Content Warning: Grief, Trauma // This article discusses the loss of a child, a topic that may be upsetting or disturbing for some readers. Readers are encouraged to take the necessary steps for their emotional safety. Please seek professional help if necessary.
When working in a professional role focused on providing help and support to others, it doesn’t take long to realize that not all endings are happy. Healthcare workers and professionals across various aspects of health and human services are routinely invited into people's lives at some of the most vulnerable and heartbreaking times. It’s a painful privilege that needs to be appreciated and respected.
Tragedy is a fact of life, and how nurses, therapists, and doctors help families manage it is as important as any other injury they treat. Of all the wounds people sustain, losing a child is perhaps the deepest, most painful, and long-lasting. Like the loss of a limb, it’s a trauma that will never fully heal, and learning to live with it requires extraordinary support. It takes sensitivity, knowledge, and a great deal of experience to provide them with the physical and mental care, compassion, and resources they need to manage the grieving process.
There is no single way to help others cope through the grieving process, and the profoundly individual nature of the experience can make it even more daunting. Understanding the psychological effects of losing a child is a critical foundation for recruiting the interdisciplinary resources available so parents, family, and friends can get the care they need.
The Experience of Traumatic Loss
The loss of a child precipitates a profound evacuation of a sense of control, leaving parents stuck somewhere between extreme disbelief and a surreal departure from reality. The emotions are understandably intense, and may cycle through guilt, anxiety, anger, and debilitating sadness that has no other parallel in human experience.
The fact is, many healthcare workers will never have a complete—or even partial—understanding of what a family is going through, but that doesn't mean they’re not able to help. Assisting them on the journey through profound trauma and the mental health ramifications associated with it is a studied and professionalized science that can be learned, improved, and somewhat objectively applied.
Depression, PTSD, and the spectrum of physical symptoms that accompany a traumatic event like the loss of a child are normal and expected responses. Managing these symptoms requires time, therapy, and interdisciplinary engagement of appropriate specialists. The specific constellation of experiences may include any or all of the following:
- Negative thinking about oneself, other people, or the world
- Being easily startled or frightened
- Lasting feelings of anxiety
- Avoiding places, activities, or people that remind the person of their child
- Flashbacks or nightmares
- Aggressive and/or reckless behavior
- Feelings of hopelessness, detachment, sadness, anger, guilt, shame, or irritability
- Difficulty concentrating and memory problems
Engaging With Grief
Every family will need time to process in their own way, and the first and foremost job of healthcare professionals is listening. Giving people space to express their experience on their own terms is critical, and everything they tell you is an important part of generating responsive and supportive feedback to the psychological effects of losing a child.
Allowing families to speak creates the opportunity for:
- Individual experiences to concretize and begin being processed
- Assessing the nature of each person’s unique trauma
- Catharsis and expression of emerging emotions
- Gathering information about a family’s current personal, social, and economic situation that may be important for providing care
- Identifying existing support structures
- Discovering underlying physical and mental issues that may inform or complicate recovery
In some cases, it can be beneficial to include other siblings in conversations as appropriate and in alignment with the parents’ wishes. On top of experiencing the loss of their brother or sister, a child who expects to be able to turn to their parents for comfort may feel confused or overwhelmed seeing their parents in such a difficult situation.
Also, don’t be afraid to talk as you engage with the parents in their grief. Human interaction is part of the healing process, and finding the best way to give them what they need requires communication and feedback. Some parents may find comfort in talking about their child, speaking with friends, or even spending time with complete strangers, and being prepared to be the right person in the room at the right time—and knowing when it’s time to leave—are critical skills that can take a lot of experience and time to develop.
Successfully supporting parents through their grief is rarely accomplished by one person or one single resource. There are specialists available for referral, like family counselors and a variety of therapists.
Couples dealing with the loss of a child may notice an effect on their marriage. Grief triggers intense emotions and in some cases, one partner may grieve differently than the other. This can add another layer of strain on the coping process and there may be a need to focus on ways to remain connected.
Appropriate language is also critical for moving in a healthy direction. While it may be tempting, avoid reassurances that are not truly within your control. Telling the parents “everything will be ok” or offering statements of condolence like “they’re in a better place now” are not meaningful mechanisms of support. Instead, be honest when you don’t have all the answers, be truthful in your interactions, and use the time you have to respond specifically and actionably to concrete points of care.
Finally, there is no standard time frame in which people are allowed to grieve. Grief may last weeks, months, or years, and resources and support offered to them may also need to be extended over time. Healthcare professionals need to monitor things closely, and be aware if normative reactions begin to transition to deeper issues that may require additional expertise to resolve. Recovery is a fluid process, and the consistency of positive support the health community provides is an important counterweight to the ups and downs of a person’s individual experience.
Understanding the Impact of Losing a Child
The psychological effects of losing a child can be profound, and without being able to understand completely how a parent experiencing this loss feels, we can still manage the impact that loss may have on them and their family. Appreciating the range of emotions that parents undergo and being comfortable in engaging them in their loss is essential to lending meaningful support.
It’s an extremely difficult part of being a healthcare professional, and it takes a lot of education, experience, and training to know what to do. Courses like Born Sleeping - Grief Counseling and Creating Relationships With Families by Premiere’s Heather Walker DNP, RN, RNC-IAP, C-ONQS, C-EFM, RNC-OB, RNC-MNN, Jenna Lapointe LCSW, and Megan Arbour PhD, RN, CNM, CNE offer a great foundation in supporting others through the loss of a child.
Shepherding a family through the loss of a child is something many wish they could avoid, but by empowering themselves through knowledge and education, healthcare professionals can be a beacon of hope for the darkest moments in the lives of the people they serve.