Losing a child changes you forever. There is proof. (2023)

Losing a child can be the worst trauma a person can experience. While it's not a very common experience in the United States (an estimated 10,000 children between the ages of 1 and 14 died in 2018), the terrifying potential of losing a child is enormous. And while reassuring, the numbers also shed light on why the death of a child causes so much pain and why it is so feared, painful and stigmatized.

"The death of a child is considered the worst stressor a person can go through," he says.Deborah Carr, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Sociology at Boston University. “Fathers and mothers feel particularly responsible for the well-being of the child. So when you lose a child, you don't just lose someone you loved. They're also missing out on the promise they've been waiting for for years."

Although parents grieving the loss of a child have many experiencesClassic grief reactions— the usual battery of psychological, biological, and social impacts — there are many unique challenges. Trauma is often more intense, memories and hopes are harder to let go. Therefore, the grieving process takes longer and the likelihood of recurring or near-constant trauma is much greater.

“The death of a child brings with it a multitude of diverse and ongoing challenges for individuals and families. Everyday questions like, "How many children do you have?" can trigger a great deal of distress," saysFiona MacCullum, Ph.D., Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Queensland, Australia. “Some people find ways to live with the loss. Others struggle to find meaning in life.

Biological consequences: How the death of a child changes the body of the parents

Em 2018,Frank Infurna, Ph.D.and colleaguesexamined general health and physical functioningof 461 parents who have lost children in 13 years. "We've seen some decline followed by a general rebound or recovery over time," said Infurna, who studies resilience to major stressors at Arizona State University.Father. Physical functioning focused on the ability to multitask on a daily basis, and "we didn't see any big changes in that," says Infurna. But when she reviewed surviving parents' self-reports of whether they felt they were getting sick frequently or whether they expected their health to improve or worsen, she found poorer perceptions of health.

As with all major grief reactions, the trauma of losing a child can trigger physical symptoms, including abdominal pain, muscle spasms, headaches, and even irritable bowel syndrome.a handful of studiesfound weaker links between unresolved grief and immune disorders, cancer andlong-term genetic changesat the cellular level.

One surprising effect often seen in parents grieving the loss of a child is what is known as broken heart syndrome, a condition that strangely presents itself as a textbook heart attack. Symptoms include "chest contusion, pain, ST segment elevation on the EKG, and elevated cardiac enzyme markers on the lab results," says Fuller.citing his previously written work on the subject. "In response to emotional or physical stress, the body naturally releases catecholamines, also known as stress hormones, that temporarily numb the heart muscle."

Chronic stress can even impair brain function, as has been the case with prolonged exposure to the stress hormone cortisolassociated with brain cell death. And in a cruel turn of neurobiology, theBrain regions responsible for processing grief, such as the posterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, and cerebellum, are also involved in appetite and sleep regulation. This could explain why bereaved parents develop eating and sleeping disorders after the loss.

"There are many, many studies that have looked at the ongoing health effects of high levels of chronic stress," he says.Gail Saltz, M, D,, a psychiatrist at the Weill-Cornell School of Medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital. "And when you look at lists of stressful life events, this one is at the top."

Psychological consequences: How the trauma of child loss damages the psyche

The implications of this tragedy are not just biological. Interestingly, however, very few studies have looked at the nightmare of a child's death. Most research on the psychological response to death focuses on the loss of a spouse or parent. This is believed to be partly due to the difficulty in finding subjects for the study and also the potential difficulty in recruiting participants for some longitudinal analysis.

"Although there have been significant advances in our scientific understanding of grief, we still have a long way to go," says MacCullum.

That doesn't mean we don't have literature.A study from 2015Of 2,512 bereaved adults (many of whom were grieving the loss of a child), 68% of respondents found little or no evidence of depression immediately after the tragedy. About 11% initially suffered from depression but got better; about 7% had depressive symptoms prior to the bereavement that persisted unabated. For 13 percent of those affected, chronic pain and clinical depression only began after their lives were turned upside down. (If these numbers seem low, remember that it's entirely possible to be deeply sad without becoming depressed.)

