Coping With a Death

Helping Yourself Heal When Your Child Dies

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. (adapted)

The experience of grief is powerful. So, too, is your ability to help yourself heal. By grieving, you move toward a renewed sense of meaning and purpose in your life.

Allow Yourself to Mourn
Mourning is the open expression of your thoughts and feelings regarding the death of your child.
Your hopes, dreams and plans for the future have been turned upside down. You are beginning a journey that is often frightening, painful and overwhelming.

Realize Your Grief is Unique
Your grief is unique, as was the child you loved and cared for so deeply. No one will grieve the same way you do. Your grief journey will be influenced by your relationship with your child, the circumstances surrounding the death, your emotional support system and your cultural and religious background. Don't compare your grieving experience with anyone else’s. Take it "one day at a time" and grieve at your own pace.

Allow Yourself to Feel Numb
You may feel as if the world has suddenly come to a halt, or you may feel you are in a dream-like state. This numbness serves a valuable purpose — it gives your emotions time to catch up to what your mind has told you. These feelings of disbelief help insulate you from reality until you are able to tolerate what you don't want to believe.

This Death is Out of Order
Natural order is for parents to precede their children in death. Because your child died before you, you must readapt to a new and seemingly illogical reality. This can be difficult to do because your personal identity was tied to your child. You may feel powerless and wonder why you couldn’t prevent your child’s death.

Expect to Feel a Multitude of Emotions
Confusion, disorganization, fear, guilt, anger and relief are just a few of the normal and healthy emotions you may feel. They are, however, a natural response to the death of your child. Find someone who understands your feelings and who will allow you to talk about them.

Be Tolerant of Your Physical and Emotional Limits
Your feelings of loss and sadness may leave you feeling fatigued and may impair your ability to think clearly and make decisions. Your feelings may also affect your energy level and render you unable to cope with everyday situations. Listen to your body. Nurture yourself. Get daily rest. Eat well-balanced meals. Lighten your schedule as much as possible. Caring for yourself doesn't mean feeling sorry for yourself — it just means you are surviving.

Talk About Your Grief
Express your grief openly. When you share your grief, healing occurs. Ignoring your grief won't make it go away. Speak from your heart, not your head.

Watch Out for Clichés
Trite comments like "You are holding up so well," "Time heals all wounds," "Think of what you have to be thankful for" or "You have to be strong for others" can be extremely painful. While these comments may be well-intended, you do not have to accept them. You have every right to express your grief. No one has the right to take it away.

Develop a Support System
Find a support system of people who can provide the understanding you need. Seek out friends and family members who will acknowledge both your happiness and sadness. Find a support group so you can connect with other parents who have experienced the death of a child.
Sharing the pain won't make it disappear, but it can ease thoughts that what you are experiencing is crazy, or somehow bad.

Embrace Your Treasure of Memories
Memories are one of your child’s best legacies, so share them with family and friends, both happy and sad ones. If your memories bring laughter, smile. If they bring sadness, cry. No one can take away your memories.

Gather Important Keepsakes
Gather important keepsakes that help you treasure your memories. Create a memory book or box so you can open it up and embrace special memories at any time. These items are a tangible, lasting part of the special relationship you had with your child.

Embrace Your Spirituality
Surround yourself with people who understand and support your religious beliefs. If you are angry with God because of the death of your child, realize this feeling is a normal part of grieving. Find someone to talk to who won't be critical of your thoughts and feelings. To deny your grief is to invite problems that build up inside you.  Express your faith, but express your grief as well.

Move toward Your Grief and Heal
To restore your capacity to love and heal, you must grieve. Denying grief only makes it more confusing and overwhelming. Embrace your grief. Remember, grief is a long process, not an event. Be patient and tolerant with yourself. Never forget that the death of a child changes your life forever.

Helping Your Child Cope with Death

How much kids understand about death depends largely on their age, life experiences and personality. As they deal with death, they need space, understanding and patience, and they should be allowed to grieve in their own way. Whatever their reaction, don't take it personally. Remember that grieving is a process.

Watch for signs that your child needs help coping with the loss. If a child's behavior changes radically — for example, a friendly, sociable and easy-going child becomes angry, withdrawn or extremely anxious or goes from making straight As to Ds in school — seek professional help.

