Parents Who Have Suffered Child Loss- Coping Strategies to Recover

When a Parent Loses a Child

Parents Who Have Suffered Child Loss- Coping Strategies to Recover

One of the greatest traumas imaginable is when parents have to deal with the death of a child. Producing greater stress than dealing with the death of a parent or spouse, a child’s death is especially traumatic because it is often unexpected; it is also in violation of the “usual” order of things, in which the child is expected to bury the parent. 

The emotional blow associated with child loss can trigger a wide range of psychological and physiological problems including depression, anxiety, cognitive and physical symptoms linked to stress, marital problems, increased risk for suicide, physical pain, and guilt.

 All of these issues can persist long after the child’s death and may potentially lead to diagnosable psychiatric conditions such as complicated grief disorder (currently listed as a condition for further study in the DSM-5), which can include many symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. 

But can losing a child reduce a parent’s lifespan? Although the emotional trauma associated with child loss can be devastating at any age, the impact seems to be far greater for elderly parents who often have related health problems that can be adversely affected by stress and grief.

 Though research literature looking at child loss and reduced lifespan has tended to be inconclusive—at least for younger parents, who are often more resilient—a new research study published in a recent issue of Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy provides a systematic look at how child loss can affect older adults. 

Conducted by a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University, the study looked at a national sample of 1,239 older Israelis ranging in age from 75 to 94 who were followed over a 20-year period. Only 4.

76 percent of the original sample was still alive after 20 years; information about cause of death and medical history was also collected. Of the study participants who had children, 29.

2 percent had lost at least one child, whether due to war or disease.

Overall, bereaved parents were more ly than non-bereaved parents to be significantly depressed and have poorer overall physical functioning. They were also significantly lonelier, with lower cognitive functioning—though bereaved parents were also more ly to have more children and have more frequent contact with their surviving children and grandchildren. 

Over the 20-year follow-up period, parents who had lost a child had shorter lifespans than non-bereaved parents; this relationship stayed strong even after controlling for age, gender, and widowhood status.

 This was especially true for bereaved mothers, who were far more ly to die earlier than non-bereaved mothers.

 Conversely, while widowhood was more ly to be correlated with premature death in men, women who lost a spouse appeared better able to cope.

So why does losing a child appear to be associated with earlier death in parents? The researchers raise several possibilities—including unresolved grief, long-term PTSD symptoms, loss of meaning in one’s life, and the biological impact of severe prolonged stress. They do, however, also warn that these results may not be the same in other countries where cultural influences are different. 

Still, the trauma associated with losing a child, whether to violence or disease, can certainly lead to devastating physical and mental health issues. As people grow older, the possibility of outliving their children is slowly becoming a grim reality for many people.

 In dealing with this loss, it is increasingly important to recognize the impact it can have on health and overall quality of life.

  Family members helping older people deal with child loss also need to recognize the role they need to play in helping their loved ones through the grieving process and to ensure that health needs are not neglected as a result.    


Recovery from grief requires more than grieving, psychologist finds

Parents Who Have Suffered Child Loss- Coping Strategies to Recover



CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558

STANFORD — When someone close to us dies, we've been told, it's important to let our feelings out. If you bottle up your emotions, your grief will spill out later as severe depression, according to Freud and a host of more recent authors on coping with death.

Now comes a study, however, that finds people who dwell excessively on negative emotions aroused by their loss are also at high risk for long-term depressions. On the other hand, people who are already recovered from a grief-related depression within a month following their loss do not tend to lapse into depression months later.

In their study of 253 San Francisco Bay Area residents who had lost a loved one to cancer, Stanford University psychologist Susan Nolen- Hoeksema and two colleagues found the process of healthy grieving is more complicated than simply expressing your negative emotions.

“Depression is a normal response to the loss of a spouse or parent,” Nolen-Hoeksema said, “but there are big differences in people as to how long that depression lasts. Most people show significant recovery from a grief-related depression within six months, but people who are still very depressed after six months are at high risk for remaining depressed for a very long time after that.”

