Q&A with Australian Health Experts
How does one overcome the death of a child?
The Compassionate Friends is a peer support organisation offering friendship and understanding to bereaved parents and siblings following the death of a son or daughter, ... View Profile
When one is the parent or sibling or grandparent experiancing the loss, it will be overcome:
- with a lot of hard work and rebuilding
- with a need for lots of understanding and support
- over years – not weeks or months
The death of a child is almost universally traumatically distressing to family members (including grandparents, and most often other extended family members). For a start, the death is “out of order”; children do not die before parents, so the whole issue of the meaning of existence is raised!
Family members – especially parents and siblings – develop strong emotional links with each other (love, interdependence, and future expectations are three particularly strong investments). So when a child dies, very important parts of each family member die with them. Therefore it is logically normal and to be almost universally expected that family members (and others who were closely linked to the dead child) will begin a long and complex journey of rebuilding. This involves recreating themselves and new meanings for living and working, coming to terms with a new family structure and relationships, and “resettling” the dead child/sibling/grandchild internally in such a way that they are able to comfortably move on into a new life.
The death also frequently has a strong impact on the friends and extended family of the core family members. They are commonly thrust into the role of chief supporters, with parents and siblings expecting them to “know” how and when to best support them. Not only may they never have confronted this support role before, but they have usually had their own relationship with the child, so the pressure to support sits on top of their own grief.
Which brings us to the issue of support:
Obviously family members in particular will need immense levels of care, concern, emotional understanding, and practical survival support. They will also have very high expectations that friends and extended family will always be there for them. The intense needs and high expectations, although normal and not surprising, asks for an incredible, frequently unreasonable, amount from those around them, so here are some thoughts, “tips”, information gleaned from our own experiences, and from
broader research, that might assist those who deeply desire to help a family rebuild their lives. Bereaved people themselves may also find this information helpful:
Know Your Own Limits
- First, as supporters, recognise and bring out into the open your limitations and feelings of inadequacy. This does not mean you shy away from being supportive. It can still mean saying you will be in there boots and all for them, but emphasise that it will be a joint effort of working out how best to give support – you will need their feedback, and to be allowed to make mistakes! There is one thing you might take the initiative on, and that is assisting them with the practicalities of ongoing living, such as shopping and house cleaning. Also keep an eye on children in a family, that they do not get excluded from decision making processes.
- Secondly, and perhaps this should be listed first, listen – patiently, quietly, again and again, for weeks, months, perhaps years. We have observed that bereaved people have incredible inner personal resources, and providing they can get their pain, feelings, confusing thoughts and practical issues clear and in perspective, then they are able to decide for themselves what their new life will look like. And research and personal experience says listening is the most powerful tool you can use in helping the bereaved to move on. It helps them to “walk around” their grief and related issues, and get things into perspective, and then work out their own destiny.
- It’s a fact that no-one can read another person’s mind. Unfortunately this means that ideally for bereaved people to get the best and most useful support, they must tell people HOW to support them. This is usually extremely difficult, especially early on, because they are not sure what they need (except to have their dead loved one back!). This again emphasises the value of patient and careful listening and clarifying.
Find someone outside the family
- Which brings up another challenge for core family members. Within the grieving family, parents and siblings usually want desperately to support each other. At any time it is very difficult to effectively listen to or “counsel” those you are close to when you are grieving the same deep loss. Elements of your relationship with the person who has died, and elements of your own grief, will often get in the way and cut across effective listening, creating confusion and tension. So we often suggest that family members give each other permission to find someone outside the family (such as a trusted friend or perhaps a skilled caring professional) and use them as a sounding board, especially when distress reaches a peak and within-the-family listening resources are low.
Give Grief the time it needs
- It is worth re-emphasising that the death of a child is commonly associated with a long and intense time of grieving. Five years and more of ups and downs and evidence of a need for continuing support is very common. The reality is that the grief lasts forever – time merely softens it and lessens the intrusive intensity.
- Parents commonly experience very strong feelings of guilt (on top of all the other intense feelings of loss). The strength of the feeling that your role in life is to nurture and protect your children from harm is incredible. Even when logic tells them the death was outside their control, the guilt feeling will persist for some time, and make it harder to move on. And of course for some types of death, the feeling of guilt will always have an element of reality (eg suicide).
- Many parents find the protective instinct causes problems in their relationship with their remaining children. They often struggle between a need to “keep them safe” and letting them move out and learn independence. A good listener can help here if this tension arises.
We have found that siblings protect their parents as much as parents protect their remaining children. It is common to hear parents say something like “I don’t know how Peter is handling Jamie’s death. He never talks about it. Just says ‘I’m OK’ when I ask him”. What we have found is that usually “Peter” doesn’t like to worry his parents (“They have enough on their plate”), but (and this is an important ‘but’) he is usually talking things out with his friends – and this can be checked out!