Unfortunately, research suggests that the psychological damage caused by the death of a child often does not heal over time.A study from 2008found that even 18 years after the loss of a child, bereaved parents "reported more depressive symptoms, worse well-being, more health problems, and more frequent depressive episodes and adultery." Though some parents improved, "recovery from grief ... was unrelated to time since death."

"In the first year after losing a young child, parents have an increased risk of suicide and everything from deep depression to complicated grief," Saltz says. Complicated grief differs from normally expected grief in that "there are more intense symptoms alternating with seemingly no symptoms, a numbness that may affect your ability to function."

"A grieving parent with no serious complications like suicidal thoughts or self-harm would be the best scenario," he says.Kirsten Fuller, physician, Physician and Clinical Writer for the Centers of Discovery Treatment Centers. "The worst-case scenarios would be suicide, psychosis, or developing a mental or eating disorder."

Predictors: How the child's age and other factors affect surviving parents

A handful of studies have attempted to identify the main factors that affect how well parents adjust after the loss of a child.A study from 2005found that child age, cause of death, and number of children remaining were strongly related to parental grief levels, while depression was related to gender, religion, and whether the bereaved sought professional help. . Subsequent studies have found other predictors of lower grief responses:a strong sense of purpose in lifeand tivthe chance to say goodbye.

"It depends on the mental health of the parents, whether they have a history of mental illness, their coping skills, and their level of social support," Saltz says. External factors can also play a role. Suicide is often more difficult, but a terminal illness can be accompanied by recurrent trauma over a long period of time.

Saltz also suspects that gender may be part of the puzzle. "That will certainly change, but in the past, mothers were the primary caregivers and their identities are more like mothers," she explains, adding that this could lead to stronger reactions from women who lose their children.

One of the most important predictors of trauma is the child's age.abortionsand stillbirth is devastating and is made worse by the fact that the loss is often eclipsed by the public perception that a fetus is not a fully developed child. But “is it as devastating as the death of a child who has lived many years? I don't want to downplay that experience, but I don't think so," says Carr.

However, when a child is born, the script changes. Older adults who outlive their children often have it easier than parents who lose their very young children. "The age of the child is very important because it shows promise," says Carr. When a child dies, this promise dies with them: "Graduation, grandchildren, marriages, that too ends."

But older adults can also grieve intensely after the death of an adult child. "You can find a 75-year-old losing a child in their 50s and it's still devastating," says Carr. “There is this belief in the natural order. A father must die first. Although age matters, older parents are still very underprivileged. You're just missing out on that long-term promise."

Social Impact: How losing a child makes (or ruins) families.

Major life stressors naturally affect marriages. Butdivorceafter the death of a child is not inevitable. "It's very important to emphasize that the death of a child will not ruin a marriage," says Carr. "It usually makes a troubled marriage worse and astrong marriagebetter.” When it comes to an illness or addiction, spouses who disagree on the best treatment are particularly at risk of not recovering.”

There are also factors beyond the couple's control that can make or break a marriage. "Pain, trauma andDepressionimpair the ability to participate in all meaningful relationships,” says Saltz. "But I've seen couples where the opposite was the case. They approach each other, support each other. That's the only person who can really understand how you're feeling."

Mothers and fathers who lose a child often have to deal with surviving siblings as well. Figuring out how to become a parent after losing a child is a unique challenge. Again, experts agree that outcomes for both the surviving children and the parents are highly dependent on the state of the relationship prior to the trauma. Death can unite a family or tear it apart.

With terminally ill children, there is a particular risk that other siblings may feel neglected or overburdened with too much responsibility, while the parents focus their attention only on the suffering child. A sick child "constantly gets more attention because they need it," says Carr. “Sometimes other children's needs are not met, or they are treated like little adults, given more housework, or asked to provide emotional support to their parents.

“That can be really worrying for them. Or it can be empowering but difficult.”

