Mourning for a child

When parents are confronted with the loss of a child they lose an important part of their own lives. There is no comfort or consolation when confronted with this. Nothing anyone tells you, nothing you hear helps you. You only want to be with your child, feeling them close to you. Their absence makes their presence the only thing you desire. So much left unfinished. Their life had only just begun. With them they took games played together, secrets shared on the bedside, quarrels over the dinner table, dreams, nightmares, and also hopes and aspirations for the future.
There are so many things that you wanted to share with them. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed since they are no longer here, it doesn’t matter how many people there are around you that love and cherish you or if they were your only child or whether you have more. The death of a child represents the loss of the present, of the future… and of experiences that you weren’t able to enjoy.

Manifestations of grief

Physical symptoms may materialise such as a feeling of emptiness in the stomach, tightness of the chest and/or throat, tiredness, frequent feelings of shock, and sleep and eating disorders. Another form can be a physical withdrawal resulting from the need to touch and feel your deceased child. Mental and physical apathy may manifest itself making things of little interest. For this individual the world is empty and lacks any appeal whatsoever with the most basic of actions demanding a disproportionate effort.

Feelings of sadness, anger, emptiness, loneliness, anxiety, guilt, relief.

Sadness may persist for a long time. Initially there is no comfort and the sorrow is everywhere.

You may experience an intense anger that intensifies when those around you deny you the need to feel and express it. Rage forms part of the pain you feel over the death of your child.

Feelings of emptiness… it’s difficult to find the words to describe this feeling. It is beyond sadness. It’s a mixture of pain and loss of meaning that resembles an enormous hole that devours everything. You lose interest in yourself, in those around you, in life itself.

Anxiety can be linked to a feeling of having had no control over the death. Added to this is the anxiety or anguish caused by the inability to live without your child.

There are many forms of guilt that can materialise in different moments or situations, some of them associated with the guilt of having survived. “Why did I do it?”,“Why didn´t I tell him/her?”, “Why didn’t I realize sooner?” These are a few of the incessant questions that relentlessly knock you down. Often guilt manifests itself as a result of merely trying to live.
Furthermore, there may be denial, above all in the early stages when it is difficult to believe that this is happening and your only wish is that everything to go back to how it used to be.

You may have difficulty concentrating or have problems thinking clearly. Loss of short-term memory may also appear due to the lack of attention given to the outside world. This may be because it no longer has any meaning and/or individuals focus all of their attention on the deceased child and the memories and moments shared with them. First, memories of the hardest moments, so difficult to process, then memories of life before the illness.

The idea that life has been interrupted may disrupt the behaviour of the person that maintains their daily routine. They may talk constantly about their deceased child or, on the other hand, deny their existence or be absent from work, take days off due to illness, and have problems identifying with colleagues or close friends.

There is the possibility of there being a lack of organisation in one’s daily life, such as going to live with other relatives, sleeping with the children, etc.

Alongside all of these manifestations there may also be others, such as an awareness of the fleeting nature of life, of our own mortality, and the notion that everything ends. There may be doubts and questions about religion, God, sin, reincarnation, and changes in one’s values and beliefs.

Grief is a natural process which, in the majority of cases, does not require psychological or medical treatment, however, when there has been a loss of a child the process can be much more difficult due to the fact that a child’s death can seem so irrational. In many cases the parents find it impossible to achieve an emotional balance and therefore as much support as possible must be given by relatives, friends, colleagues, society in general and the professionals that are dedicated to dealing with bereavement.

How much time should the grief last? The length and depth of mourning are unique to each person and there does not exist a fixed length of time for the grieving process. How long it lasts depends entirely on the individual. Professionals that are dedicated to offering help believe it very difficult to place a time frame on the process, however, we have observed that people usually experience the most intense manifestations of grief in the year following the death. This is considered the minimum period of grieving as the individual has to live through all the dates that have special significance. A year allows for the pain to slowly dissipate but only if the environment is supportive and allows for minimum tension and stress. In many cases one year will not be enough. If this is case, the individual that requires more time must have it without those around them blaming them or demanding they return to normal.

Clara Otal
Psychologist at AECC (Spanish Association Against Cancer)