When anyone we love dies our lives are changed; things we had planned will no longer be the same. The death of a child is often the least expected death, and the ongoing effect upon the remaining family can seem endless. One of the commonest things I hear said is: “You don’t expect to attend the funeral of your children.”
We assume in life that we will grow old, having watched our children become people and take their place in the adult world. We are concerned for their well-being and on occasion may find ourselves thinking about a time when we will no longer be here for them, anxious about how they will manage. That is parenting.
When our child dies, whether through illness or suddenly, we can feel that we have failed as parents. We were unable to stop them from dying, and the torturous feelings of failure coupled with vastness of loss can be horrendous. Where there are siblings, parents may find themselves feeling over-protective and this can cause siblings to feel resentful at the changes within the family.
Some siblings refuse to acknowledge their dead brother or sister and may appear to have forgotten or not to talk about them. Often in my experience, other children – brothers and sisters – become protective towards their parents and fear upsetting them. Parents find talking about the deceased child difficult because they too fear upsetting each other and any remaining children.
As time passes talking becomes more difficult. Within their relationship with each other, parents may find it difficult to manage their partner’s grief alongside their own and, rather than uniting them, the bereavement can cause them to become distant, resentful and blameful. Within a family, although you are grieving one loss, your grief will be as different as the individual relationship you shared with the child.
Sexual intimacy may also be affected by any bereavement but between parents it is normal for the sexual relationship to suffer. Physical/sexual intimacy may feel uncomfortable and both men and women may experience a lack of desire alongside a need to be close.
Longing for another child may also be a confusing emotion that parents may not wish to discuss or share… there may be guilt at the thought of replacing the deceased child but these thoughts are normal and part of the search for and wanting to make life how it once was.
Relationships with friends may be difficult too and it is normal to feel isolated and to be unable to express or discuss feelings even with those closest to you. Some couples keep their feelings to themselves in an effort to protect each other, their remaining children or family members and close friends. The strain of managing grief alone can cause other emotional and physical concerns and problems. However close or rock solid a relationship, bereavement can shake its very core and lead to separation or divorce.
Being a counsellor, of course, I recommend counselling; being able to talk about feelings in a non-judgemental and safe place can be enormously comforting and beneficial. Equally, I am aware and accepting that, for some people, counselling is not an option for many reasons, so how can you help yourselves?
Facing the death is the beginning… talking about your feelings even though it is painful and sometimes frightening. Communicating your thoughts, no matter how strange they may seem, can be very helpful. Often, partners share the same thoughts but are afraid to speak them to each other.
Listening: listening to your partner and your children, to what they are saying and what they are not saying. Make a weekly space for the deceased child when as a family you talk openly about how it is without him/her for you. Keep photographs and memorabilia around so that others can talk about the deceased more easily. A photo board can be a useful talking point and as a family enable easy talk. I actively encourage parents to talk as much as they can about their deceased child – funny and sad times – and to be as honest about their feelings as they can. Children can feel guilty about things they may have said or done and may even believe that they caused the death or are responsible. Dead children often become perfect children and remaining children may find it difficult to re-establish themselves, when a sibling is gone.
There are many helpful organisations available. Child bereavement agencies are experienced in working with young people who are bereaved. They often have regular group meetings where bereft grieving children can talk openly about their feelings and experiences and gain support.
Grandparents may feel isolated when a grandchild dies. They may feel that they were unable to stop it or help and may feel responsible. They may also experience guilt at being unable to protect their own child from the pain and anguish of a child’s death, for being older and having a life when their grandchild has died.
They may feel useless, angry and unable to talk openly about their feelings. Writing and talking to close friends can help, and talking to family members about the deceased grandchild can create an opportunity for them to be more open and air their feelings. Grandparents can assist by helping parents in a practical sense too and simply by being there to talk to. There is also support available for bereft Grandparents and, in some areas, support groups and voluntary agencies.
Remember that whatever you feel or are going through you don’t have to do it all alone.