Parents Coping With the Loss of a Child


The pain of losing a child can be overwhelming regardless of the child’s age. Though there is no proper way of grieving and the amount of grief that should be experienced when a child dies, parents are left with an overwhelming that they will never see their child again and the loss of future hopes and plans of the child. The issue with grieving a child is that parents often conflict over how their partner is grieving. For example, lack of open grief is wrongly translated as the parent loved the child less. Secondly, after the birth of a child, parents look forward to celebrating the child achieving significant milestones; thus, not celebrating such milestones can be a lifelong process. Pohlkamp et al. (2021) argue that parents grieving one child may be so consumed in their grief that they fail or have challenges in caring for the surviving children. Also, it is common for parents to blame their parenting styles for the death of their child. Pohlkamp et al. (2019) explain that parents grieving a child also go through the five stages of grief, and there is no particular way parents should grieve; however, there are several ways they can cope with losing their child. Coping strategies are necessary to reduce the associated grief and continue their lives. This paper evaluates various ways a parent should cope with losing their child, including having a strong support system, seeking professional help, finding ways to express one’s feelings as closed-off emotions may lead to more harm than good, and helping each other through accepting the other parent’s coping style.

A strong support system involves having a grief group and support from family members. A grief group consists of individuals who have experienced the pain of losing a child and who come together to share their experiences to support each other. In a study to understand how parents experience support as a coping mechanism after the death of their child Gijzen et al. (2016) conducted a study that involved 64 bereaved parents after losing a child during pregnancy, labor, and after birth up to two years. The participants commented on the kind of support they received after losing their child, where family and friends stepped up to provide support while healthcare professionals provided minimal support. This highlights the need for healthcare professionals, not psychiatrists and counselors, to help in such situations because the participants highlighted that they only received emotional support. October et al. (2018) highlight that the importance of providing support, regardless of whether it is from family and friends, grief groups, or professional personnel, is to reduce the parent’s vulnerability to complicated grief and other adverse health outcomes like mental health during bereavement thus, the need for informational, physical and other kinds of support. This support helps the parents acknowledge their loss and have a leaning shoulder to express their feelings. Acknowledging their loss is one way of coping as it reduces anger and denial, helping the parents heal and eventually move on.

Seeking professional help is a coping strategy as it enables the parents to get professional advice on various strategies to deal with the overwhelming pain of losing a child. October et al. (2018) highlight that incorporating professional help is necessary as various studies have found a positive correlation between grief and mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and complicated or prolonged grief. Counselors help parents cope with their grief through various strategies, most commonly helping them establish positive coping skills. These skills include talk therapy while discouraging negative coping skills focused on the right now, including drinking alcohol, substance abuse, and other activities that make one feel better through numbing their feelings. Gijzen et al. (2016) explain that professional help has been associated with providing safe spaces that allow grief to occur; the professionals help the parents verbalize their grief and talk about what happened. An effective coping strategy from experts is helping the parents keep the memory of their child alive. This is encouraged because forgetting about the child is impossible; thus, occasionally, wearing an item linked to them, visiting their favorite place, or not hiding their photos is a way of coping with their loss. Kochen et al. (2020) explain this as meaning-making activities where the parents find a way to connect with their child healthily, especially through religion that helps them make sense of the child’s death. Therefore, seeking professional help is a coping mechanism as it helps individuals find and practice healthy coping mechanisms that are evidence-based and practical when coping with the loss of their child.

As established, pent-up feelings associated with losing a child can be more harmful. Thus, speaking up can be an effective coping strategy. Kochen et al. (2020) explain that fathers tend to grieve in isolation and do not outrightly express their emotions because of the ideology that they should be strong for the rest of the family. It is important to note that the child had ties with the father and that fathers are also allowed to grieve because if they do not, a significant percentage turn to alcoholism and other negative coping strategies. This creates another string of problems as alcoholism can cause a strain between the parents, can become a constant behavior affecting their productivity, and economically strain the family resources. Fernandez-Sola et al. (2020) conducted a qualitative study on the impact of perinatal death on the family from the parents’ perspective that involved 21 participants, among them eight fathers. The fathers admitted that their feelings were often disregarded and made invisible compared to their partners’. This is because their attachment during prenatal is often considered rational compared to the passionate affection of the mother towards the fetus forming in their womb. This makes most fathers avoid talking about their loss and lets their partners speak more about their shared tragedy. Fernandez-Sola et al. (2020) explain that paying attention to both parents is important. Therefore, as a coping strategy talking about the loss helps reduce the associated sadness, especially when sharing happy memories. This is an important coping strategy as it does not trivialize the parent’s emotions and recognizes that talking about the loss is an important step in healing. Also, talking about feelings of loss does not essentially have to be through talking. One can engage in grief journaling as an outlet.

