When a Parent is Grieving the Loss of a Child

The recent tragedy at Newtown Elementary School has once again raised the experience of parents grieving the loss of a child.


This blog was first published on January 30, 2012.  After the recent tragedy at Newtown Elementary School on December 14, 2012, I have felt the need to republish the blog.

As reported in Greenwich Patch on January 26, 2012, Madonna Badger, who lost her three daughters and both parents in a tragic Christmas Day fire at her Shippan Ave. home in Stamford, reportedly tried to commit suicide last week. Ms. Badger's suicide attempt highlights the despair and pain that followed the deaths of three young children.  

The parent-child bond is one of the most meaningful relationships a person will experience. Parents who have lost a child can often feel that a part of them has died. Parents are simply not supposed to outlive their children and no parent is prepared for a child's death. The length of a child's life does not determine the size of the loss. Parents are intimately involved in the daily lives of young children, and their child's death changes every aspect of family life, often leaving enormous emptiness. When any child dies, parents grieve the loss of possibiities and all of the hopes and dreams they had for their child. They grieve the potential that will never be realized and the experiences they will never share. When a child dies, a part of the future dies along with them.  

Some people expect that grief should be resolved over a specific time, such as a year, but this is not true. The initial severe reactions are not experienced continuously with such intensity; rather periods of intense grief come and go over a period of 18 months or more. Over time, waves of grief gradually become less intense and less frequent, but feelings of sadness and loss will likely always remain. Grief reactions following the death of a child are similiar to those following other losses, but are often more intense and last longer.

Parents commonly experience the following grief reactions:

  • Intense shock, confusion, disbelief, and denial — even if the child's death was expected.
  • Overwhelming sadness and despair, such that facing daily tasks or even getting out of bed can seem impossible.
  • Extreme guilt — some parents will feel they have failed in their role as their child's protector and will dwell on what they could have done differently.
  • Intense anger and feelings of bitterness and unfairness at a life left unfulfilled.
  • Questioning or loss of faith or spiritual beliefs.
  • Dreaming about the child or feeling the child's presence nearby.

Feeling intense loneliness and isolation, even when with other people — parents often feel that the magnitude of their loss separates them from others and that no one can truly understand how they feel.

As much as it hurts, it is natural and normal to grieve. Some parents find the following suggestions helpful while grieving:

  • Talk about your child often and use his or her name.

  • Ask family and friends for help with housework and errands. This will give you important time to think, remember, and grieve.

  • Prepare ahead of time for how to respond to difficult questions like "How many children do you have?"  Remember that people aren't trying to hurt you; they just don't know what to say.

  • Prepare for how you want to spend significant days, such as your child's birthday or the anniversary of your child's death.

  • Because of the intensity and isolation of parental grief, parents may especially benefit from a support group, facilitated by a licensed clinical social worker, where they can share their experiences with other parents who understand their grief and can offer hope.  

Parents report that they never really "get over" the death of a child, but rather learn to live with the loss. The death of a child may compel parents to rethink their priorities and reexamine the meaning of life. It may seem inpossible to newly grieving parents, but parents do go on to find happiness and reinvest in life again.

It is important to remember that it is not disloyal to the deceased child to re-engage in life and to find pleasure in new experiences. Every child changes the lives of his or her parents. Children show us new ways to love, new things to find joy in, and new ways to look at the world. A part of each child's legacy is that the changes he or she brings to a family continue after the child's death. The memories of joyful moments you spent with your child and the love you shared will live on and always be part of you.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

T 22 December 18, 2012 at 08:55 PM
Thank you for sharing this. I also lost my son in February to senseless gun violence. I can vouch for the fact that you truly feel like a part of you has died. Even though you have good times and even some laughter. The sadness is always, always there. It really does feel like you'll never get over it. I look at in terms of my "previous life" and my "current life". These are tough times and I have all these parents in my heart. The pain gets a little easier to tolerate, but the constant thoughts of your child are always somewhere in your mind, no matter what you are doing.
Glenn Wolff, LCSW December 19, 2012 at 03:43 AM
Dear T 22, Thank you so much for sharing your experience of losing your son in February. Sincerely, Glenn Wolff


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