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Dealing with the Death of a Child

Coping with the death of a child places a burden on the entire family.

You never expect to bury your children no matter how old or young they are at the time of death. The death of a child, then, is a deeply complicated loss that challenges parents on so many levels.

You may experience a range of emotions. The inherent unfairness of such a loss may cause tremendous anger. Such anger is natural. However, it may drive away the very people you look to for support at this difficult time.

Guilt also may be intense. You may grapple with the notion, however unrealistic, that you could or should have prevented the death—the irrational belief that parents can always protect their children. Guilt may have other sources as well. You may feel guilty about things that were said or left unsaid, reviewing with those normal moments of parent-child relationships. You may fear that this is a punishment for some imagined sin of your own past or feel guilty that you live and your child does not. You may even feel guilty about your grief—wondering if your grief is too intense or not strong enough. You may experience other emotions as well—loneliness, sadness, yearning, anxiety, and helplessness.

Grief is not just emotions. You may feel unwell physically. It may be difficult to concentrate or focus. Images of your child may flood you at times. You may behave differently—perhaps withdrawing, or becoming lethargic, apathetic, or aggressive. You might even find yourself in constant activity as you try to fill the empty spaces and avoid your pain.

The death of a child often is traumatic. It shatters assumptions of what the world should be. It may cause you to question your beliefs as you try to find answers for questions that cannot be answered.

A child’s death is a family loss. Everyone in the family is affected—fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. This may make it more difficult to get support from those around you as each person copes with their own, deeply personal sense of loss.

This may even be true of husbands and wives. Grief is very individual. You may each find that your experience of grief, the ways you express your grief, as well as how you deal with the loss are different. This does not mean that one person loved the child more. Rita wondered about that. When their daughter died of SIDS, she was constantly crying. Her husband though was active—supporting the SIDS Foundation and talking with other parents who had experienced the loss. They both deeply loved their child—they just grieved in their own ways.

It is not unusual that parents, and perhaps siblings, may carry what Dr. Dennis Klass calls, an inner representation of the deceased child. That means that family members are very aware of the age the child would now be and imagine what the child would be like. While such a reaction is both normal and natural, it may become problematic if parents have such an idealized image of the child that living siblings can never hope to match.

This loss may affect every aspect of your relationship. Some couples, for example, wrestle with intimacy—needing both the physical closeness even as they may feel reluctant to sexually re-engage. While the death of a child may strain relationships, there is no evidence to support the myth that couples inevitably divorce. Now, though I quickly debunk it lest it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Since grief is so complicating when a child dies, it is important not to grieve alone. Support groups such as Compassionate Friends, counseling, even books that discuss this loss can all offer support, validation, and hope that you can survive this most difficult journey with grief.

More from Kenneth J. Doka Ph.D.
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