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Bereavement Support Services
Letting Go of an Only Child

Letting Go of an Only Child

Bereavement may be even more devastating and complex when your only child dies. As bereaved parents you face a lengthy and compounded mourning process that leaves you feeling bewildered, helpless and isolated. As you face each day, you wonder if anyone else has ever experienced such deep, raw emptiness.

The silence in your life that stems from being childless is overwhelming and the world feels desolate and senseless. These feelings may last for months or even years as you journey through grief. It is important to remember that most of the feelings you have are normal. Your dreams of your child's future have been shattered, and this additional loss causes further pain and uncertainty. But you will not always hurt as deeply as you hurt now.

Grief is complex and unpredictable; it cannot be avoided or hurried. Anguish is a typical and natural part of this experience just as numerous other difficult emotions (anger, fear, loneliness, depression, jealousy) will surface and have to be dealt with. You may feel that your emotions overwhelm you at inappropriate times and possibly make you feel out of control. That is true. Jealousy and anger, especially, are emotions that many parents experience as they see others in what they perceive as "a complete" family". Or perhaps a wedding, graduation, prom night or anything that is a severed opportunity for your child will often send you into a disturbing reaction. This again is normal. And remember that each time you are truthful about your feelings and allow your pain to be released, you are leaving a little space for healing to enter.

Balance is important in the healing process, and laughter as well as tears may aid in your recovery. It may take a long while to find moments of smiling or laughter, but when it happens, try to think of it as a brief period of relief with no need to feel guilty. It is often with other bereaved parents that you may feel safe and comfortable enough to express all of your emotions. Although there may be very few others who have lost an only child, it is still helpful to join a support group for bereaved parents to feel the caring they can offer you. But at times it may seem that even their stories are also very difficult to hear because they have other children at home. That is true; however, compassion is still a key element in healing and bereaved parents will not encourage you to shut away your grief. No one has the power to take your pain away, but true compassion from other bereaved parents can soften some of the anguish you experience when you feel so distraught.

Soon you may face the dilemma of answering the question, "How many children do you have?" How you answer that question depends on your situation at the time. You may say, "My son or daughter died." You may say, "None". However, many parents feel guilty when they deny their child's existence. Another possible answer is, "I had one daughter or son." If the questioner is comfortable, he or she may ask you to tell your story. When you are having a bad day and do not want to answer further questions, you might reply, "Thank you for caring enough to ask, but this has not been a good day for me. I'm not able to talk about it now but perhaps there will be a time when I'm able to say more." What is important is to let your heart speak to you, and to recognize that, each time the painful question arises, your answer may change. And that is perfectly fine. Just as your grief changes from moment to moment, your responses to people, questions, sights, sound and smells will also change. Loss is experienced in a myriad of unpredictable ways that have a profound impact on you. All you can do is respond to what is presented at each given moment.

Well meaning family and friends may encourage you to focus on your future and find meaning in your life again. Although their intentions are good, you may feel angry at their prodding and lack of understanding, especially when life feels so empty. For those who have not experienced the death of a child it is impossible to understand the depth of your pain. They also see in you what they fear more than anything: a child's death. Losing your only child is beyond their comprehension. Therefore they look for ways to end your suffering in hopes they do not have to imagine such an experience in their own lives. It is important to let them know your authentic feelings and the necessity of being true to yourself, even if it makes them uneasy. This is your personal journey that cannot be dictated by anyone else.

Networking with another family who has lost an only child can be especially helpful to you. Ask your support group facilitator or nurse/counselor/social worker at a local hospital if there is someone who can be linked with you for phone support or perhaps informal meetings. Both families can be strengthened by these understanding and informative interactions.

Remembering Your Child

Your child can be commemorated in many ways:

  • Donate to a meaningful cause in memory of your child.
  • Create a memorial garden with a life-long quality in your yard, or plant a tree in a public park.
  • Have a quilt made with pieces of clothing that your child wore.
  • Wear a remembrance of your child as a pendant, pin, or carry a remembrance in your pocket.
  • Establish a memorial fund in memory of your child.
  • Donate books or something special to a school or charity of your choice
  • Keep a remembrance of your child in a visible place in your home. On a mantle, coffee table or in a curio cabinet, you may place a picture with a candle next to it, sports memorabilia, a special piece of jewelry or hat, or create a collage with pictures that tell the story of your child's life. This will help others to understand that you did indeed have a child that continues to be very much loved and remembered, and you still consider yourself to be a loving parent.
  • End each day by 'talking to your child' about the experiences you've had that day. Thank your child for the hopes and dreams he or she gave you, and always send your love.

Honor your child's memory in ways that feel helpful and right for YOU.

Living Again

Facing life without your beloved child can be frightening. Perhaps it seems that your reason for living has vanished. And it is true that your dreams have been shattered. But gradually you will see that, although your life with your child has ended, a new and different life is waiting to be lived. First, though, you much grieve for as long as you need to grieve. When you are ready to take a step forward, you may not know what direction to take, and there is no need to hurry. Maybe you will follow several paths as you search for new goals and a new way to experience the world. Whatever you choose to do is fine. Listen to your heart. Keep your mind open. And trust that, at the right time, you will live and love again. The memory of your child will always be with you as you reinvest in life. His or her life as you knew it has changed, but the love continues to be a presence…..forever.

Things to do to Help Yourself

  • Give yourself a certain amount of time each day to grieve (cry, talk about your child, look at pictures, connect with the pain)
  • When you cry, cry from the depth of your being. When you scream, go to an enclosed area where no one can hear you and scream till you're exhausted, or pound your fists on the bed.
  • Understand that others cannot understand unless they've been through it.
  • Every day accomplish at least one task (call a friend, go for a walk, make the bed, read a recommended book, have your hair done, smile at someone).
  • Remember that it is difficult for others to be around the constant pain of your grief, especially when only your story is told. Try to ask about the other person's life, as well, (family members, job, home, health issues) so that the relationship is more balanced. We can NEVER heal when only our story counts. We must also be willing to listen and respond to others and the situations in their lives.
  • If you are having difficulty sleeping or eating for more than a few weeks, it is important to contact your physician. You may need therapy and medication to help. And medication does not take the grief away, but it may soften some of the extreme responses so that you can focus more clearly and function more effectively.
  • If you previously enjoyed walking or any other physical exercise, it may be beneficial for you now as you grieve. Grief is an energy that needs to be released and there are many ways to release it--physically, artistically, musically, poetically, etc. Find what works for you.
  • Listen to your inner needs and make some changes in your life.
  • Learn something that is new to you, and perhaps something that is related to helping you understand grief, suffering, life, or a deeper understanding of your spirituality.
  • Recognize that grief is carried with you throughout life but it is YOUR choice as to how it is carried. You may carry it as a "victim" (thinking you are the only one) or you may carry it as a "courageous warrior"---something that motivates you to view life as a challenge. If you choose the courageous warrior, you will begin to connect with all of the suffering in the world and eventually you will make peace with your loss.
  • Slowly create a scrapbook of your child's life.
  • Always be patient and gentle with yourself. You will survive and actually find hope again, but it is necessary to remain patient.