One of the hardest losses of all is the death of one's child. We often think that it's unnatural, it's out of order,  the parent is supposed to die first. No matter what the age of our child, when a child dies parents experience all of the usual feelings of grief such as anger, guilt, loneliness and sorrow. In addition, especially with younger children, many parents find themselves isolated from others. Their child may have been their social link to the community. Without their child they feel out of place and isolated. 

Particular difficulties can arise for parents that may jeopardize their marriage. Communication breakdown over feelings about their deceased child is possible. This usually develops because each individual parent grieves in his or her own way. It can become difficult to show feelings without angering or distressing the other partner. 

Extra effort needs to be taken at such a time. Working through each individual's grief and their feelings about one another or even about other surviving children are important. Patience with the grieving and with oneself is important, everyone works through their emotions at their own pace and in their own way. Seeking help from grieving parents' groups or from qualified professionals can be most helpful.

Some people think grief ought to be over quickly. They'll tell you to get on with your life. Others say it's over after the funeral. Many psychologists and sociologists say that acute grief can last for a year or more, maybe even two years.

It takes time to put one's life back together again. There are feelings of anger, depression or loneliness. There are new tasks to be mastered. Cooking for one less, raising the children alone, cutting the lawn, managing finances, probating the estate -all can be difficult tasks. Death of a loved one is usually a major life change. Reorganizing life, managing our feelings and finding ourselves does not happen immediately. You may need support of friends and others who understand. If you feel overwhelmed do not hesitate to ask for competent help.

Where can you get help with your grief?

Sometimes grief does not go away in a reasonable period of time. When that is the case the bereaved should contact a social worker, counselor or clergy person. In addition on the resources page of this blog you will find several books and pamphlets that may be helpful to read.

There are many people willing to help and no good reason that anyone should be without help. Still, psychologists have noted that some people are depressed and simply do not have the get up and go to seek help. Others may feel embarrassment.

If you or a friend needs assistance make an extra effort, pick up the phone and call your clergy or mental health center. The extra effort will be a good beginning to help you help yourself!

Sudden death is shocking! We don't believe it, it will take time for the impact to fully sink in. Our lives are severely disrupted and often we don't have any idea of what to do next. Our grief will, of course, be most intense in the first days. Often those grieving a sudden death experience additional bewilderment and anxiety as they try to process and accept the sudden death of a loved one.

Grieving a sudden death is often different from an expected death, because there was no preparation, no chance to process the situation beforehand. All of the emotions of grief arrive very suddenly as well. Sudden death also poses challenges to our sense of control, it reminds us that our world is unstable and that we are never fully in command.

Later, reality will present itself in small doses as we process the loss. We have to learn how to do things the deceased once did for us and that we now must do for ourselves. We may need help learning to manage the house, take care of the children, and locating a job.

Avoiding excessive use of alcohol or sedatives is wise. Eating well and taking good physical care of yourself is also important. Seek help from friends or professionals when you need to talk or when you need advice on matters that cause you concern. 

When one of your parents dies, in spite of your grief, one of your first concerns will be to care for your surviving parent. The loss of a partner can be devastating to many people. Widowhood will require adjustment and you can be most helpful. While you will, of course, want to be helpful at the time of the funeral, there are many concerns and decisions to consider the memorial. 

A primary consideration will be the age and competence of your parent. If a parent is capable of making decisions they should be allowed and encouraged as much as possible. They need your support. Of course parents who are unable to make decisions will need you to make the decisions for them.


Sometimes with the best of intentions we rush in to help by making decisions for the survivor. Many parents will resent this infringement on their freedom, others may give in but become dependent or resentful. As a rule it is useful to offer advice and assistance while letting them know that the final decision is up to them. You may wish to offer to arrange funeral and memorial services, attend legal meetings, sorting and disposing of personal effects and helping with other practical matters. But it is not desirable to make funeral arrangements, legal decisions, sell property or dispose of personal effects without the full cooperation of a competent parent. While you have lost a parent, you need to remember that they have lost their life partner.

