Dr. Eileen Callahan, Ph.D.: Child Loss

Child Loss

A statistic floated around for years that 75 percent of marriages ended after the death of a child. No one ever was sure where it came from, leading The Compassionate Friends to conduct a telephone survey to check the reliability of the statistic (The Compassionate Friends, 2006). This research suggested that only 16 percent of marriages had ended after the death of a child, far from the 75 percent that had been accepted before. Most likely these marriages already were struggling before the child died and could not withstand the death of the child.

The parental relationship is strained after the suicide. Both the two people who are married have pasts that predate their married life. Each person comes into a marriage with his or her own set of baggage, experiences, culture, DNA, and everything else that makes up a human being. While they might or might not have experienced a loss before the loss of the child they created together, that loss tests the relationship.

Each parent will have expectations of how the other will grieve. A wife  will assume that her husband will grieve just the way she does, and a husband will make the same assumption about his wife. They will be disappointed when that does not happen. They might even find themselves turning to the surviving children for support because they cannot come together and discuss the loss as parents. Or they might blame each other for what they feel their partner should or should not have done.

When a child dies, part of each parent dies in that child. They lose the goals and dreams they had for that child, no matter the age. All parents wish happiness for their children, and when a child dies, the parents may feel that they have failed the child, failed to keep him or her happy and in the world with us. Parents who lose younger children lose the opportunity to see that child married and have children. There are no grandchildren.

Parents who lose an adult child who was mentally ill may already have coped with the loss of dreams during the onset of the mental illness. They may even be partially relieved when an adult child dies, knowing they do not have to worry about the child for the rest of their lives, particularly as the parents grow older and might not be able to help and care for them.

Stepparents may feel a bit removed from the loss. They will want to support the spouse who is grieving the suicide of his or her child but a stepparent may not know how to do that. However, the stepparent who has raised the child with the biological parent has functioned as a full-time parent and may feel that he or she has lost a biological child.

The family that loses its only child becomes childless, just as it was before the child was born. Some parents may choose to have another child, sometimes called a replacement child, while others may be past that time in their lives where they want to raise another child and/or do not want the worry and fear that they had with the child who died. For the parents who choose to have another child, it is important to be aware that this child will not be a replica of the first child. It is an enormous burden for any child to have to live in the shadow of a sibling who died before he or she arrived.

What many parents who lose a child fail to see, however, is that their surviving children might be struggling. Often the parents are so engrossed in their grief that they cannot see beyond what they have lost. They forget about the surviving children who still need their parents to love and care for them.

Other parents worry incessantly about their surviving children. Sometimes they fear letting them out of their sight for fear of losing them, too. They worry when their children have a bad day (even their adult children). The thought of losing another child is unbearable.

Parents must keep the communication with one another open during this experience because it is often difficult for them know what the other is thinking. As parents might have surviving children to care for, plus jobs to continue, it might be difficult for them to seek grief support for themselves. Somehow they have to continue to guide and lead the family through this traumatic experience, and they need to come together to do that.

This site cannot be used to initiate emergency contact. We cannot respond on-line to crisis situations. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

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