Nolen-Hoeksema and her colleagues, Louise Parker at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, and Judith Larson, a Stanford research assistant in psychology, assessed a number of variables that had been associated with recovery from depression in other studies – studies of depressions not caused by grief. Those include the social relationships people have, the number of stresses in their lives, their general disposition toward optimism or pessimism, and their methods for coping with negative emotions or stress, such as the feelings of sadness and emptiness that often accompany the death of a loved one.

“One of the things we were really surprised about was that, on average, people who had lost a loved one reported four additional major stresses within the same year,” Nolen-Hoeksema said.

“These were big stresses, not just daily hassles. Some were connected to the loved one's illness. For example, a number of people lost their jobs because they had to stay home and take care of their spouses.”

The number of stressful events in their lives, it turned out, was a good predictor of who would be depressed six months after a loved one's death, she said.

One woman, for example, not only lost her father to cancer but was still caring for her elderly mother, who had Alzheimer's disease. As a result, the woman had lost her job and was in debt.

Feeling she did not have the time or energy to look for a new job or find someone to care for her mother, the woman spent her days at home with her mother, worrying about her financial situation and the deterioration in her own physical and emotional health.

While understandable, Nolen-Hoeksema said, such passive, ruminative coping with grief and stress also leads to longer depression.

“People who were prone to focusing on themselves, worrying about their feelings and not doing things specifically to lift their moods, such as talking with other people or engaging in activities they enjoyed, were more prone to still be depressed six months later.”

In other words, she said, “we found that those who were initially depressed but who recovered within six months tended to have fewer additional stresses and more adaptive coping strategies.”

Adaptive coping, she said, involves “doing things that renew your sense of control and take your mind away from your worries for a short time. People typically use things sports or hobbies or going somewhere with a friend, such as to a movie or shopping,” she said. “A little bit of distraction leads to more motivation to do more pleasant activities. You can start small and build.”

Ineffective strategies for coping, she said, include distracting behavior that is reckless, such as drinking alcohol and speeding down a highway, as well as sitting home and thinking, “I just don't feel doing anything,” worrying about your feelings, or repeatedly talking about how “unmotivated, sad or lethargic you feel without doing anything to relieve the symptoms.”

The fact that those who passively ruminated about their grief remained depressed longer was not surprising to Nolen-Hoeksema because of her earlier investigations into how people's response styles influence their tendencies to depression.

In a number of field and laboratory studies, she has established that introspective rumination – the tendency to ponder one's worries, to focus passively on the depressed mood itself and the causes and implications of it – is associated with longer periods of depression, both among people who are severely depressed and those with more moderate depressions.

In one study, for instance, Stanford students who experienced the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake were more ly to show depression afterward if they often thought about the moment the earthquake happened, their feelings around the time of the quake or injuries to other people than if they got out and became involved in some form of community assistance efforts.

Those who tried to suppress their distress through heavy drinking also remained depressed longer after the earthquake, she said.

In earlier work, Stanford psychologist Gordon Bower established that depressed moods color people's thinking by giving them greater access to negative interpretations and memories, she said, and her own research indicates that ruminative thinking “pulls your attention to this negative network so you are more ly to use that negative material to interpret ongoing situations.”

It may also be that those who try to suppress their emotions with alcohol, for example, are more ly to lapse into rumination, she said, although that has yet to be proved.

Some research suggests that people recover from traumas faster simply if they can talk about them, Nolen-Hoeksema said, but talking about grief repeatedly or with people whom you don't feel understand you may not be helpful.

Bereavement is often a lonely trauma, more coping with a rape than experiencing an earthquake, she said, where nearly everyone in a community experiences the event. “For 10 days after the earthquake, it seemed almost everybody was talking about it.”

In the study of people who were grieving, however, many said their conversations with family or relatives were strained and not helpful. Adult children, friends or siblings of the person who died often reported feeling less empathy from others than those whose spouse had died.

Some community mental health and hospice programs offer the bereaved an alternative: meeting together with others in grief and a counselor.

“Simple ventilation of one's feelings may not be enough to help people overcome, but these groups can be helpful if people get some validation for their feelings and stop thinking they are crazy or that there is something specifically wrong with them that makes them abnormal,” Nolen-Hoeksema said. They may be the only social support for some people, she said, “especially bereaved men who were never able to tell anybody how they felt except their wives, who are now gone.”

