What to Know About Grieving the Death of a Child

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on August 25, 2022
4 min read

Children are supposed to outlive their parents. That’s what everyone says. However, life rarely does what it is “supposed to,” and sometimes, parents find themselves in the heartbreaking, gut-wrenching position of losing and grieving for a child.

Grief after losing a child can be a long and difficult process.

You may have heard people talk about the stages of grief. The truth is, while these stages are common grief reactions, everyone grieves differently, especially when grieving for a child.

You may experience only some of these reactions, may experience them “out of order,” or experience each stage for a different amount of time. You may also experience these stages more than once.

The five stages of grief typically include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Denial. Denial is often, but not always, the initial stage of grief. Denial is your brain’s way of protecting you from overwhelming or shocking emotions. It may involve denying that the death happened or simply denying how you’re feeling.

Internally, denial may feel like:

  • Numbness
  • Confusion
  • Shock
  • “Shutting down”

Outwardly, denial may look to others like:

  • Procrastination
  • Avoidance
  • Forgetfulness
  • Distraction
  • Excessive business
  • Telling others, “I’m fine”

Anger. Anger can be directed toward many people or things: yourself, God, doctors, or whoever else may be responsible (from your perspective) for the death of your child. In some cases, this anger may truly be justified, but outbursts will still only serve to push away your support system.

Anger in grief may feel like: 

  • Rage
  • Resentment
  • Frustration
  • Impatience
  • Embarrassment
  • A lack of control

To others, your anger may be seen as:

  • Sarcasm
  • Cynicism
  • Pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Passive-aggression
  • Aggression
  • Eagerness to fight
  • Increased drug or alcohol use

During this stage, some of the best ways to process these intense feelings can include physical activity, connecting with others, and therapy.

Bargaining. Bargaining isn’t always about making a deal with a deity. Instead, bargaining often strives to get to the root cause of the tragedy you are experiencing. It may involve asking, “What did we do to deserve this?” It may also involve intense feelings of guilt as you search for a cause.

Internally, bargaining may feel like:

  • Guilt
  • Blame
  • Shame
  • Insecurity
  • Anxiety/fear

To others, bargaining may be seen as:

  • Judgment toward yourself and others
  • Thinking or saying “I should have…” or “If only I had…”
  • Assuming the worst about the future
  • Ruminating on the past or what the future may bring
  • Perfectionism
  • Overthinking and anxiety

Depression. Depression is the stage when the full gravity of the situation truly takes hold, along with feelings of loss, desperation, and sadness.

Your depression may feel like:

  • Sadness
  • Despair
  • Hopelessness
  • Disappointment
  • Stress

Common signs of depression in grief include:

  • Crying
  • Changes in sleep, including insomnia or oversleeping
  • Changes in appetite, including binge eating or loss of appetite
  • Lack of interest in socialization
  • Lack of motivation
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol

Acceptance. Acceptance is the stage in which your mind has finally been able to process your loss and start to move forward. You may still feel other emotions, but this is the stage where you’ve found some sort of resolution.

Feelings in the acceptance stage may include:

  • Self-compassion
  • Wisdom
  • Validation
  • Pride
  • Courage

Signs of acceptance may include:

  • Finding healthy coping mechanisms
  • Displaying mindful behaviors
  • Being present and engaging with reality
  • Possessing the ability to be vulnerable
  • Engaging in honest communication without becoming defensive

Acceptance does not mean that you don’t feel emotions. It simply means that you are no longer fighting or avoiding reality. 

Other common reactions to grief include:

  • Loneliness or isolation, even if you have a strong support system
  • Yearning for your child, which may result in restlessness and frustration
  • Physical ailments, which can be brought on by depression, stress, and issues like insomnia or not eating properly
  • Marital stress, which can be caused by becoming detached or too attached to one another

There is no one way to deal with grief. The loss of a child is often particularly painful, and there is no predicting what your grieving process will look like. That being said, some ways of dealing with grief are healthier than others.

Some of the more unhealthy ways of coping with grief include:

The healthiest ways of coping often involve self-kindness and a support system. They include:

  • Allowing yourself to process all your feelings,  even if those feelings are conflicting or you feel like you “shouldn’t” be feeling something
  • Journaling to help you process those feelings
  • Not setting a time frame on your grief or rushing through the grieving process
  • Finding a way to honor the deceased, such as creating a tradition of celebrating their life on their birthday
  • Utilizing your support system

Your support system may include family, friends, or your community. It also may include a religious group or a grief support group.

If these healthy coping mechanisms aren’t working for you and you’re finding yourself slipping into unhealthy coping patterns, it may be wise to consider grief therapy. This could include individual therapy, family therapy, group therapy, or some combination of the three. Choose a licensed therapist with a specialty in grief counseling.

There’s a saying that “time heals all wounds,” but that isn’t quite true with grief. No matter how well you’ve “accepted” your loss, you will always be grieving the loss of a child. You will still feel pangs of sadness and loss and despair from time to time.

Time will, however, soothe your grief. It won’t feel as raw once you’ve begun to heal. You’ll fall into a new routine. Your life will move on, and the memory of your child will always hold a special place in your heart.