The death of a spouse will bring major life changes to your parent. Some decisions will have to be made immediately, but it is wise to advise your parent to avoid major life change decisions until time has been taken to permit reasonable decisions without regret. Grief can do strange things to our perspectives and decisions. In particular it is never wise to sell a house or move from an apartment when the pain of grief is intense. If a person thinks it would help them to grieve better or escape memories to be out of the home they shared with the deceased it might be wise to move to an apartment for several months first. After a reasonable trial a good decision can be made that will not cause unneeded financial hardship.

Your surviving parent was undoubtedly dependent on the deceased for many things. There will be a transition period where you can help the individual to learn many things needed for living without the deceased, such as cooking, taking care of finances, shopping and other practical matters.


It is important to remember that every person grieves differently. Recent studies have shown that the death of a spouse has profound, but very different effects on men and women. The New York Times has an excellent article which sums up the differences between how men and women grieve as well as more information on the subject. The same research has shown that men benefit greatly from men only support groups. The National Widowers Organization has a listing of resources specifically for men who have lost spouses. 

There are many resources available online and within your community (and many online resources can connect you with local grief support groups). Both Widowed Village and WidowNet are good places to start your search for information on bereavement support for your parent. 

Please share some ways you have found to help a parent cope with the death of a spouse.

Some death and illness can leave us shattered and seeking meaning and purpose. The existential question of "why" which many ponder can become quite personal and be framed in personal terms as "why me".
We may never get a completely satisfactory answer to either the "why" of life or the universe or to the "why" of what happens in our own lives.
Victor Frankl was a psychiatrist imprisoned in Hitler's death camps. He survived and wrote a book entitled "Man's Search For Meaning". For those of us surviving losses of all kinds Dr Frankl's work is inspiring and not patronizing. I often recommend it as it helps those struggling with loss, illness and tragedy.

What do you say to someone who is grieving?

A good guideline when a friend loses a loved one is to express your sympathy at the funeral or visitation. If for some reason you didn't get the chance to do that, express your feelings at the first opportunity. After that, make it clear that you're willing to listen to your friend if he or she wants to talk but don't dwell on the death. 

Some bereaved persons report that friends avoid them, or else they go to the other extreme and talk about the death constantly. Neither of these is appropriate. Resuming old conversational topics while allowing the person to bring up their feelings about the death is the best way to be helpful. Death is a part of life, it should not be overly discussed or avoided.

The fact is that nothing can be said to express adequately our loss or make the bereaved family feel better. But that doesn't mean that a visit and an expression of sympathy won't be helpful. Bereaved persons tell us that it's not the words that are helpful but that someone cared enough to express their sympathy in person. Sometimes just a hug or holding your friend's hand briefly is a good way to say "I care." 

My research is based on interviews and conversations with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people. Over the years of graduate study I researched grief and spoke with leaders in the field. With the help of the National Funeral Director association and the Dodge Company, I met numerous funeral directors who wanted to help and who reported similar stories of people' helplessness and lack of knowledge about helping.

To get practical knowledge two friends, a pastor and a psychologist and I offered a simple program in Madison. We began a group meeting entitled "The Grief You Feel" and advertised it around Madison Wi. We were stunned when on a below zero night in January 16 people suffering all kinds of death related losses showed up.
One of the most striking and significant observations we observed in working with the bereaved is the multiplicity of losses when we lose a loved one. We not only lose the person who dies we lose all of the small and large things that person meant to us.  The person we love is gone and we will be sad for that. Over time we will also find ourselves being sad, angry, lonely as we realize all the ways the person intertwined in our lives. The loss of a companion to talk or relax with, the loss of a helper  with chores , the loss of the dream that a growing child brought to our lives, the loss of a spouse to help with and enjoy the happiness of our children. These individual losses  make every loss unique. In many ways they also   prolong our feelings of loss as we encounter thee individual meanings at times we most would have wanted to be with or needed  the deceased. Enjoyable holidays, graduations, weddings, walks in the evening, help with housework and many more seemingly mundane activities that we shared, enjoyed or counted on our lost loved one are like pin pricks stabbing us with the painful reminder that our loved one is no longer here and can uncover our sadness or anger or other emotions  when we least expect it. It is not uncommon to be caught off guard at such times. While it may be startling it is also common. 

