To the Parents Who Lost a Young Child

In the last week, three couples that I have some connection to lost a child. Two of the deaths were the end result of a long struggle with severe medical problems, while the other was because of a car crash. I have worked with people on grief for many years, and spoken with hundreds of parents who lost an offspring, usually as a result of a drug overdose. But I have also counseled several who lost a young child or baby, and it is clear to me that burying a child is the most painful of all human experiences. This loss will always be with you, and may, in fact, define you.

This is not an area I specialize in nor claim a particular expertise. Though I have experienced my own difficult losses (my grandmother in 1995, my friend’s overdose in 2002, a divorce a few years ago), they are not as soul-searing as the loss of a child. Still, those losses, a highly developed sense of empathy, and my experience helping people with grief compels me to offer the following advice:

  • If you have another child, you should talk to him or her about what happened in clear and honest terms. Do not lie or us euphemisms. Your child or other children know that something incredibly awful has happened – children are incredibly attuned to their parents moods, facial expressions, body language and presence. Even if your other child is 2 1/2 years old, tell them.
  • It is also very important that you tell your other child (children) that he or she is not sick nor likely to die. All too often, when kids see this kind of thing happen to a sibling, they wonder if it will happen to them and they never ask or tell an adult what they are worrying about.
  • Your friends and family don’t know what to do or say. Some will avoid you completely, because they do not want to intrude or do not know what to say. Others might hang around or call all the time, hoping to comfort you with their presence or some activity. Though this is very difficult, it will help everyone involved (including you) to let people know what you need. And please be aware that what you need during the first week may be different than month three or year two.
  • The previous point may be tough to accept. You might think, “Who cares if my sorrow makes other people uncomfortable? Why should I worry about them when I’m the one who has lost my world?” Those are fair thoughts, but you still need other people. As does your family. Being clear that you need space or company or words of condolence or silence will ultimately help you.
  • There may be some people who say things like “his time was up” or that “God called her home” or “he is in a better place” or that it “was God’s will.” You may find it consoling, or you might find it incredible offensive and aggravating. People that say this to you mean well. They just don’t know what else to say. If it offends you, let them know and ask them not to repeat it.
  • Regarding your spouse, partner or ex: they are the person that also suffers this tragic loss the worst. He or she will grieve differently than you. It may come out as constant crying, silence, rage, withdrawal, throwing oneself into work, talking, some combination of all of the above, or perhaps something else entirely. I have seen couples get angry with each other at how the other grieves. You have each experienced the most terrible thing, don’t compound it by attacking each other.
  • Even though you are in a daze, you need to leave your home each day. Whether it is to go to work, school, church, therapy, the gym, grocery shopping or something else, you must venture out into the world. Time is going to feel incredibly slow and miserable, and walking around the house from room to room and staring at the walls or outside will not help. This is extremely common behavior.
  • Consider going to a support group or therapy. This may be an anathema to you, but a support group will be filled with people who have the same experience and can show you how they got better or worse. The support groups can be helpful years down the road, when other people have a hard time comprehending that this loss is still very much an active part of your life. A therapist who specializes in grief can provide positive support from a neutral source over a period of months or years.

Waking up each day may be the worst part of your day – as you come to and remember your loss and the wave of pain washes over you. The days will keep coming. I have no special words of comfort – there are no special words. There is the aforementioned advice, which may or may not work. You may not want it to work, but please consider trying.