Losing a child is an overwhelming grief that affects both parents differently. Thus, understanding each other’s grieving process can be an effective coping mechanism. Losing a child becomes overwhelming, especially because of the ideology that children should outlive their parents. Understanding each other grieving process recognizes that the two parents have suffered a loss and not the mother alone; therefore, being there for each other can be an important coping mechanism. This is because parents can drift apart when suffering such a loss, especially when one parent prefers dealing with their loss in isolation. Pohlkamp et al. (2021) incorporated a national postal survey that sought answers on strategies that helped parents who lost their children to cancer cope with their grief and what complicated the grieving process. The effective strategies that help cope with their grief include having professional counselors, grief groups, and connecting to the child’s memories. A key factor that complicated their grieving process was “not being able to share their feelings with their partners” (Pohlkamp et al., 2021). Thus, the study suggested that healthcare professionals should highlight the importance of parents grieving together and understanding each other. This creates an environment where both parents can openly and honestly share their feelings, which comes in handy in grief groups and sessions with professionals. Therefore, despite the different grieving process, parents grieving together is a coping mechanism that should be encouraged as it helps deal with the guilt and promote a safe space for sharing feelings and emotions.

Identifying how parents should cope with losing their child is important for the parent’s mental and physical well-being. October et al. (2018) explain that such grief has been linked to an increased risk of declined physical health as such parents suffer from sleep problems, poor diet, and lack of exercise, as there is a reduced sense of living among most parents. Further, losing a child may compromise the parents’ mental health, where they are at a higher risk of anxiety, depression, stress, and other psychological interferences. Social problems from such a loss include disattachment from social circles due to the belief that their friends may not understand what they are going through and marital disruptions. Therefore, to supplement these coping strategies, various studies also encourage taking care of oneself and each other physically through encouraging healthy dieting, socially by encouraging friends to be there for the parents even when they are pushed aside, and emotionally by ensuring they employ positive coping strategies.

Conclusively, the identified coping strategies recognize that grieving after losing a child is a process that affects both parents. Seeking professional and interpersonal help, learning how to communicate one’s feelings, and understanding each other are long-term activities that parents should engage in to cope with losing their child. These long-term strategies recognize that grieving, especially for such an overwhelming loss, comes in two phases: immediately after the death, with funeral activities and family and friends offering their constant support, and the period after the funeral when people return to their ordinary lives. Regardless of the grieving stage, the recommended coping strategies are effective and, in the long run, help individuals overcome their grief while holding the memories of their child healthily. Further, this research emphasizes that there is no correct way of coping with the loss of a child that parents should follow, but the identified strategies can help manage the associated pain and reduce the grieving process.

References

Fernández-Sola, C., Camacho-Ávila, M., Hernández-Padilla, J. M., Fernández-Medina, I. M., Jiménez-López, F. R., Hernández-Sánchez, E., … & Granero-Molina, J. (2020). Impact of perinatal death on the social and family context of the parents. International Journal of environmental research and public health17(10), 3421. https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/10/3421/pdf

Gijzen, S., L’Hoir, M. P., Boere-Boonekamp, M. M., & Need, A. (2016). How do parents experience support after the death of their child? BMC Pediatrics16(1), 1-10. https://bmcpediatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12887-016-0749-9

Kochen, E. M., Jenken, F., Boelen, P. A., Deben, L. M., Fahner, J. C., van den Hoogen, A., … & Kars, M. C. (2020). When a child dies: a systematic review of well-defined parent-focused bereavement interventions and their alignment with grief-and loss theories. BMC palliative care19, 1-22. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s12904-020-0529-z

October, T., Dryden-Palmer, K., Copnell, B., & Meert, K. L. (2018). Caring for Parents After the Death of a Child. Pediatric critical care medicine: a journal of the Society of Critical Care Medicine and the World Federation of Pediatric Intensive and Critical Care Societies19(8S Suppl 2), S61–S68. https://doi.org/10.1097/PCC.0000000000001466

Pohlkamp, L., Kreicbergs, U., & Sveen, J. (2019). Bereaved mothers’ and fathers’ prolonged grief and psychological health 1 to 5 years after a loss—A nationwide study. Psycho‐oncology28(7), 1530-1536. https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2:1344233

Pohlkamp, L., Sveen, J., Kreicbergs, U., & Lövgren, M. (2021). Parents’ views on what facilitated or complicated their grief after losing a child to cancer. Palliative & Supportive Care19(5), 524-529. https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2:1414990

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