When Your Child Dies: How to Cope With the Unthinkable


The loss of a child is an incomprehensible experience except to those who have been through it and those who work with them. You are likely overwhelmed and in despair. We spoke to a psychologist who is a grief therapist and mothers who have lost a child to offer a compassionate guide to the early days of coming to grips with tragedy.

“The first chapter of the rest of your life is written in the moment that your child dies,” says Christiane Manzella, PhD, a senior psychologist and grief specialist at the Seleni Institute in Manhattan. “Your life is never going to be the same. But—while it doesn’t seem possible now—you will come to a new sense of normal.”

Be wherever you are

“I always say to parents who talk to me about it, ‘anything and everything you feel is completely normal,’” says Jessica Sprecher, whose daughter Lucy died of brain cancer in September 2008, just shy of her 6th birthday. “And while I think there is some merit in talking about the ‘stages of grief,’ they don’t come in order and they don’t come at once. You might feel three of them overlapping.”

“Obviously in the beginning it’s extremely raw and it’s agonizingly painful to even exist,” says Ellen Hollander-Sande, whose son Caleb died in September 2013 at the age of 6 from complications of Burkett’s Lymphona. “Be gentle with yourself during that time and know that you’re not going to be functioning normally at all. Let yourself be sad and feel your feelings.”

“Grief involves a lot of different feelings, from sadness and anger to shock, numbness, and disbelief. These are all part of the normal grief response,” says Manzella.

Know that people grieve differently

“Don’t expect that your grief is going to be the same as your spouse or your children’s grief,” says Sprecher. “My husband experienced a lot more anger. Everyone grieves differently and it’s important to let that happen.”

Men and women may grieve and cope differently, echoes Manzella. Often men cope by tending to details and taking action. Women may be more likely to work through their grief by actually emotionally expressing their feelings.

In the early days, Hollander-Sande and her husband had very different needs. “I spent a lot of time looking at photos and videos and posting on Facebook about my grieving process. Michael found looking at photos and videos too painful and raw. But at a certain point he said to me that as time went on, our needs would evolve and would start to come together. And that really did happen, and now we’ve also learned to work around what each other needs.”

Expect some feelings of guilt

“Parents often feel this terrible guilt,” says Manzella,” going over every little thing they might have done differently to prevent their child’s death. Guilt is part of the normative process of grief in the early days. Paradoxically, guilt (and the wrenching “if onlys”) are a way of trying to make sense of what happened.

The guilt is real and powerful, says Sprecher. “Talking about guilt and blame is really important. The number one thing is to find a way to forgive yourself,” she says. “But I do think it’s really hard to do alone. There is value in having an experienced grief counselor.”

Make use of helpful people in specific ways

“Some people will be really helpful, and some people will not,” says Hollander-Sande. “So, if people are reaching out to you, and you find them helpful, keep making plans to see them in whatever way is most supportive to you.” The grief specialist Manzella suggests giving specifics when people ask how they can help. “If you need something done—laundry, shopping, taking care of other kids—whatever it might be, ask.”

Sprecher also found this strategy to be helpful when she was coping with her loss. “Even if it’s just telling one person close to you, ‘I could really use a random Starbucks visit today from anybody,’ you really need to be able to let people know you need things,” she says.

Manzella also recommends thinking about how specific friends are invaluable and matching their strengths to your needs. “Friends can often be broken down into doers, listeners, and those who provide respite,” says Manzella. “Think about whom you can cry your heart out to, who will help you get things done, and which friends you have fun with. Then make use of their strengths.”

Have one plan—however small—every day

“Try to have one thing you do every day or one person you see—even for just a cup of coffee,” says Hollander-Sande who found that daily plans with friends gave her something to live for in the early days of grieving the death of her son. If you can pair the plan with a meal, it will help ensure that you are eating, which is an important part of taking care of yourself in a very basic—but crucial—way.

“Distractions are really important,” adds Sprecher. “Sitting home all day and letting your mind do what your mind will do is a recipe for disaster.”

Know that your feelings will evolve

“There is no timeline for grief,” says Manzella. “But we often see people’s experiences turning a corner six to 13 months after the death. It’s not that they are ‘over’ their grief, because you never get ‘over’ it. But there’s some kind of capacity to return to an engagement with life.”

“It will always be painful,” says Hollander-Sande. “But it won’t always be as raw. Very gradually, as time goes by, you’ll continue to respect those hard feelings, but you will also be able to add new things to your life or go back to old things. So that grief is a piece of you, but it’s not all consuming.”

Hollander-Sande remembers how in the early days of mourning Caleb she would wear a fleece coat that had a pocket full of change. “I did not want to spend or empty that change, because it had been there when Caleb was alive.” But as time went on, Hollander-Sande reached a different point where she thought, “This change is not firmly connected to Caleb anymore. It’s ok to let go of it.”

Be prepared for anniversaries and important dates

“Steel yourself for holidays and anniversaries,” says Sprecher. “Those days are going to be really difficult. Embrace that. Other people will understand. It’s more than just the anniversary of your child’s death. Thanksgiving is still really hard for me, nine years on. There’s also the day she went into the ICU. The day we found out her condition was inoperable. It’s ok to acknowledge those days and that they hold a significance for you.”

Hollander-Sande and Sprecher both have rituals to celebrate their children on holidays and special occasions. “On Christmas, someone gave us a stocking with her name embroidered on it, so we asked people to write memories on cards, we filled up the stocking with them and read them aloud on Christmas day.” Each Friday, when Hollander-Sande’s family celebrates Shabbat, they have a picture of Caleb on the table so he remains a part of the ceremony. (Related: 6 Grieving Rituals That Can Help You Heal)

Consider professional support

Hollander-Sande was connected to a grief counselor just a few days after losing Caleb, and that professional support was instrumental as she worked her way through her first year and a half as a bereaved mother. “It also provides something for you to get up and do,” says Hollander-Sande. “You have to get yourself there and you have to get yourself home.”

While counseling can help any parent who has lost a child, it can be especially important if you find yourself overwhelmed with grief. “People know when they are stuck,” says Manzella. “You get this sense, ‘I feel awful and my life is never going to get any better.’ If the first anniversary has come and gone, all the significant dates have come and gone and you are feeling as if the grief is really fresh—as if the death just occurred—that suggests that you may be stuck in some kind of unresolved grief and perhaps could use some help.” (Related: How to Find a Grief Counselor)

That support can come in the form of a group or one on one counseling, but it’s important to find someone specially trained in grief counseling (see resources at the end).

Rest assured that you will always be your child’s parent

Manzella tells the parents she works with, “Your love doesn’t go away. You’re still a parent—and part of being a parent is loving in absence rather than in presence.”

“There’s always a connection forever,” says Hollander-Sande. “Sometimes it ebbs and flows, but it evolves and you just do what you can to keep that connection.”

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of Lucy,” adds Sprecher. “But as time goes on instead of the sadness and the sad memories of her loss, you start to move more toward the happy memories and your thoughts are lighter.”

Here are some resources to help you find professional support:

Association for Death Educators and Counseling

The Center for Complicated Grief

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