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Death of a Child: Losing Your Kid to Cancer


For parents there is no greater tragedy than the death of child.  The pain and despair that follows is possibly the most overwhelming, life-altering loss imaginable.  Though parents of children with cancer know the possibility of death is very real, when it comes it’s always untimely and devastating . . . despite efforts to prepare for the loss.

The number of years they had their child with them has no bearing on the immensity of their loss. Grief is as strong whether they had 3 years together or 33.  The parent-child bond is one of the most intense human relationships, and because of this emotional and biological connection parents often feel a part them died along with their child.  Parents often say they feel they’ve “lost their purpose or identity” because caring for a child with cancer requires such physical and emotional energy that it ultimately it becomes their world. 

Intense grief reactions.

Though the reactions to a child’s death are similar to the grief that follows other losses, they last much longer and are more intense.  Parents often experience:

  • Confusion, shock, denial, and disbelief even when they knew death was imminent.
  • Debilitating sadness and despair that makes getting out of bed and daily tasks almost impossible.
  • Anger and bitterness at the unfairness of the loss of a young life.
  • Resentment toward parents whose children are still alive and healthy.
  • Overprotecting remaining children.
  • Feeling separated from others who can’t possibly understand what they’re going through.
  • A loss of faith and questioning living in a world that no longer has meaning to them.

There is no time table on grief. 

Though the initial, extremely severe grief does ebb, parents grieving a child can expect times of intense grief to come and go for 18 months or longer.  Eventually, the waves of despair lessen but loss and sadness never leave, especially as milestones such as the first day of school, graduations, and weddings are never realized. 

Not only is there emotional devastation, but financial problems take a toll as well. Parents often have to reduce their number of work hours while their child is sick.  In some cases, 40% of income is lost.

Coping strategies

The following suggestions can provide some comfort:

Take your time.  Take the time you need to grieve, cry, and rail if you need to.  Don’t rush to pack away your child’s room or give away belongings.

Don’t be afraid to speak your child’s name or talk about him or her.

Ask for help with errands, housework, and other children so you have time to reflect and remember.

Be prepared with answers to questions like, “Do you have children?” or “How many children do you have?”

Because parental grief is so intense joining support groups could be the best way to find compassionate people who are walking the very same path they’re walking now.

Though parents can never “get over” the loss of a child, they can learn to function and live with it.  It’s even possible to feel happiness and hope again, as impossible as it may seem to newly grieving parents. Though temporarily suppressed, the joyful feelings and memories of you and your child together will always be with you.

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