Group members can also distract each other from their problems. “Sometimes, members of the group form great social bonds outside of it. You may pair up with someone you really and start going to the movies and building friendships that are self-affirming, that get you up and going and re-engaged in life.”

A depressed person who takes a break from thinking about his or her problems is more ly to come up with better solutions to those problems when he or she returns to thinking about them, Nolen-Hoeksema said.

“Self-focusing and contemplation when you are in a good mood can lead to better problem solving.

” In one study, she and her colleagues found that nondepressed people who were made to focus on themselves for a while before doing an interpersonal problem-solving task came up with better solutions to the problem than nondepressed people who were distracted for a while before problem solving.

“This suggests that self-evaluation and contemplation are good things to do, as long as you are not in a really depressed mood,” she said. “Unfortunately, we are more prone to do a lot of self-evaluation when we are in a depressed mood.”



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9 Tips for Coping With the Sudden Death of Your Child

Parents Who Have Suffered Child Loss- Coping Strategies to Recover

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When someone close dies at an older age, people often take comfort not only in celebrating their life, but also in knowing that death is part of the natural process of living. This experience is not the same when you are faced with the sudden death of your child.

For parents who have lost a child, it makes no sense for life to end at such a young age—particularly when the death is sudden and without warning. The loss cuts so deep, it can be suffocating. If you are dealing with this type of loss in your family, here are some tips to help you and your family cope.

Stick together as a family and lean on each other for help. While everyone in the family will need to have their private time, you also can find comfort in each other. Being together can help you remember that you are not alone in your grief. Use the strength of your family's sense of belonging to help you manage your sorrow. Be there to consistently support one another.

Although it was once believed that the death of a child led to a high divorce rate among bereaved parents, scientific research does not support this.

A study of parents of children with cancer (some of whom did not survive), published in 2010, found that among almost 5,000 couples studied, the divorce rate was not elevated except in a few particular circumstances.

An older study reviewed the current state of research and concluded that “the majority of marital relationships survive the strain brought about by a child's death and may even be strengthened in the long run.”

However, since everyone grieves differently, facing the loss of a child can certainly put strain on a marriage and on each parent's relationship with surviving children.

Seek professional help when coming to terms with your loss. Don't try to get through this situation on your own.

Family counseling can give you and your family the skills you need to get through the tremendously difficult loss.

If death is sudden, grief is not necessarily greater than it would have been with an anticipated death.

But it may be harder to cope with because it is so disruptive, according to Therese Rando, a psychologist and the clinical director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss.

For this reason, it is important to find a professional who can help you find workable coping solutions. These strategies will help you manage the days, weeks, and months ahead. Meanwhile, your other children may also benefit from grief counseling to learn to manage their feelings.

Be open and willing to accept help from extended family members, friends, or neighbors. Allow them to help you with meals, watching your other children, helping around the house, running errands, and most importantly, being there to listen when you need to talk.

Also, allow others to do day-to-day tasks your laundry or grocery shopping. Don't try to do everything on your own or without help. Give yourself the break you need. And, if people have said things “let me know how I can help,” take them up on their offer. Ask for their help when you need it. Those around you have the desire to help, but they may not know how.

There are two distinct time periods after a loss that can help you understand the grieving process. The first is immediately following the death, when extended family, friends, and community gather.

It is the time period when you are dealing with funerals and memorial services and there is lots of activity. The second is “after the casseroles are done,” which describes the time when all of the food that was given to the family by neighbors and friends is gone.

Everyone else gets back to life as they know it and the grieving family begins to face life without the one they lost.

Most people assume that dealing with a loss of a child immediately following the death is the most heart-rending nightmare. What they do not realize is that the heart-rending nightmare continues.

The family has to continue to cope with their nightmare long after the casseroles are done. They are facing the rest of their lives without the child they lost. This new reality is by far one of the most trying.

Although it is tempting to just shut down, it is important to keep the lines of communication open and spend quality time together. Talking to each other about your loss, the loved one who has died, and what you are feeling will help everyone in your family process their grief.

