Many of us believe that children are not supposed to die before their parents. Nothing in the exhausting physical and emotional journey that brought you to this point can prepare you for this loss. You may feel numb or intense shock. You may be in disbelief and denial, even if your child’s death was expected. It’s normal to be angry or feel guilty about not being able to save your child. Many parents question their spiritual beliefs. You may ask yourself “What if?” and wonder if there was something you could have done differently. Daily tasks may seem impossible.
Along with grieving for your child, you will grieve for the hopes and dreams you had for your child. You will grieve that your child will never reach their full potential. You will grieve for all the milestones and experiences that you will never get the chance to share with them.
Many parents feel it is impossible to return to normal life. Some may feel so hopeless, like life is not worth living anymore, that they think about suicide or hurting themselves. If you are thinking about suicide, seek professional help and talk to a doctor or counsellor right away.
Some ways to help cope with your grief include:
Remember everyone grieves differently. Everyone in the family will grieve in their own way. Talk openly with each other and try to accept everyone’s coping styles. Even parents will experience grief differently. One of you may need to remember or talk about your child more than the other. One parent may find talking helps while another parent may prefer not to talk about it. Grandparents often experience enormous grief. Not only do they grieve for their grandchild but also for their child who is suffering.
Don’t put yourself on a timeline. There is no normal length of time to grieve. Some people feel that grief should improve over a certain time frame, such as a year, but that is not true. At first, grief is often severe and intense, with no relief. Some parents find the second year more difficult because things seem more final. There may also be less support from friends and family in the second year, compared to the first.
You will probably feel waves of grief. Over time these usually become less intense and less frequent. But even years after your child’s death, important events and milestones can trigger grief. For example, the first day of a new school year may be a trigger. Seeing your child’s friend graduate or the wedding of one of your other children may bring sadness as well as joy. These events can make you think about how old your child would be, what they would look like and what they would be doing if they were still here.
Lean on your friends, family and community. Let your friends, family and community help you. They are also sad that your child has died. You may ask someone close to you to help with letting other friends and community know about your child’s death. Friends and family can allow you time to grieve by helping with child care, housework or errands. School staff can help to explain your child’s death to students at your child’s school and help to support your other children through their grief. Your community may also want to do something for your family such as support a memorial, collect money for a charity or help you out with meals and other things.
Talk about your child. Talk about your child and use their name. Friends and family may worry that even mentioning your child’s name will make you sad. By talking about your child, this gives others the chance to talk about your child with you and provide support.
Find a support group. Your child’s treatment centre may have a support group for parents. There may be bereavement groups in your area or online. There are also support groups, chat rooms and camps or programs for children whose sibling has died. Find a support group that feels right to you. You may have to try more than one to find the right fit.
Hold an annual event in your child’s memory. Some parents find this is a good way to remember their child. You can make it a fundraising event and donate proceeds to an organization or service important to your child, family or community. Planning the event and talking about your child during that time can be very comforting.
Expert review and references
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Grieving the Loss of a Child. Alexandria, VA.: American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO); 2015.
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Grieving the Loss of a Sibling. Alexandria, VA.: American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO); 2015.
CureSearch. Months and years after death. Bethesda, MD: National Childhood Cancer Foundation & Children's Oncology Group;
CureSearch. Remembering siblings. Bethesda, MD: National Childhood Cancer Foundation & Children's Oncology Group;
Fochtman, D. . Palliative Care. Baggott, C. R., Kelly, K. P., Fochtman, D. et al. Nursing Care of Children and Adolescents with Cancer. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders Company; 2002: 17: pp. 400-425.
Care of the Dying Child and the Family. Tomlinson, D. & Kline, N. E. (Eds.). Pediatric Oncology Nursing: Advanced Clinical Handbook. Germany: Springer; 2005: 30: pp. 431-442.