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After the Death of a Child

Nothing is more devastating than the death of a child. Families wonder how they will ever survive the loss. While parents never stop thinking about or missing their child, grief changes over time. Parents describe that the intense, raw grief of the early days becomes softer and more manageable. However, each person's experience of grief is different. Grief does not follow a predictable course or pattern. One day may feel like progress. The next day the simplest tasks might be overwhelming. Other times family members are surprised and may even feel a bit guilty when they are able to laugh again. These feelings and responses are normal.

Feelings of grief

Grief is a normal response to losing a loved one, and it is a very individual process. Everyone grieves differently, for different lengths of time, and with different intensity. There is no standard set of emotions after the loss of a child. Some common feelings and responses include:

  • Shock
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Regret
  • Loneliness
  • Anxiety or ongoing worries
  • Less desire to spend time with others
  • Repeated thoughts, mental images, and memories of the child
  • Longing for more time with the child and yearning for lost time
  • Having trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Changes in appetite
  • Less interest in enjoyable activities
  • Difficulty concentrating

While everyone grieves, people experience grief differently. Within a family, spouses may have very different reactions. Children and adolescents follow their own grief paths as well, experiencing loss in ways that range from crying and sadness to misbehavior and even guilt. These are all normal feelings.

When to seek help

Mental health professionals, including psychologists, counselors, and social workers, can be an important source of help during grief. Seeking help does not mean there is anything wrong with how a person is grieving. For some families, a mental health professional can simply provide extra support. Grieving parents and siblings often worry that friends and family members will get tired of hearing about their grief. With a counselor, they can be free to share without that worry. A mental health professional can offer a safe place to talk about feelings and provide resources to help parents and siblings cope more effectively. 

Sometimes family members may have symptoms of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Specific thoughts and feelings that should be discussed with a mental health professional include:

  • Thoughts of joining a child in death
  • Thoughts of hurting self or someone else
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Slow movements
  • Hearing or seeing things other people do not
  • Severe distress or anxiety
  • Sleep problems, nightmares
  • Trouble doing daily activities
  • Disbelief about the death
  • Avoiding reminders of the child
  • Resentment
  • Feeling like life does not have any purpose or meaning since losing the child
  • Feelings of detachment
  • Sudden, disturbing memories that feel as if you are reliving them

Get help right away if there are thoughts of harming self or others:

Red bridge in Japanese garden in late afternoon sun

Grief is a normal response to losing a loved one and it is a very individual process. All grieve differently, for different lengths of time, and with different intensity.

Connecting through grief podcast

Connecting Through Grief When a Child Dies is a podcast created at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital by parents who have experienced the death of a child. Each episode in this first series focuses on a different aspect of early grief.

Visit the podcast page.

Reviewed: April 2022