It also will help your family's bonds remain strong or grow stronger. Remember, knowing that their family is still strong can help your other children successfully navigate their grieving process, as well.

While getting help to see you through the initial shock of your loss is very important, it is also imperative to continue seeking help. You will need support for any unforeseen issues that the loss may cause, especially as you move through the stages of grief.

Issues may crop up a sibling's grades dropping, teen depression, or a family member no longer wanting to live without the loved one who died.

It is much easier to get help in these situations when you are already seeing a professional who knows you and what your family is going through.

Then, when problems arise, you have a person who can help you process what is happening and work through it.

Many parents find that it helps to join a support group, either as a family or alone. While it doesn't take the place of seeing a dedicated professional, groups can add another layer of support.

Not only does it offer the opportunity to connect with people who are experiencing the same thing you are, but healthy support groups often provide a safe place to share what you are thinking and feeling with people who “get it.

” As much as your friends want to empathize and be there for you, there are just some elements about losing a child that they just may not comprehend. For this reason, support groups can be vital to the healing process.

More often than not, parents and their children are so overcome with grief over the sudden loss of a loved one, that they neglect their own health. They may forget to eat, stop exercising, and rely on fast food because they just don't have the energy to cook. They also might neglect regular doctor visits and checkups, too.

While it is important to make an effort to eat healthy and get some exercise, do not beat yourself up for not going to the gym or cooking elaborate meals. Take baby steps to get back on track.

For instance, set a goal of taking a short walk through the neighborhood each day and eating a piece of fruit with your meals. As you start feeling better, you can incorporate more healthy lifestyle changes and routines back into your life.

Most people find that when they feel better physically, they also start to feel better mentally.

There are plenty of people out there that just do not know how to respond with compassion and empathy to what you and your family are experiencing. They may say insensitive things; or, they may put unrealistic expectations on you. They may say things “you should be over this by now” or “at least you have another child.” None of these things are healthy for you or your family.

Grief is a process. There is never a point where you are suddenly “over it.” You will get to a point where you can smile and laugh again. But, that doesn't mean that you are over the fact that you lost a child.

Losing a child suddenly changes you; and if there are toxic friends in your life who cannot respect your feelings and treat you with kindness, you need to weed them out. You do not need more pain and sadness in your life. Surround yourself with people who are supportive and caring. Doing so will make the grieving process much more bearable.

Routines provide a sense of comfort and security, especially for children. As a result, it is important to incorporate your routines back into your life as soon as you can.

This effort can include the daily routines of getting ready for school and work, having dinner together, or participating in family nights.

It also includes being active with hobbies and interests you had prior to your loved one's death.

If kids are on a sports team, they should go back to practice. They also need to go back to school and get into a routine of studying. Meanwhile, if one of your family routines needs to be changed because your loved one is no longer there, acknowledge it. Getting back into a routine doesn't mean that you have to pretend things are the same.

Get everyone a journal or sketch pad and suggest that they use it when they are feeling down. It often helps to express grief through journaling, drawing, or painting.

Another option is to create a playlist in memory of your child, write a poem, or create a song—anything that provides a creative outlet for your grief. Creative outlets can help you make sense of your feelings.

Make sure you are providing plenty of opportunities for you and your family members to express grief and heal.

Be a family, and remember that your lost child is still a part of it. Everyone in your family will carry the lost child in their hearts for the rest of their lives. Create a family tradition that will help you remember the good memories you had together. For example, you could enter a community walk or a run in memory of your child, or start an event of your own.

Other grieving parents have performed random acts of kindness in memory of their child, donated to a cause close to their child's heart, developed a scholarship fund in their child's name, or planted a tree or shrub in their memory. Be creative and do something that makes sense for your family.

The grief that accompanies losing a child suddenly is un anything you will ever experience. It shocks your system.

And while coping with the loss will not be easy, if you make a concerted effort to stick together as a family and take care of yourselves, you will make it through.

The important thing is that you rely on one another, communicate regularly even when it is uncomfortable, and continue to see a professional who can help you process your emotions and find workable solutions for continuing your life.


