Mon | Jul 23, 2018

Coping with the loss of a child

Published:Saturday | March 25, 2017 | 12:00 AMCecelia Campbell Livingston

When a parent dies, you lose your past; when a child dies, you lose your future.


All parents expect at some point in time that they will leave their children. Many make preparations for that eventuality.

However, at no point during that scenario do they expect to outlive their children.

With their deaths, the walls come tumbling down with all the dreams and hopes that they had in store for them, and with it the unbearable pain of dealing with that loss.

It is not easy reaching out to parents who must deal with situations like these. Finding the right words or knowing just how to reach them in their depths of grief can be a real challenge.

Family and Religion sought answers from Dr Patrece Charles, founder and chief executive officer of the Phoenix Counselling Centre, who shed some light on the matter.

"What would it feel like to lose yourself, your love, your legacy? It's a scenario that's too difficult to even imagine - that's how painful it is to lose a child," said Charles.

Acknowledging that parents across the world experience that kind of 'nightmare' every day, she said it is even more hurtful for those who only have one child.

"The death of a child can produce more stress than dealing with the death of a parent or spouse. For parents grieving the loss of a child, my first advice is to allow the grief to take place ... let it out. Verbalise your feelings, if you can, talk about what happened and don't suppress the need to ask questions. Be very patient with yourself and others, recognising that there is no timetable for grieving a child," said Charles.

Some parents will even feel irrational guilt for being alive while their child is gone.

The answer, according to Charles, is to "forgive yourself ... for still being among the living or for having not done more for your child".

When parents lose a child most will offer sympathies to the mothers, expecting that fathers are strong enough to 'hold it together'.

"In losing a child, most fathers feel a sense of disappointment, failure and resentment. In a society where men are not expected to cry, they often suppress their feelings as a way of showing their strength - which oftentimes lead to emotional distress. Ideally, fathers and mothers should be able to grieve together and help each other to work through their feelings brought about by this difficult period," she said.

Admitting that realistically that doesn't always happen, she encourages a lending ear and a ready shoulder to fathers.

"Let them know that you will be available to listen and provide support, if needs be," she said.


Children may act out


When a child has died leaving behind other siblings, Charles said children can easily withdraw into a depressed state and can even have nightmares about the loss of their sibling. She also points out that some children may feel guilty if they think that they contributed to the death of their sibling.

"They may act out angrily and begin to behave inappropriately at school. At the Phoenix Counselling Centre, we allow children to express themselves through art and play. It also helps to talk to children about the happier times and encourage them to remember the good times. Trauma counselling is often necessary for children to cope with the loss of a sibling," shared Charles.

The grieving process, if not handled properly, according to Charles, can see the grieving parents becoming lost in their world of pain, so much so that they forget that their other children are still alive.

"This can cause the living children to resent their sibling that died and they will become angry at their parents for ignoring them. It's important to remember that the entire family is affected by the loss so the entire family should grieve and heal together, taking note that everyone will heal in their own time," said Charles.

She said the death of a child can affect individual parents differently.

"For parents who are married, it has been shown to cause marital problems, especially when one parent is ready to move on and the other parent is still grieving," she said, adding that losing a child is a stressful event, but resilience is very powerful.

Although it is very hard to do, she said parents must adapt to a new life without their child.

"Believe me, just thinking about doing that causes my throat to tighten; however, it is something that has to happen. Parents, through the help of loved ones or counselling, must be able to accept the loss and reaffirm their own lives while finding a way to honour their child."