It is okay to discuss these feelings with those we love and to understand that our relationships are more complex based on love of the person as well as needs, dependencies, hopes dreams and trust.
When someone we love dies our life is permanently changed. We miss the person because we loved them and depended on them for many important things. Frequently our pain is made greater because we have to learn to do many things that the deceased did for us, often times we don't even realize all of the ways a person touched our lives until they are gone. Raising children alone, earning a living, finding a job or a career, managing the household, finding new friends can all be difficult at a time when we're saddened by our loss. 

 It hurts because we must come to understand the impact that their absence will make, and this understanding will come slowly. For a while every day will bring small reminders, but with time there won't be so many reminders and you will learn to do many things on your own

Support from friends is most helpful. We can talk about our feelings with them and they can help us with some of the tasks that give us difficulty. This is a time to ask for help (or to offer it if you are a friend of someone who is grieving), people do not know what you need unless you tell them. Sometimes we need further information or assistance. At such times we should seek the help of professionals who can help us with specific problems we may have.

Wisdom from the past invites us to prepare for the future. There are many important life events that we should and do prepare for. Some, like weddings, or buying a house are pleasant and we eagerly look forward to gathering information and planning for them. Others, like death and funerals are more difficult to think about ahead of time. They are no less important! 

Your lawyer, accountant and funeral director can help you plan for your & your family's future. If you don't have any of these, that's OK. There are many websites out there to help you figure out what you can and should do to prepare for your death. The most prominent website is the rather crassly (but aptly) named, http://getyourshittogether.org. Created by a young woman who lost her husband in an accident, only to discover that they weren't prepared at all. She spent 3 years straightening out their financial life after the passing of her husband and decided to do her best to help other people to not fall into that same trap. Take a look at the Get Your Shit Together! checklist http://getyourshittogether.org/

Seven Ponds (http://www.sevenponds.com) has extensive materials for both planning before death as well as a step by step guide for what to do both before and after a loved ones' death. Seven Ponds also has a lot of information on alternatives to traditional funerals including cremation and natural burial. 

 It's important to consider the challenges that your loved ones will face after you die. Your death will be hard enough without having to deal with the financial and legal repurcussions should you die without a will.

As in all other aspects of life, honesty is the best policy! Children can quickly see through adult uneasiness or deceit. Telling a child that the person died and giving a specific reason for the death is most honest and definitely the most helpful. Don't beat around the bush, they will know. If children raise further questions, these too should be answered honestly and patiently. 2 of the most common questions children ask are:

What happens when someone dies?

Children experience death in many ways. When a pet dies, or perhaps a relative dies it's important to answer the child's questions directly and honestly, and not to say that the person went away or went to sleep. An indirect answer may cause children to become angry at the deceased for having gone away, or angry at God, or they may even be afraid of sleep. Hiding death from children is not helpful. Direct and honest answers mean saying that the person or pet has died and will no longer be part of our lives. It's helpful to tell the child that death is natural and that when we die our bodies don't feel anything. 

You won't leave me, too, will you?

The death of a parent can be very upsetting to a child. Besides feeling sad and lonely, many children feel very insecure. The safe environment that the family unit provides has been destroyed and often children don't know what to expect next. Children need a lot of reassurance and love when a parent dies. They should be allowed to cry and to express their feelings, never berated or told to "suck it up". Children should be allowed to share in wakes, memorials and funerals for anyone who was an important part of their life, if they wish. While the gap created by death won't ever completely close, love and understanding will help bring a family closer together.

Death is not a common occurrence in the lives of most families. It is very important to reassure children that they will be cared for in spite of the fact that things will be different without the deceased. It is helpful to include children in all ceremonies and as much as possible in decisions that will affect them but only if they wish to participate. A child's loss is real and will not go away by being ignored.

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    As part of my doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, when information on grief, bereavement, death and dying was scarce, some colleagues and I began group work with the bereaved. Out of that work grew interviews with widowers, training with funeral workers, clergy, social workers, hospice and medical personnel. 

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    Copyright 2013, Dr. Donald Steele, Ph.D.
    NOTICE: All content within this blog is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. The author is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made by a user based on the content of this site. The author is not liable for the contents of any external internet sites listed. Always consult your own GP if you're in any way concerned about your health.