Helping Children Cope with Trauma –

Parents Who Have Suffered Child Loss- Coping Strategies to Recover

The intense, confusing, and frightening emotions that follow a traumatic event or natural disaster can be even more pronounced in children and teens.

Such events can undermine their sense of security, leaving them feeling helpless and vulnerable—especially if the event stemmed from an act of violence, such as a physical assault, mass shooting, or terrorist attack.

Even kids or teens not directly affected by a disaster can become traumatized when repeatedly exposed to horrific images of the event on the news or social media.

Effects of Trauma on Kids and Teens
Children age 5 and under may:
  • Show signs of fear
  • Cling to parent or caregiver
  • Cry, scream, or whimper
  • Move aimlessly or become immobile
  • Return to behaviors common at a younger age, such as thumb sucking or bedwetting
Children age 6 to 11 may:
  • Lose interest in friends, family, and fun activities
  • Have nightmares or other sleep problems
  • Become irritable, disruptive, or angry
  • Struggle with school and homework
  • Complain of physical problems
  • Develop unfounded fears
  • Feel depressed, emotionally numb, or guilty over what happened
Adolescents age 12 to 17 may:
  • Have flashbacks to the event, nightmares, or other sleep problems
  • Avoid reminders of the event
  • Abuse drugs, alcohol, or tobacco
  • Act disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive
  • Have physical complaints
  • Feel isolated, guilty, or depressed
  • Lose interest in hobbies and interests
  • Have suicidal thoughts
Source: National Institute of Mental Health

Whatever the age of your child, it’s important to offer extra reassurance and support following a traumatic event. A child’s reaction to a disaster or trauma can be greatly influenced by their parents’ response, so it’s important to educate yourself about trauma and traumatic stress.

The more you know about the symptoms, effects, and treatment options, the better equipped you’ll be to help your child recover.

With your love and support, the unsettling thoughts and feelings of traumatic stress can start to fade and your child’s life can return to normal in the days or weeks following the event.

Kids and trauma recovery tip 1: Minimize media exposure

Children who’ve experienced a traumatic event can often find relentless media coverage to be further traumatizing. Excessive exposure to images of a disturbing event—such as repeatedly viewing video clips on social media or news sites—can even create traumatic stress in children or teens who were not directly affected by the event.

Limit your child’s media exposure to the traumatic event. Don’t let your child watch the news or check social media just before bed, and make use of parental controls on the TV, computer, and tablet to prevent your child from repeatedly viewing disturbing footage.

As much as you can, watch news reports of the traumatic event with your child. You can reassure your child as you’re watching and help place information in context.

Avoid exposing your child to graphic images and videos. It’s often less traumatizing for a child or teen to read the newspaper rather than watch television coverage or view video clips of the event.

Tip 2: Engage your child

You can’t force your child to recover from traumatic stress, but you can play a major role in the healing process by simply spending time together and talking face to face, free from TV, games, and other distractions. Do your best to create an environment where your kids feel safe to communicate what they’re feeling and to ask questions.

Provide your child with ongoing opportunities to talk about what they went through or what they’re seeing in the media. Encourage them to ask questions and express their concerns but don’t force them to talk.

Acknowledge and validate your child’s concerns. The traumatic event may bring up unrelated fears and issues in your child. Comfort for your child comes from feeling understood and accepted by you, so acknowledge their fears even if they don’t seem relevant to you.

Reassure your child. The event was not their fault, you love them, and it’s OK for them to feel upset, angry, or scared.

Don’t pressure your child into talking. It can be very difficult for some kids to talk about a traumatic experience. A young child may find it easier to draw a picture illustrating their feelings rather than talk about them. You can then talk with your child about what they’ve drawn.

Be honest. While you should tailor the information you share according to your child’s age, honesty is important. Don’t say nothing’s wrong if something is wrong.

Do “normal” activities with your child that have nothing to do with the traumatic event. Encourage your child to seek out friends and pursue games, sports, and hobbies that they enjoyed before the incident. Go on family outings to the park or beach, enjoy a games night, or watch a funny or uplifting movie together.

