Grief following the death of a child

The death of a child is one of the most difficult losses anyone can experience. The death of a young child will seem tragic and unfair to their parents, carers, family members and friends.

The death of an adult child is also a great loss for parents and also may seem unjust. The significance of the loss may not be acknowledged by others because the person was an adult.

People usually find they have strong reactions even if they knew the death was coming. Some may feel numb or dazed with the shock, or get really upset, and feel angry, guilty and sad.

Impact On Families

Each person will respond in their own way, which may be different from others in the family. There is no set pattern or time limit with grief.

The first strong emotions may ease after some time has passed, but certain reminders can bring these feelings back again: for example days such as the child’s birthday, the anniversary of their death, Mother’s and Father’s day, religious feasts and other anniversaries.

Some families may be able to help each other, but many find it hard or even impossible to do so. Each is trying to cope with their own burden. They may have different ways of doing this. One may want the comfort of being close and touching, or to talk. Another may want to be alone and to think or be out doing something to keep busy. Sometimes this can be different from their usual behaviour. Some parents may develop difficulties in their relationship with their partner because of their different ways of grieving.

It can help to get support from a good friend, a professional person or support group.


Some common reactions that people who experience the death of a child may include:

  • feelings of guilt as well as sadness
  • difficulty sleeping
  • lack of appetite
  • distressing thoughts
  • the “aching arms” of yearning and a need to cuddle their child
  • a loss of their sense of future direction
  • difficulty talking with other parents about their children

Strategies Which May Help

  • staying with a child who has just died, alone or with close family. holding, touching and talking to the child, can help people to accept that the death has really happened
  • allowing individuals to show their strong feelings of grief, if they want to
  • providing support, time to grieve and answering their questions is important for those who may be affected, for example, brothers and sisters, grandparents and school friends
  • seeking support and information from doctors or others involved in the child’s death to try to understand how the child came to die
  • the funeral service is a way in which people come together to remember the child and celebrate their life. It can allow people to pay tribute to them, express their sadness, say goodbye in a public way and receive the support of family and friends
  • it is usually helpful for parents and other family members to be as closely involved in the preparation of the funeral as much as they wish
  • cultural groups may have their own ways of grieving with particular customs through the period of mourning
  • some find it helps to provide a means by which the memory of the child can live on by, for example, making a garden, or creating some other memorial
  • for those who cared for the child around the time of death, it is important that their grief is acknowledged and support provided as appropriate, including perhaps attending the funeral

Moving Forward

All of these things can help people come to terms with the death of a child. It does not mean they forget or that there is no longer any sadness and pain. However it often happens that the child gradually occupies a different place in their minds and hearts and they can adjust to life without their physical presence.

They learn to live with the pain, not in the pain. They will also need support and permission (but not pressure) to continue with life: to laugh, to think about other things and to make plans for a different future.