Children need to understand that death is a normal part of life. When talking to children about death:

  • Use general, direct and simple language.
  • Do not avoid the subject.
  • Explain what "death" means. Be honest.
  • Talk about death when the child brings it up, like when seeing a dead bird. Encourage questions even though you may not have all the answers.
  • Explain there is no right or wrong way to feel.
  • Explain that most people live long lives, but everyone dies.
  • Explain that people die in a lot of different ways and at different ages.
  • Talk about death in a positive way.
  • Read books to the child about the cycle of life.
  • Allow and encourage the expression of feelings.
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To support the child:

  • Be verbally and physically affectionate and reassuring.
  • Provide warm, loving caretakers when you are not available.
  • Tell your child where you are going and when you will return.
  • Provide a favorite toy or blanket for comfort.
  • Give simple and honest answers.
  • Provide simple explanations of death.
  • Use words such as dead, died and death. Avoid phrases such as "went to sleep."
  • Keep normal routines whenever possible.
  • Read books on death and loss with your child.
  • Listen carefully.
  • Talk about what he or she is thinking or feeling.
  • Explain why other people are sad and crying.
  • Help him understand how his life may be different without the person who died.
  • Talk about what will stay the same.
  • Provide reassurance that your child did not cause the death.
  • Provide reassurance that your child cannot "catch" death, like a cold.
  • Provide opportunities for the child to express himself through play, writing or art.
  • Address the impulse to act out.
  • Relieve the child from attempts to take on adult responsibilities.
  • Explain that feelings may come and go.
  • Encourage open talk about fears and concerns.
  • Discuss feelings of helplessness, and seek professional help if uncontrolled grief remains.
  • Address distortions and perceptions.
  • Inform your child's school of the death so the staff can provide extra support.
  • Don't assume he can handle his problems on his own.
  • Be available, but don't push.
  • Involve adolescents in the decision-making process in regard to family matters, including planning the funeral.

What a Child Understands
Infants and toddlers have no understanding of death, but they are old enough to sense excitement, sadness and anxiety in the home. Their reaction to grief may become apparent in their eating or sleeping habits or by acting out and being extra fussy and clingy or exhibiting regressive behaviors.

Children ages 3 to 6 years:

  • Cannot understand that all living things eventually die
  • View death as temporary and reversible
  • Ask questions even after everything has been explained
  • Believe the death is punishment for their own thoughts or actions
  • May show regressive behaviors, such as bedwetting, clinging, thumb sucking, crying and/or baby talk
  • May exhibit aggressive behaviors, such as kicking, biting, pushing and yelling
  • May be more fearful of being separated from parents
  • May talk about death a lot
  • May quickly go from happy to sad

Children ages 6 to 9 years:

  • Can grasp the finality of death
  • Should be given accurate, simple, clear and honest explanations
  • Form their definition of death from scary books, movies, TV and videogames
  • Personify death as the "Boogeyman" or a ghost
  • Make death a common theme in their play
  • Think death may be avoided by good behavior or wishing it away
  • May exhibit behavioral problems at school or allow their grades to drop
  • May show anger toward the person who died or toward those who could not save him
  • May experience insomnia, loss of appetite, stomachaches and headaches and extreme sadness
  • May have fears about death and concerns for their loved-ones’ safety
  • Believe that death is contagious

Children ages 9 to 12 years:

  • Understand that death is final, irreversible and common
  • Understand that the person died due to an illness, accident or traumatic event
  • Want scientific or detailed facts about the death
  • Are concerned about how their world will change
  • May be extremely sad and withdrawn and have insomnia and a loss of appetite
  • Fear something will happen to their loved ones
  • Feel they must take on responsibilities for which they are not prepared
  • May hide their feelings
  • May experience a delayed emotional response followed by intense bouts of strength
  • Don't want others to treat them differently

Children ages 13 to 18 years:

  • Can think abstractly and are curious to know what it means to die
  • Struggle for independence so may challenge expectations
  • May question the meaning of life and experience depression
  • May have trouble expressing their emotions
  • May choose to share with a sympathetic friend rather than a family member
  • May experiment with drugs, erratic driving and sexual promiscuity to come to terms with their mortality

Coping During the Holidays

  • Set realistic and simple goals.
  • Focus on what you want to do.
  • Spread activities throughout the entire season.
  • Get plenty of rest, nourishment and affection.
  • Live in the present but look forward to the future.
  • Ask for help planning, shopping and entertaining when you need it.
  • Expect to feel emotional.
  • Respect the needs and choices of others as they respect yours.
  • Share your pain and struggles with those you love.
  • Seek out people to talk to with whom you can be honest.
  • Seek professional help for uncontrollable pain.
  • Include your child's name in conversation and share memories.
  • Create a new family tradition in honor of your child.
  • Read a poem or prayer in your child's honor.
  • Visit the gravesite with fresh flowers.
  • Create a memory quilt.
  • Put together photo albums.
  • Place fresh flowers in a stocking.
  • Decorate with items that remind you of your child.
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