Tip 3: Encourage physical activity

Physical activity can burn off adrenaline, release mood-enhancing endorphins, and help your child sleep better at night.

  • Find a sport that your child enjoys. Activities such as basketball, soccer, running, martial arts, or swimming that require moving both the arms and legs can help rouse your child’s nervous system from that “stuck” feeling that often follows a traumatic experience.
  • Offer to participate in sports, games, or physical activities with your child. If they seem resistant to get off the couch, play some of their favorite music and dance together. Once a child gets moving, they’ll start to feel more energetic.
  • Encourage your child to go outside to play with friends or a pet and blow off steam.
  • Schedule a family outing to a hiking trail, swimming pool, or park.
  • Take younger children to a playground, activity center, or arrange play dates.

Tip 4: Feed your child a healthy diet

The food your child eats can have a profound impact on their mood and ability to cope with traumatic stress.

Processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary drinks and snacks can create mood swings and worsen symptoms of traumatic stress.

Conversely, eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, can help your child better cope with the ups and downs that follow a disturbing experience.

Focus on overall diet rather than specific foods. Kids should be eating whole, minimally processed food—food that is as close to its natural form as possible.

Limit fried food, sweet desserts, sugary snacks and cereals, and refined flour. These can all exacerbate symptoms of traumatic stress in kids.

Be a role model. The childhood impulse to imitate is strong so don’t ask your child to eat vegetables while you gorge on soda and French fries.

Cook more meals at home. Restaurant and takeout meals have more added sugar and unhealthy fat so cooking at home can have a huge impact on your kids’ health. If you make large batches, cooking just a few times can be enough to feed your family for the whole week.

Make mealtimes about more than just food. Gathering the family around a table for a meal is an ideal opportunity to talk and listen to your child without the distraction of TV, phones, or computers.

Tip 5: Rebuild trust and safety

Trauma can alter the way a child sees the world, making it suddenly seem a much more dangerous and frightening place. Your child may find it more difficult to trust both their environment and other people. You can help by rebuilding your child’s sense of safety and security.

Create routines. Establishing a predictable structure and schedule to your child’s or teen’s life can help to make the world seem more stable again. Try to maintain regular times for meals, homework, and family activities.

Minimize stress at home. Try to make sure your child has space and time for rest, play, and fun.

Manage your own stress. The more calm, relaxed, and focused you are, the better you’ll be able to help your child.

Speak of the future and make plans. This can help counteract the common feeling among traumatized children that the future is scary, bleak, and unpredictable.

Keep your promises. You can help to rebuild your child’s trust by being trustworthy. Be consistent and follow through on what you say you’re going to do.

If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be afraid to admit it. Don’t jeopardize your child’s trust in you by making something up.

Remember that children often personalize situations. They may worry about their own safety even if the traumatic event occurred far away. Reassure your child and help place the situation in context.

When to seek treatment for your child’s trauma

Usually, your child’s feelings of anxiety, numbness, confusion, guilt, and despair following a traumatic event will start to fade within a relatively short time.

However, if the traumatic stress reaction is so intense and persistent that it’s interfering with your child’s ability to function at school or home, they may need help from a mental health professional—preferably a trauma specialist.

Warning signs include:

  • Six weeks have passed, and your child is not feeling any better
  • Your child is having trouble functioning at school
  • Your child is experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
  • The symptoms of traumatic stress manifest as physical complaints such as headaches, stomach pains, or sleep disturbances
  • Your child is having an increasingly difficult time relating to friends and family
  • Your child or teen is experiencing suicidal thoughts
  • Your child is avoiding more and more things that remind them of the traumatic event

Take any suicidal talk or behavior seriously. It’s not just a warning sign that your child or teen is thinking about suicide—it’s a cry for help. Please read Suicide Prevention or call a suicide helpline:

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: October 2019.


Coping with grief after the loss of a baby – for parents

Parents Who Have Suffered Child Loss- Coping Strategies to Recover

Many women feel they have failed as mothers. They feel responsible for what has happened because their body let them down and they didn’t give birth to a healthy baby.

