Trigger warning: child loss
In the immediate days following the loss of a child, the bereaved parent usually can’t look to the left or right of them without being surrounded by a casserole, sympathy card, or some arrangement of flowers. But as time moves on, the casseroles get eaten, and the flowers die too soon, the grieving are left to navigate the most brutal days yet.
Some struggle to find meaning in life, a majority experience extreme depressive episodes, while almost all cope with severe sadness even years after the child’s death. But these continuing parental responses and their ripple-effect reactions to such a profound, traumatizing loss are only natural in such an unnatural situation.
“The death of a child is one of the most painful events that an adult can experience and is linked to complicated/traumatic grief reactions,” says Catherine Rogers, psychologist and lead author on a 2010 bereavement study. “Many parents grieve indefinitely.”
While normal grief symptoms gradually fade over time, complicated or traumatic grief symptoms tend to linger or become exasperated, leaving the individual unable to perform day-to-day tasks and susceptible to a variety of mental and physical health issues.
As with all major grief responses, the mental load and traumatization of child loss can and does bleed into a vast range of physical symptoms, including chest pains, heart palpitations, digestive issues, aches and pains, sleep disturbances, muscle cramps and even irritable bowel syndrome. A handful of studies also correlates unresolved grief to disruptive changes at the cellular level, immune disorders, cancers, and in the most severe cases, broken heart syndrome.
Colin Murray Parks, British psychiatrist and author, goes as far as to conclude that “up to a third of [bereaved parents] will suffer detrimental effects on their physical or mental health, or both.”
So it seems the “time heals all wounds” cliché has run its course when attempting to soothe a grieving parent’s broken heart. In 2008 study, bereaved parents reported more depressive symptoms and health problems, poorer well-being, and were more likely to have experienced a depressive episode and marital disruption even 18 years after their child’s death than those who did not lose a child.
While specialists claim that it’s vital for bereaved parents to note that the loss of a child does not always result in the loss of a marriage, research shows couples are up to eight times more likely to separate after a child’s death. And when dealing with cases of preventable deaths such as, but not limited to, suicide, overdose or automobile accidents, the rates of marital distress are noticeably higher.
“If one spouse blames the other, or feels the other did something to hasten the death, that’s almost something that cannot be recovered from,” Deborah Carr, chair of the sociology department at Boston University, tells Fatherly.
Across all studies, mothers in particular reported more disruptive changes in their lifestyle and health when compared to fathers, which may be a contributing factor when addressing such high numbers in marital and domestic disputes.
For the bereaved couple, differences in the mourning process are somewhat inevitable. The grief these parents feel will nearly always last just as long and feel just as potent as the love they still hold for their deceased child. Meaning, forever.
“Parents resist the idea that they will recover from their child’s death,” Grace Christ, professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work says. “Words such as ‘closure’ can be deeply offensive.”
To “recover” from or find “closure” in the loss of a child, in some ways, can leave bereaved parents’ pain or love for their deceased child feeling unintentionally lessened or even forgotten. Because of this, words such as “reconciliation” or “reconstitution” are sometimes used to describe the post-death period as they give a better description of the transition that takes place in the bereaved.
“Individuals vary enormously in the type of grief they experience,” Christ says. “Its intensity, its duration, and their way of expressing it.”
Besides the cause of a child’s death, research shows the age of the child at death, the age of the parent, as well as the number of surviving children in the household, acted as a significant influencer when determining one’s “resiliency” throughout grief.
Whereas some data shows the death of a child in young parents as more strenuous due to “differences in coping strategies,” other reports claim quite the contrary — that it’s actually the older parents losing older children who notice a poorer overall outlook on their well-being post-loss.
Bottom line: the death of a child hurts and affects parents dramatically throughout their entire life, no matter what age the parent or child were at the time of death.
Over half of all childhood deaths in America occur during infancy, with one in four mothers having dealt with a miscarriage in the past. Up until recently, these types of deaths were classified as “non-events” or “no-deaths.” Now, however, researchers know better than to promote such hurtful and faulty claims.
But because of the nature of evolution, and how the opinions of previous generations seem to dwindle in today’s generation, bereaved parents dealing with infant loss, perinatal death, stillbirth or miscarriage oftentimes find great difficulty in securing a public sense of validity throughout their grief, which ultimately increases their risk for complicated/traumatic grief.
Several studies show that “between 65 and 95 percent of mothers and 51 and 85 percent of fathers report problems with preoccupation or irrational thoughts about their dead baby during the acute phase,” Christ says.
After a stillbirth or pregnancy loss, mothers often report feeling continuous fetal movements. While both mothers and fathers report persistence in searching to find an explanation for their baby’s death, hearing their baby cry, little meaning to the purpose of life, and/or having hallucinations or illusions of their deceased infant. While symptoms such as these may present concerns for family and friends, it’s long been noted by many grieving parents across a number of bereavement studies.
Symptoms for parents who lost an older child look similar to those grieving the loss of an infant. Unfortunately, there’s little research of parents’ bereavement in the death of an older child (the exception being childhood cancers), as they are significantly more rare and usually coincide with an unanticipated or traumatic death.
“One reason for this [lack of] greater knowledge may be that parents [were] already connected to the health system during their child’s illness,” Christ says. Therefore, it’s more likely they would have participated in bereavement services after their child’s death.
Resiliency for bereaved parents of ill, older children tend to garner more favorable outcomes when couples were able to make their child’s final days more comfortable and had ample warning that the illness had turned terminal.
In all child loss scenarios across the border, parents reported an overall better sense of well-being when they had surviving children in the household, reliable comfort while distressed, and a healthy relationship with the deceased child prior to their death.
Many believe the relationship with a deceased child evaporates at the moment of their death, but it actually evolves. After the loss of someone beloved, human reaction initiates a natural, ongoing relationship with the deceased throughout one’s life cycle. Though it varies greatly from one individual to the next, the continual connection to a lost loved one is “most vividly and consistently reported, indeed insisted on, by many bereaved parents in relation to the death of a child,” Christ says.
Navigating these new “relationships” with the deceased is, indeed, a part of bereaved parents’ natural grieving process, and it extends far past the weeks following the funeral. Continuing to fixate on a child’s possessions, talking to them throughout the day, or keeping their memory alive in conversation and advocacy may not seem natural to other parents.
But it’s important to note that, evolutionarily speaking, child loss is already an unnatural turn of events which leaves loss parents feeling stigmatized and alone, with a poorer sense of overall well-being.
It wasn’t meant to be like this, and it’s going to take time (in some cases, possibly forever) for bereaved parents to discover, adjust, and re-adjust to their new normal.
For child loss resources, support, financial services and more, check out our Scary Mommy Child Loss Resource Page to connect with other parents who “get it.”