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Grieving the Loss of a Child

  • Dr. David Hawkins The Relationship Doctor
  • 2008 2 Jun
Grieving the Loss of a Child

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A child, perhaps more than anything else, represents hope, innocence, and possibilities for the future — both theirs and ours. There is the possibility, through a child’s youthfulness and boundless energy, for us to live forever. We never stop dreaming what this child will become, what they will do and yes, oh, the places they’ll go.

But what happens when a child’s life is cut short by tragedy, suddenly ending dreams and hopes? While I’ve not experienced this horrific loss personally, I’ve counseled those who have. I’ve received countless letters from those who've lost children and who have shared the unique crisis that occurs when this happens as well as walked with others through the healing process. 

The recent tragedy that struck the Steven Curtis Chapman home brought this issue to the forefront of our minds. As the Chapmans grieve and piece their lives back together, thousands of other couples are experiencing the same tragedy — some through SIDS, illness and of course, accidental death.

The loss of a child strikes a family on many levels. The Chapmans will not simply face the loss of their five-year old daughter Maria, but will experience lingering doubts, sadness and pain. They will wrestle with all the “what if’s” which occur with all of us following a painful loss. They must also assist their son in recovering from his part in this accidental death.

As if the challenges to the family weren’t enough, there will be unique issues facing the parents of the lost child. Research indicates that couples are more likely to face stress, and there is conflicting evidence about divorce rates for parents after losing a child.

Let’s consider some of the unique stresses facing the couple who has lost a child.

1. Lack of communication. It is critical that the couple communicate effectively during these difficult days. Communication styles may be amplified, as one may want to talk more than the other. Still, the critical issue is to talk, talk, talk. Feelings, which will likely linger for a long time, must be shared. Communicating feelings and thoughts are the primary way we stay connected to each other.

2. Encourage family communication and grief. The loss of a child doesn’t simply impact the parents, of course. The entire family has feelings about the loss. There is a unique loss for everyone in the family. Encourage family participation in times of sharing.

3. Remember. The loss of a child never means that child is out of our awareness. The slightest incident can trigger a memory of that child. Holidays, anniversaries and birthdays will reawaken memories. The key is to “be with” those memories and feelings. Honor the lost child and your feelings for them. Talk about special traits and achievements of the lost child.

4. Manage your pain and grief. While you will need to “be with” your grief as it unfolds, take care not to allow it to continue to overwhelm your life. There is a season for grieving, and then the grief will begin to subside and you can gently, gradually move forward with your life. Only you, however, will know when and how to move forward—others cannot tell you when and how to proceed.

5. Honor differences in grieving. Not everyone grieves the same way. Don’t expect everyone to grieve the way you do. Work at creating an environment where different manners of grieving are respected. Just because someone doesn’t cry openly, for example, doesn’t mean they don’t share the same intensity of grief.

6. Guard against blame and guilt. Because it is natural to “find a cause” for a loss, you must guard against blaming anyone for what happened. Blame will alienate you from your loved ones, intensifying your loss. It’s no one’s fault, and while seeking to blame someone is natural, it will only harm the situation.

7. Be careful about being overprotective with your other children. It is natural, after the loss of a child, to overprotect your other children. Talk openly about this tendency, and guard against it. Your children need to be free to be children, and allowed the freedom to make mistakes.

8. Be patient with others. Many won’t know how to comfort you. They may make inane comments that will hurt. We aren’t skilled at helping others through grief. Be clear with your friends and family as to how they can specifically help you through this time of loss. Most want to be helpful, and can be a tremendous source of support and strength during this difficult time. Others who have been through this loss will be particularly able to comfort you, and is, in fact, a responsibility. (II Corinthians 1: 4)

9. Be aware that previous losses may be awakened by the current loss. If you have struggled in your marriage prior to this loss, your current tragedy may make this loss even more pronounced. Don’t be surprised if previous problems are amplified by the current grief. 

10. Invite God into your home, marriage, family and the entire grief process. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5: 4) God experienced profound pain and grief through the Cross, and He is also the healer and source of enternal life. Allow God to comfort you through the tenderness of family and friends.  Allow yourselves to receive counseling if needed. This is a season of vulnerability, and it is important to allow yourselves to be receivers of the mercy of others.

These are simple strategies to keep in mind as you move through this painful time of loss. Of course there is no simple recipe for dealing with grief. Loss is so unique and only you will know how you need to heal. Pay close attention to how this loss is impacting you and what you might learn from this experience. God won’t allow this tragedy to be without valuable lessons for you and those who love and care about you.

My final counsel was given to me during a particularly painful time of loss in my life. “Grieve well,” my friend said. “This is a time to simply be with your grief, and if you grieve well, you’ll come out the other side stronger than ever.” It was good counsel.

David Hawkins, Ph.D., has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. He is the author of over 18 books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage   Saying It So He'll Listen, and  When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You. His newest books are titled  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt.  Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.