It’s not unusual for bereaved parents, particularly mums, to become obsessed with their own, their partner’s or their other children’s health. Your own mortality can come to the fore – if a tiny baby can die so can anyone. This reaction usually fades with time – if it doesn’t and you are struggling to manage the anxiety, talk to your doctor or health visitor.

With time, some mums also feel guilty when they start to feel a little better, as if they’re not honouring their baby or ‘forgetting them’.

Anger is a very natural part of grief. Many parents direct this towards the hospital, and at other times to-wards friends and family. For some women it is a generalised anger at the undeservedness and injustice, ‘Why me?’

All the feelings we mention here are normal. However, if you start to worry about how you’re feeling, please try talking to your GP.

Fathers and coping with grief

The information on this page is for both parents, but it needs to be acknowledged that fathers can be for-gotten after a baby is stillborn. As everyone looks to the mother it’s easy to overlook the fact that men need time and space to grieve too. Men and women may grieve differently. With men expressing less emotion, it is easy to assume that ‘they are OK’.

Some men find it difficult to express their emotions and their feelings can get locked up. This can be misunderstood as indifference to the loss of their baby.

Many men take on the role of protector in the family; supporting their wife or partner and not allowing time for their own grief. It is not unusual for men to take on the practicalities and keep themselves busy.

You will both need time and space to grieve. This may happen after the funeral if there is one, or possibly many weeks later.

'I had to go back to work straight away. It was a good distraction. I ran a lot and I kept doing that. I signed up for marathons. Running got me away for a few hours at a time and gave me a way to switch off.

I wasn’t right for at least six months after. I was functioning but I was on autopilot. I wasn’t myself. People might not have noticed too much.

Keith, who lost his son Owen at 38 weeks (Read Keith’s story here)

Read more about supporting each other as a couple. 

Getting help to cope from friends and family

Family and friends may want to rally around. Some parents will appreciate this, others might find it exhausting. This is a time to be honest about what you need.

Practical help can be invaluable, particularly in the early days when you’re recovering from the birth. If you have trusted friends or family and are able to cope with having them around these are things they can help with:

  • home cooked meals
  • filing and responding to messages of condolences
  • shopping
  • laundry
  • gardening
  • looking after other children.

For other women, however, keeping busy can be part of the healing process.

It might help to circulate our page on 'How to give support' to friends and family who want to know how they can help you.

After the birth

Most women, will agree that the emotional pain is infinitely more difficult to bear than the physical discomfort of giving birth. But don’t underestimate how your hormone levels rapidly change after the birth, and post-natal mood swings and tears are normal, regardless. These hormonal changes might make your grief even harder to cope with in the early weeks and months.

You will also have to cope with the physical effects of giving birth. You will bleed heavily for the first few days after the birth, you may have painful stitches or after-pains (as the uterus contracts back to its normal size). Your breasts will produce milk and this can lead to painful engorgement. Talk to your midwife about how to manage your milk coming in.

The physical side-effects of giving birth can be very difficult to cope with and it can feel nature is play-ing a cruel trick on you.

Read more about coping with the physical effects of a stillbirth

‘For me one of the most awful things was my milk coming in. I was sadly unable to take any medication to stop it, so I was told to compress my breasts with tighter tops to try and stem the supply.’ Bethan

The hospital will tell your GP, community midwife and health visitor what has happened so they can offer you care and support once you are home.

If you haven’t heard from your GP within a few days, phone your surgery to arrange to see someone. You might want to ask your GP to put a note on your record so it is immediately obvious to anyone you deal with in future what has happened.

Although it may be difficult and heart-breaking, it is important to ensure you attend all your post-natal appointments. It might help to call your GP and find out in advance of appointments what will happen so you can prepare yourself.

Read more about postnatal care after a stillbirth

Physical grief

You may have physical reactions to your grief. Heart palpitations, shaking, chest pains, diarrhoea, butter-flies in your stomach and sickness are all common.

It is important to try to look after yourself after the birth. You may not feel eating or drinking but you need to try to keep physically strong to cope with the emotional trauma.

Many women felt it was very difficult to leave the house, but if you feel able to do so, parents often report that once they went out they felt that being outdoors in the fresh air helped.