Coping: How to seek comfort after the death of a child

After the death of a child, those left behind can experience depression, biological and neurological changes, and family and marital destabilization. "If you're in this situation and your ability to function is impaired, you should seek treatment," Saltz says. “Parents who fall into deep depression will not be able to raise other children or marry. Psychotherapy can be helpful andmedicineYou can do that, at least in the short term.”

The best friends and family of bereaved parents can do is be present, available, and supportive. If the bereaved mention suicide, take them to the emergency room; If the situation is less severe but the pain doesn't subside over time, help them make an appointment to see a professional or join a support group with other bereaved parents. Because even the most sensitive souls are rarely able to help parents deal with a loss of this magnitude, and no matter how hard you try, you're unlikely to truly understand.

This is where the value of a support group really shows. "The one thing people who have lost a child hate to hear is, 'I know what you're going through,'" says Carr. You can't know.

This article was originally published in


Does losing a child change you? ›

You should expect that you will never really “get over” the death of your child. But you will learn to live with the loss, making it a part of who you are. Your child's death may make you rethink your priorities and the meaning of life. It may seem impossible, but you can find happiness and purpose in life again.

How does losing a child impact a parent? ›

Parents of children and adolescents who die are found to suffer a broad range of difficult mental and physical symptoms. As with many losses, depressed feelings are accompanied by intense feelings of sadness, despair, helplessness, loneliness, abandonment, and a wish to die [28].

Does losing a parent change you forever? ›

Losing a parent can lead to increased risks for long-term emotional and mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Losing a parent in childhood only increases these odds, and about one in 20 children aged 15 and younger have suffered the loss of one or both parents.

What losing a child does to you? ›

The death of a child is devastating and often referred to as the worst experience a parent can endure. A child's death causes a profound family crisis. It shatters core beliefs and assumptions about the world and the expectations about how life should unfold.

What does the Bible say about losing a child? ›

Bible Verses About Grieving The Loss Of A Child

'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare.

How does the brain change after losing a child? ›

Grief and loss affect the brain and body in many different ways. They can cause changes in memory, behavior, sleep, and body function, affecting the immune system as well as the heart. It can also lead to cognitive effects, such as brain fog.

Is there a name for a parent that loses a child? ›

Origin of the term “Vilomah.”

In recent days, this word is gaining acceptance and is building a community around itself. The term “Vilomah” describes a parent who has lost their child. Life has its natural order, and in that order, children are supposed to outlive their parents.

Why do parents split after losing a child? ›

Research on bereaved parents found that they experienced more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, and other health problems which could lead to marital separation (Rogers, Floyd, Mailick, Greenberg, & Hong, 2008).

What percent of parents lose a child? ›

Bereaved Parents

By age 60, nine percent of Americans have experienced the death of a child. By 70, 15 percent of American parents have lost a child. By age 80, 18 percent of American parents have experienced the death of a child.

When you lose a child you lose the future? ›

It has been said that parents who lose a child also lose the hopes, dreams, and expectations they had for that child. They lose a part of themselves. They lose their future because their child represents their sense of ongoing life.

How death changes family dynamics? ›

When a close relative dies, it not only causes grief for individual family members, but it also affects how your family functions. Suddenly roles change, people may behave out of character, opinions become strong and riffs can rise up in the heat of emotions that may come out in ways not intended.

What is the most traumatic age to lose a parent? ›

The scariest time, for those dreading the loss of a parent, starts in the mid-forties. Among people between the ages of 35 and 44, only one-third of them (34%) have experienced the death of one or both parents. For people between 45 and 54, though, closer to two-thirds have (63%).

Can you have PTSD from losing a child? ›

One study found that 35 percent of parents who lost a young child unexpectedly met the criteria for PTSD. While losing an adult child may be less shocking, it still has the potential to trigger symptoms.

How do I recover from loss of my child? ›

Helping Yourself Heal When Your Child Dies
  1. Allow yourself to mourn. Your child has died. ...
  2. Realize your grief is unique. ...
  3. Allow yourself to feel numb. ...
  4. This death is “out of order” ...
  5. Expect to feel a multitude of emotions. ...
  6. Be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits. ...
  7. Talk about your grief. ...
  8. Watch out for clichés.
Dec 15, 2016

What are the 7 stages of grief after losing a child? ›

The seven emotional stages of grief are usually understood to be shock or disbelief, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and acceptance/hope.

