Losing a child - What it's like and how to deal with the loss

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Losing a child is a devastating experience for any parent and it's important to know what it really feels like and how you can cope with it.

Losing a child is the one most devastating and traumatic experience that a parent could have. However old or young the child is, or whether or not the child was born, does not increase or lessen the pain and grief.

Losing a child will profoundly alter the course of your life and leave within you a hole that can never be filled. You lose a piece of yourself, and it never comes back. You will feel a myriad of emotions including anger, pain, isolation and a sense of loss.

You are likely to question if there is any meaning left in life, especially if you lost your first or only child.

While this is a difficult and uncomfortable topic, it is something that we must address. The grieving process is normal and necessary.

Valerie Lim from Child Bereavement Support [Singapore] (CBSS), an informal network of bereaved parents, and Ms Chua Wan Zhi, Senior Medical Social Worker from the National University Hospital share with us useful information about the grieving process.

The initial stage

Ms. Chua explains that subject to the nature of the child’s passing, the mother might many different emotions. Some of the most common emotions a mother feels right after the loss of a child include:

  • Disbelief
  • Confusion and bewilderment
  • Shock
  • Grief
  • Blame
  • Guilt
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness

Every individual experiences grief differently and while some feel all these emotions, some have a totally different reaction. They have a complete lack of expression or grief towards losing a child.

A lack of reaction is normal as well, for a mother may be struggling to express her grief towards her child’s passing.

Red flags

Losing a child inevitably causes grief. The intensity and display of grief varies greatly from person to person but one thing we should be concerned about is the mother’s vulnerability to depression at this stage.

losing a child

Losing a child makes mothers extremely vulnerable to depression.

Ms. Chua defines depression as the state when negative emotions become so overwhelming that they dominate people’s lives and prevent them from coping. This is persistent and carries on for a prolonged period.

These are the most common red flags:

  • Persistent and continuous period of low mood
  • Loss of interest in the usual activities that the person had previously enjoyed
  • Loss of sleep
  • Loss of appetite

Valerie cautions that if the deep sadness is interfering with your daily functions then you need to seek help. And this when you need the support of those around you, to look out for signs of depression, chronic or complicated grief.

When you’re grieving, you can’t see what’s happening to you. Neither do you have the strength to manage the downward spiral.

If you have lost a child, or you know someone who has, please keep a look out for these red flags. These red flags do not necessarily come about right after the loss, as reality can take some time to hit.

Do remember that there is no harm in seeking professional help. In fact, anyone who faces such a traumatic experience should seek professional help. Suffering in silence is not an indication of strength.

In Singapore, there is often a stigma associated with therapy. But you must, you absolutely must know that this stigma is false. Losing a child is not an experience that you shut in the closet and force yourself to forget about.

Preventing Depression

Again, losing a child is not something that you should keep silent about. Your best defence against depression is to talk about it.

Ms. Chua says that in most cases, she finds that parents who are able to maintain that receptiveness to speak to their spouses, friends, or a professional social worker or counsellor to process through the impact of the loss and the struggles, are usually able to cope better emotionally.

losing a child

Losing a child doesn’t mean you can’t talk about her. Talk, release the emotions. Celebrate that child’s life.

Valerie affirms this. She says that it’s not about prevention but more of providing a supportive environment for healing to take place. The most helpful thing is the support of your loved ones – to be around you, to help you, to look out for you and support your health. At the very least they can ensure that you take care basic care of your health.

In this manner, you can create a holistic (personal, social, emotional, spiritual) environment for healing your heart, mind and soul.

Coping Strategies

Ms. Chua suggests that apart from seeking help from loved ones, or professional help, some helpful coping strategies that you can consider are:

  • Engaging in relaxing activities that you enjoy such as reading and writing
  • Try picking up a hobby or new skill that helps you to build yourself again

The CBSS website has an entire list of coping strategies. You can follow this link to find out more:

http://www.cbss.sg/how_to_cope.html

On a personal note, Valerie shares 3 things that helped her the most.

  1. She had a team of people who supported her. They loved her and cared for her and were always calm and assuring. The team comprised her husband and her best friends. They helped her to pace her sorrow. When her husband found her wallowing in self-pity, he would take her for a walk. Her friends would turn up at her door at lunchtime to feed her or take her out for meals.
  2. She channelled her energy to a cause. Along with her friends, Valerie raised funds for the Children’s Cancer Foundation and volunteered at the Assisi hospice. She felt a need to do something useful, as if to make something ‘good’ out of her loss.
  3. She spent time with a friend who also had lost her child about ten months before Valerie did. This helped her not to feel alone. She adds that CBSS has this effect and many parents feel supported just knowing that those around the meeting table have each lost a child.
losing a child

Some people find their peace and calm in religion and faith.

