Everyone grieves in different ways, regardless of the type of loss experienced. When grieving the loss of a child, the grief process rarely follows a prescribed pattern. In fact, charts and graphs depicting stages of grief can never definitively predict or explain such a complex, highly personalized human experience.
When families with strong, healthy relationships lose a child, grief processes may be individualized, yet their relationships may survive intact (and perhaps even become stronger) as the family unit experiences the loss together. When families with weak relational ties experience the loss of a child, family relationships may become fractured.
After losing a child, parents may find themselves experiencing shock, denial, anger, depression, hopelessness, guilt, isolation, disorganized thoughts, feelings of acceptance, and/or a host of other possible thoughts and feelings. Mothers and fathers may cling to each other more closely, give each other space to grieve independently, distance themselves from each other temporarily, blame each other, show disdain for the other’s grieving style, etc.
Because parents sometimes temporarily choose to relate to each other in vastly different ways after the loss of a child, conflicts may arise. When the lack of understanding about each person’s ways of expressing grief causes marital problems, this may signal the need to contact someone outside the family/friend system who can help. Professional family therapist with training in marital therapy are prepared to do just that.
When Therapy Might Help
Grief is a normal process of life. When people grieve, they may naturally decide to suspend daily activities for a period of time to express grief privately. As with the overall grief process, the needed period of privacy varies greatly from individual to individual.
Because many ways of expressing grief are, in fact, personalized responses to great loss, when should a therapist be consulted? In general, consider contacting a marriage and family therapist if a grieving person:
- discusses harming themselves or another person
- isolates themselves (emotionally or physically) from dependent children
- refuses to eat, bathe, get out of bed, go to work, etc.
- refuses to believe that the loss occurred
- begins to engage in dangerous or unusual rituals
- erupts (uncharacteristically) in fits of rage
- suddenly threatens divorce
- insists repeatedly that no one is listening or willing to understand his/her feelings
- refuses to talk about anything else
Types of Therapy
A professional marital and family therapist may choose to utilize any of the following formats for therapy:
Individual Therapy – the therapist meets one-on-one with a client to assist the client in achieving the client’s personal goals
Family Therapy – the therapist meets with multiple members of the family unit to help family members find healthy ways to address the loss of their loved one and nurture strong family relationships
Group Therapy – the therapist meets with a group of individuals from different families who have experienced the loss of a child so that group members might learn from and, possibly, relate to each other in a professional setting
Additional Helpful Strategies
Keep a journal. Sometimes it is useful to write downs thoughts and feelings that may be difficult to express verbally.
Find a friend who allows you to talk about your loss. Some friends may believe that talking about the loss is unhealthy. However, if you feel an occasional need to talk about your loss, look for a friend who will listen kindly and without judging.
Establish a new family ritual in which the lost child is honored in some way. For example, some families declare the birthday of the child “Family Day”. Every year, the parents take off work, check the children out of school, and plan an enjoyable family activity. Over the years, a ritual of this kind often helps family members heal as they openly talk about and remember the loss.
Join a support group. Whether located online or at a local church, groups of people with similar life experiences can offer encouragement to those who desire ongoing contact with others of like mind. (Note: Not all groups are helpful. Please use discretion in choosing to make yourself vulnerable to a group of strangers.)
Bereaved Parents of the U.S.A.
: A self-help group that offers support, understanding, compassion and hope to bereaved parents, grandparents and siblings.
Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation:
Founded by parents of children with cancer, this group offers support to parents who have a child diagnosed with cancer and those whose child has died of cancer.
An organization for bereaved parents, assisting families following the death of a child.
First Candle/SIDS Alliance:
Support for families who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or sudden death of an infant.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization:
An organization representing palliative care and hospice programs and professionals in the U.S., committed to improving end-of-life care and increasing access to hospice care.
National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children
Birth Injury Guide
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