What does God say about children in heaven? ›

Matthew 18:1-5

And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Where in the Bible does it say a child left to himself will come to ruin? ›

Proverbs, xxix. chap. 15th verse A child left to himself bringeth his mother to Shame. I have chosen these words of Solomon as our text, because each one must be convinced from his own observation, they are true.

What does God say about the suffering of children? ›

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein."

What grieving does to your body? ›

Grief has both significant and quantifiable mental and physical effects on the body. In addition to psychological symptoms of depression and anxiety, grief can cause sleep problems, chest pain, and gastrointestinal issues. In some cases, grief can increase the risk of heart attack and suicide.

How does a mother's brain change? ›

In fact, moms' brains change more during pregnancy and postpartum than they do at any other point in life—including puberty! Part of the reason for this is a process of synaptic pruning where the brain essentially cuts off function to areas that it no longer needs in order to build up the areas that are now crucial.

How a mother's love changes a child's brain? ›

Brain images have now revealed that a mother's love physically affects the volume of her child's hippocampus. In the study, children of nurturing mothers had hippocampal volumes 10 percent larger than children whose mothers were not as nurturing.

Why is there no word for a parent who has lost a child? ›

But when there's no word for something? It means it's something we don't even want to think about — and losing a child is one of those things. “Widow” in Sanskrit means “empty,” and when we go to Sanskrit for a word for a parent losing a child, the word is “Vilomah”.

How long does mourning last? ›

There is no set length or duration for grief, and it may come and go in waves. However, according to 2020 research , people who experience common grief may experience improvements in symptoms after about 6 months, but the symptoms largely resolve in about 1 to 2 years.

What is the Hebrew word for a parent who has lost a child? ›

The Hebrew term for a bereaved parent is shakul for a man and shakula for a woman. It signifies being robbed of offspring, like a bear whose cubs have been taken away.

What is the divorce rate after death of child? ›

Newer data shows that only about 16% of marriages end in divorce after the death of the child, and only 4% of those say it was due to the death. If 50% of all marriages end in divorce, the low rate of 16% for bereaved parents is quite remarkable. Highly stressful life events can be polarizing for a couple.

Why do families drift apart after death? ›

Even though we're all certain to die one day, most people can leave the planning to the last minute, or not at all. This failure to plan is one of the most common reasons some families fall apart when a loved one dies. A combination of heightened emotions, financial strain, and grief causes estrangement in families.

What are the mental disorders after losing a child? ›

Compared with other parents, bereaved parents are more likely to experience a series of mental disorders, including complicated grief, anger, guilt, anxiety, depression and so on. Moreover, losing a child can be traumatic and result in long-term health consequences [2].

Is it normal to lose it with your kids? ›

We can lose our tempers and yell at our kids in a way that we would never do with a child who wasn't our own. Indeed, we often treat our loved ones the worst. Here's the truth: feeling angry is a fact of life, and we can't stop that. But, we can take steps to control how we react to our anger.

Why does the lost child lose interest? ›

The child loses interest in the things he had wanted earlier because he is lost and desperately wants to be reunited with his parents. He is afraid of being alone and becomes anxious. Was this answer helpful?

What are 3 changes after death? ›

The early post-mortem phase is most frequently estimated using the classical triad of post-mortem changes – rigor mortis, livor mortis, and algor mortis.

What are 4 changes after death? ›

Thus, immediate post-mortem changes are dubbed as the “signs or indications of death.” Immediate changes include insensibility, loss of voluntary movements, cessation of respiration, cessation of circulation, and cessation of nervous system functions.

Does death change a person? ›

The death of a loved one who was a meaningful part of your life can absolutely lead to significant shifts in your personality, which may include changes in your thought processes, priorities, motivating factors, and emotional patterns.

What is the most frequent cause of traumatic death in the child over the age of 1 year old? ›

Drowning was the leading cause of injury death for children age 1-4 years.