In addition to these, Valerie also found solace in her Catholic faith.

“It helped immensely, as I could see a bigger picture. I went for walks to be close to nature, and had fresh air (staying cooped inside the house is not ideal), therefore exercise is important, and I tried to eat and rest well (but this was very, very difficult at the beginning).

Read on to find out more about what to expect during the grieving period. 

Grieving Period 

The last thing anyone who has lost a child should hear is that they are taking too long to move on. Ms. Chua’s take is that you never stop grieving.

“I don’t think any parent who has lost their child can ever stop grieving their loss but usually they will resume normalcy in their lives within a year from the loss.”

 Valerie’s take is that no two persons or situations are the same.

“Nothing is linear and we should not think that grieving can be over. Sometimes you can take 2 steps forward and then something happens and you end up 3 steps back.”

Insensitive or Hurtful Comments

Upon losing a child, you will definitely have a lot of people trying to communicate with you. Some may mean well and others may just want to have a say. Either way, you must be prepared to deal with hearing things you really don’t wish to hear.

Also, because of how fragile your state of mine is, even the most innocuous comments could offend you.

losing a child

Be prepared – you’re not going to like a lot of what you hear.

Ms. Chua’s advice is to be honest and upfront about how you feel. If you are frank about the impact of their comments, they are likely to communicate differently in future. Especially if it’s someone close to you, you should not hide how you feel.

To give them the benefit of the doubt, Ms. Chua finds that most of the time, the insensitive or hurtful comments spring from people’s uncertainty about how to interact or support a person who is grieving. It isn’t usually because of an ill intention to hurt the person.

Valerie feels that prevention may be better than cure and shares how many of the bereaved parents consciously avoid people with low EQ. They also avoid events or activities that make them uncomfortable or are likely to trigger sadness.

Having said that, there are many people who simply don’t know what to say and thus end up saying the wrong things. People just feel uncomfortable and awkward around “death”. It is understandable in our Singaporean culture that associates death with bad luck.

“So if someone says something offensive to me, I just try to forgive them and look beyond their fluffed words.”

Valerie has also compiled a communication guide.

Hurtful Words

  1. I know how you feel
  2. There is a reason for everything
  3. Go back to work and you’ll be fine
  4. You can have another child
  5. She was a good person, God wanted her to be with him
  6. He’s in a better place
  7. She brought this on herself
  8. Be strong
  9. You’ll be better soon
  10. It’s been awhile, aren’t you over it?

If you know someone who is devastated over losing a child, please don’t say any of these. And if you are in the situation yourself, prepare to hear this and just remember that people don’t mean to hurt you by saying this.

losing a child

Not saying anything is better than saying the wrong thing.

Sometimes people don’t understand that not saying anything is better than saying the wrong thing. They just feel a need to say something.

Helpful words / acts     

  1. I am so sorry for your loss
  2. I wish I had the right words to say, just know I care
  3. I don’t know how you feel but I’m here to help
  4. I am a phonecall away
  5. Give a hug without saying anything
  6. I will always remember her ___________ (smile, laughter)
  7. You and your loved ones are in my thoughts and prayers
  8. Say nothing, just be present
  9. Take your cue from the person
  10. Practical things – delivering meals, help with transportation, look after other kids, etc.

To everyone who has lost a child

From Ms. Chua,

Your experience of the loss is your way of continuing to honour the loved ones in your heart and it is only through allowing the grieving process that true healing can take place.

From Valerie,

There is a light at the end of this tunnel. Just take one day at a time, one hour, or a minute at a time if necessary. And be gentle and kind to yourself always.

If you wish to know more about Child Bereavement Support (Singapore), or wish to contact them, do visit their website at http://www.cbss.sg/index.html.

Having lost a child myself, I wish to tell you that losing a child changes you, permanently and irreversibly. Don’t beat yourself up or force yourself to become the person you were before you lost your child. You can never be that person,

No matter what anyone tells you, don’t force yourself to obliterate memories of your child. However brief your time with that child was, it was a part of you and your life. And it’s only fair to allow that child to take with him or her, a piece of you.

losing a child

Pick up the pieces of yourself that are left. Make a new you out of them.

But pick up the pieces that are left. Shore the fragments against your ruins and rebuild your life, one baby step at a time. It doesn’t matter how long you take, it doesn’t matter how much you change, but just keep moving forward.

And moving forward certainly does not mean forgetting the child that you lost. Compartmentalise. Set time aside for that child.

I spend a few minutes every single night; to remember the daughter I lost. I think of her, I feel her presence. I grieve. And although I have moved on, and have had two more children, I will continue doing this for every single night of my life.

Republished with permission from: theAsianParent Singapore

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Written by

Beverly Burgess