our shared experience. We also have groups for those bereaved in particular ways (by suicide, substance abuse, homicide, for those who are now childless, and for grandparents); some correspond via our newsletter or our website, some meet occasionally, some hold regular meetings.

We are here to help and befriend any bereaved parent, and above all to listen to them as they try to work their way through their grief.

One simple way of helping a bereaved parent is to ensure that they have heard of TCF’s work. A phone call to our Helpline on 0345 123 2304 or a visit to our website at www.tcf.org.uk, by you or them, will put them in touch with all of our services, provided at no cost to bereaved parents.

An understanding that the grief of a parent is life-long

The loss of our child changes us for ever. We will have times when the grief is manageable, and other occasions – even years into the future - when it is difficult to bear. If it is appropriate to the relationship, a phone call from time to time and/or a pastoral visit could be very helpful for us. Some of the worst times are often the anniversary of our child’s death, their birthday, and the major festivals, such as Christmas, Mothers' and Fathers' Days, and the New Year. It is then that the gaping hole in our family is felt most acutely.

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Each year thousands of parents suffer the loss of a son or a daughter. Please help us to support families in their time of greatest need.

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