The Sudden Death of a Child

When death comes without warning, the shock and disbelief can be overwhelming.

It is never in the natural order of things for a child to die before his or her parents, and this can be especially intense when the death is sudden and/or violent. There is no opportunity to prepare, resolve misunderstandings, or “say good-bye.” Life for the parents and siblings is changed forever, often in an instant, and it takes time for the reality of what has happened to sink in.

This is often the body’s first response to news of a sudden death. The shock presents itself much like a blow to the “core of one’s being.” A paralyzing sense of the surreal may be present, even allowing the immediate family to almost function normally, to go through a memorial service in relative calm, and to seem unable to express their grief in any visible way. This is part of the body’s natural defense mechanism, and it can take days, and most often weeks, for the bereaved to comprehend emotionally what has happened.

Part of this process is often an intense desire to know where the spirit of this child has gone so quickly. Religious beliefs are often challenged, questioned, and sometimes strengthened in the long run. Bereaved parents want to reach out for a “sign” from their child, and can be highly susceptible to the power of suggestion.

Sometimes people resort to alcohol or drugs, which may provide temporary numbness, but often lead to unhealthy depression and profound loneliness.

Guilt about what might have been done to prevent the death is also normal. Parents feel their job is to protect their child, and the “what if’s,” “why didn’t I’s,” and “if only’s” are natural, but should not lead to self-blame. No matter how irrational these feelings, it is helpful to talk them out, sharing with family and particularly nonjudgmental people who have been there such as members of The Compassionate Friends.

Keeping a journal can help express what it would have been like to say good-bye, to address unfinished issues, and to say things left unsaid. Eventually, the burden of guilt and need to blame oneself will move from being a main focus of grief to a level of acceptance that many tragedies in life are not preventable or foreseeable.

Accepting the Reality
As the reality of the death settles in, intense anger at the injustice and deep anguish at the realization that the loss is “forever” are normal. Anger might be focused on those responsible, on God for not saving the child, or on anyone or anything. There are often yearnings to be with the child. Discussions with other bereaved parents and siblings can help the newly bereaved to understand they are not alone and they are not “losing their minds.” Many families say that one of the most difficult things is to see the world go on when the child or brother or sister is gone. So it is important to find special ways to remember. These remembrances can be as simple as including the child’s name often in conversation, telling stories about the child, making a special memory album, or even holding special family memorial gatherings to remember and honor the child.

Reorganization and Reinvesting in Life
While each person’s grief is as different as the individual, through this process the family learns to live without the child and the emptiness this absence brings. Complete recovery is a myth. Bereaved family members gradually put their lives back together again, but never truly “get over it.” They will never have the same lives they had before. The family “unit” is changed forever. There is a place at the table forever unfilled. Families need both short- and long-term support when the death of a child comes suddenly. Some might also need support in dealing with the fear that something tragic is going to happen to someone else.

The hurt slowly changes from intense pain and a focus on the death event to warmer memories and a commitment to lead lives in honor of the dead child and in a way that would make that child proud. Some people create memorials, set up scholarships, or become advocates to correct injustices related to the death. These are all constructive, representing some “good” that can come from the tragedy.

As time passes, many who find support and friendship through The Compassionate Friends also find it helpful to stay active in the organization by “giving back.” One of the best ways to receive continuing support through the bereavement process is to help other families just starting on their grief journey. Each person, though, must search for meaningful ways to give life a new sense of purpose. Families must, in diverse ways, create meaning out of their tragedy, integrate the loss into their own lives, and reinvest in love, work, and living.

The bond with the child, brother, or sister will never be broken, because the love that has been shared will always remain.

This brochure sponsored by Bruce and Amy Ramsden
in loving memory of their son, Tate Ramsden

© 2014 The Compassionate Friends, USA

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