Bereavement support can begin towards the end of life and continues after a child has died. Support can include providing information about grief and loss, emotional support and assistance with memory making. If needed, advice about funeral arrangements can also be offered. Bereavement support is offered to parents/carers, siblings, grandparents and any other significant members of the child’s family or support network. Bereavement support can be offered through phone calls, videoconferencing, home visits, counselling (or referral to local counselling services) and support groups (See also the section on Bereavement Support).
The Experience of Grief and Loss
We all have different reactions to loss and we often behave differently when we are grieving. This can be confusing and you may question whether your experience is normal. The information here is intended as a guide to help you understand what you and your family members may be experiencing following the death of your child. If you are urgently concerned about yourself or a family member, you should contact your local GP immediately or call Lifeline 24 hour service (13 11 14).
Grief can be described as the intense emotional and physical reactions that a person experiences following the death of a loved one. Grief experienced by parents after the death of a child or young person is recognised as one of the most difficult & profound. Grief is often experienced in waves. Sometimes it will feel very intense and other times it will feel a bit more management. Grief can be an all-consuming experience and may strike when you least expect it. Your reactions to grief can be physical, emotional, psychological, cognitive, behavioural and spiritual.
- Physical reactions can include: Appetite disturbance, sleep disturbance, breathlessness, palpitations, gut and stomach upsets. A memory, a noise or a smell may cause such a strong reaction that it leaves us temporarily unable to move or function as the wave of grief passes through our body.
- Cognitive reactions can include: Absent mindedness, memory impairment and difficulty processing information or making decisions.
- Behavioural reactions can include: Being accident prone due to being distracted, avoiding certain social situations, excessive use of alcohol, and overworking.
- Emotional reactions can include: Longing to be with your child, anger and guilt as well as sadness.
- Psychological reactions can include: Anxiety, depression and perhaps a sense of hopelessness.
- Spiritual responses can include: Inability to pray, questioning your faith or beliefs about the world and searching for meaning.
It is important to know that experiencing any or all of these reactions is normal and it is also important to understand that we all grieve differently. What one person experiences may not be the same as another person and understanding such differences may help misunderstandings that can occur in family relationships (see also our section on Different Styles of Grieving).
The grief following the death of a child in Indigenous Families & communities may have additional complexity due to the impact of intergenerational loss and trauma. It is important to talk with your health professionals if you would like to be linked with an Aboriginal Health Worker for culturally appropriate bereavement support (See Lifeline Toolkit for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People – Coping with Sorrow, Loss and Grief, available free from their website).
The Loss of Your Child's Future
Parents mourn not only the physical loss of their child but also the loss of all the hopes they had for their child’s future and for life as a family. The loss of hopes that parents had for their child’s milestones such as starting school, starting university, graduation or getting a job and meeting a life partner can be just as severe as the physical absence of their child.
Talking About Your Child
Parents often want and need to talk about their deceased child however sometimes friends and other family members may avoid talking with you about your child because they are afraid of upsetting you or themselves. As a result you may feel angry with them and/or you may feel very alone with your grief. If possible let those close to you know if you do want to talk about your child and it may comfort you to recall the memories of times with your child.
Another difficulty many recently bereaved parents face is how to respond when you meet someone for the first time and they ask you how many children you have. The differing possibilities of how to answer this question may pass through your mind, as will the grief of the reminder that your family is missing a much loved child. ] Many parents tell us that after some time they find a way to answer this question that feels right in the particular situation and which also honours their child.
When Grief Becomes Complicated
Everyone has easier days and harder days when they are grieving. Sometimes grief may become complicated if you have other things happening in your life which make it challenging to cope with the tasks essential to everyday life. For example if you have experienced a prior loss, such as the death of another child or someone close to you, if you have a pre-existing mental health diagnosis or little social support, this can make it harder for you to cope with your grief. It is important to know who you can talk to you when you need some extra support. It may be helpful to seek advice from the Palliative Care Bereavement Coordinator or from your GP or local counsellor (See also the section on Bereavement Support).