Does losing child increase risk of mental illness? ›

An average of 18.05 years following the death, when parents were age 53, bereaved parents reported more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, and more health problems and were more likely to have experienced a depressive episode and marital disruption than were comparison parents.

Can poor parenting cause PTSD? ›

People can develop issues of trauma in situations where they are raised by an alcoholic parent, neglected as a child or emotionally bullied by their caregivers. Poor parenting can be another more subtle, insidious cause of PTSD as their children become adults.

What is the longest stage of grief? ›

Depression is usually the longest and most difficult stage of grief. Depression can be a long and difficult stage in the grieving process, but it's also when people feel their deepest sadness.

What can unresolved grief cause? ›

With prolonged grief, you may have an intense feeling of longing for a person who has died. You may have trouble thinking about anything other than the person who died. These feelings may interfere with your ability to take care of your daily responsibilities.

What is the difference between grieving and mourning? ›

➢ Grief is what we think and feel on the inside when someone we love dies. Examples include fear, loneliness, panic, pain, yearning, anxiety, emptiness etc. ➢ It is the internal meaning given to the experience of loss. ➢ Mourning is the outward expression of our grief; it is the expression of one's grief.

What is the divorce rate after death of a child? ›

Newer data shows that only about 16% of marriages end in divorce after the death of the child, and only 4% of those say it was due to the death. If 50% of all marriages end in divorce, the low rate of 16% for bereaved parents is quite remarkable. Highly stressful life events can be polarizing for a couple.

How common is it for a parent to lose a child? ›

Bereaved Parents

By age 60, nine percent of Americans have experienced the death of a child. By 70, 15 percent of American parents have lost a child. By age 80, 18 percent of American parents have experienced the death of a child.

Do marriages last after a child dies? ›

80% of marriages end in divorce following the loss of a child.

What are the psychological effects of losing a child? ›

Compared with other parents, bereaved parents are more likely to experience a series of mental disorders, including complicated grief, anger, guilt, anxiety, depression and so on. Moreover, losing a child can be traumatic and result in long-term health consequences [2].

Do most people divorce after kids? ›

The divorce rate for couples with children is as much as 40 percent lower than for those without children. 76. Half of all children in the United States will witness the ending of a parent's marriage.

Does losing a child cause trauma? ›

The psychological effects of losing a child can lead to a wide range of psychological and physiological problems, including PTSD and associated mental health disorders. PTSD after the death of a child causes weeks, months, and sometimes years of pain. Losing a child can make life feel like time stands still.

What is the average age to lose parents? ›

Among people between the ages of 35 and 44, only one-third of them (34%) have experienced the death of one or both parents. For people between 45 and 54, though, closer to two-thirds have (63%). Among people who have reached the age of 64, a very high percentage 88% — have lost one or both parents.

Is it normal to lose it with your child? ›

Even the calmest and most patient parent is going to lose their cool with their toddler or child from time to time. While more patience is always the goal, it's a small fact of life that you're going to slip up. You're going to make mistakes as a parent, and at times, you're going to lose your temper with your child.

What do you say to a mother who lost her grown son? ›

What to Say to Someone Who's Suffered the Loss of a Child
  • Tell them you're sorry for their loss. ...
  • Let them know they aren't alone. ...
  • Help them plan the funeral or memorial and explain what happens next. ...
  • Let them know that they can talk to you whenever they need to. ...
  • Remind them that no one is to blame for their loss.

How do you help a mother who lost her child? ›

Here are a few ways to help grieving parents:
  1. Call them.
  2. Send a sympathy card. ...
  3. Hug them. ...
  4. Call the child by name (even if was a baby that they named after the death).
  5. Encourage the parents to share their feelings, as well as stories and memories.
  6. Share your own memories of the child and/or pregnancy.

How do you memorialize a child's death? ›

Create and plant a memorial flower garden; add solar lights. Plant a small tree in your own yard, on school grounds or through the public parks program; add a plaque. Adopt a highway segment (a sign with loved one's name or pick up litter). Establish a charity foundation or fundraiser in memory of your child.


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