‘It's almost I created a time capsule, which may be seen as unhealthy to some, but I find it so therapeutic.

I spent a long time after the birth just sitting playing every minute of the labour and delivery and the following 12 hours over in my head because I didn't want to forget how I felt or what happened, as if I did start to forget it would mean I would also forget Chloe.

I had to take that pressure off myself to stop my panic attacks, and so the memory box has really helped with that. When I do sit and look through it I am taken back to those feelings, and honestly sometimes I really need to just sit in that and feel it wash over me again.

But then when I have had my time looking back through everything I can put it away and focus on my day to day life again.’ Diane, who lost her baby Chloe at 40 weeks (read Diane's story here)

You may be more prone to viral infections, such as colds. You may feel physically exhausted.

Sleep may be difficult for a while. You might have vivid dreams and nightmares.

Do not hesitate to get in touch with your GP if you feel you need extra support with the physical effects of grieving.

‘I suffered from ptsd and nightmares for several months after my stillbirth. At night I would lie in bed reliving what had happened. I learnt to write my feelings down which acted as a release.' Bethan

'The grief was overwhelming. I suffered horrific nightmares, and although family and friends rallied around, nobody could penetrate the bubble of heart and gut wrenching ache. I learnt to ‘act’, to do the bare minimum to simply survive my daily routine.' Jo

Share your feelings

Talking to close and trusted family members or friends about your feelings and your experience can bring comfort.

Most mothers also felt that talking to other women who had experienced a stillbirth was very help-ful and reassured them that their feelings were normal. It can also make you feel less alone.

You may find that crying and talking about your baby are good ways of releasing feelings. You may want to tell your story over and over again. This is normal and you should follow this instinctive urge to talk as it helps you come to terms with what has happened. Don’t be afraid to mention the name of your baby who has died.

Other parents however find it hard to express their feelings or talk about their baby.

‘Sometimes you just don’t know where to start, or find it too hard or horrifically sad.’ Lucy

It might be helpful to write down what happened and how you feel each day. You may want to draw or paint, write a poem, keep a diary, create a web page, set up a blog or make a scrapbook.

SANDS, a support charity, can put you in touch with other mums and dads who have had stillborn babies and will be happy to listen and talk.

Get support to help cope with the grief

A bereavement support officer or bereavement midwife may be able to help you with paperwork and funeral planning.

You might also be able to access bereavement counselling through your GP.

There is support out there, but it will differ depending on where you live. Sometimes you need to explore all your options to find the best one for you.

Knowing the difference between postnatal depression and grief

Some mums suffer with postnatal depression after a stillbirth. You might also show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder after the terrible ordeal you’ve been through. Talk to your GP if you are worried about your feelings and reactions.

The main symptoms of postnatal depression are very similar to the symptoms of grief so it is not easy to tell them apart. If you have had a previous mental health issue though you are more ly to suffer from postnatal depression so you or a close person should be on the lookout.

  • a persistent feeling of sadness and low mood
  • loss of interest in life, no longer enjoying things that used to give pleasure
  • lack of energy and feeling tired all the time.

Other symptoms can include:

  • disturbed sleep, such as having trouble sleeping during the night and then being sleepy during the day
  • difficulties with concentration and making decisions
  • low self-confidence
  • poor appetite or an increase in appetite (‘comfort eating’)
  • feeling very agitated or, alternatively, very apathetic (you can’t be bothered)
  • feelings of guilt and self-blame
  • thinking about suicide and self-harming.

If, after about six months, you are still struggling to cope with everyday life, consider getting some professional help, which you can discuss with your GP.

More support

You can talk to our midwives on Tommy’s free PregnancyLine 0800 0147 800. Open 9-5, Monday to Friday. The midwives on the line have received training in bereavement care and welcome calls from parents who have lost a baby.

There is also an online forum where you can connect with other people who have lost a baby.

Saying Goodbye offers support, advice and a befriending service. You can also attend Saying Goodbye ceremonies across the country.

The Child Bereavement Trust has support groups, offers counselling and lots of online resources. They can help siblings through a bereavement.

Twins Trust is the Twins and Multiple Births Association for support with losing a multiple birth baby.