What to Do After the Sudden Death of a Child

by BarbRad

When a child dies suddenly, something in the parents' lives also dies. It's easy for parents to think they will never recover. I offer hope to these parents. I've been there.

I suddenly lost my 14-year-old son through an accident. Knowing I would never see him alive again was a reality I did not want to face. He came to us as a foster child at five, we adpted him at seven, and we had hoped to see him grow up and have a family of his own someday. He was just beginning to bloom and give a hint of the man he would grow to be, and suddenly he was gone.

I could not imagine his not being in my life anymore. Facing a future that did not include him was unthinkable, yet it was now my reality. Here's how I began to heal and I hope my experience will help others who have lost a child.

I Lost My Child Suddenly in an Accident when He Was Only Fourteen.

It didn't seem possible I would never see him again.

Jason and I shared a special bond, because he was a chosen child. We chose each other when he was four years old. He was a foster child who lived next door to me. I have told the story leading up to his adoption in my HubPages article, How I Became a Foster Parent. After Jason became my legal son, our bond grew even stronger. You see, we had been friends before we had become family. I could not imagine life without his cheerful conversation, his unique perspective on life, and his affection. I looked forward to his returning home after whatever adventure he may have had each day because I knew he'd always be eager to tell me all about it. Unlike many boys that age, by the time he was twelve he was a great companion and still enjoyed talking to us and traveling with us, even though he had several close friends his own age.

By the time he was thirteen, Jason had also learned many skills. We taught him at home during his last three years, and my husband and others had taught him some basic car maintenance skills as well as how to do some minor repairs around the house. He was a great helper when we went camping, and he'd learned a lot of that in the Boy Scouts. He had great mechanical aptitude and could put something together while I was still reading the directions. That made him a great helper, and he had a helpful spirit to go with it. He was patient and forgiving, and very compassionate. I could not imagine life without him.

All that changed suddenly on August 27, 1991, when he went with a church group to go water skiing and never came home -- at least alive. I came home from a doctor appointment to discover close friends from church in my home who had never really come calling -- we'd always visited them. My husband met me at the door -- another first. I knew something was wrong. Jason must have been hurt. But it was worse than that. Jason was dead.

News Clipping after Jason's Death

It describes what changed my life forever
Newbury Park boy dies when jet ski hits boat
Newbury Park boy dies when jet ski hi...

Have you ever lost a child?

Do you know someone who has?

Jason at Church with Us a Few Weeks Before his Death

It turned out to be our last family picture.
Jason with us at Crenshaw Christian Reformed Church
Jason with us at Crenshaw Christian R...

Denial is the First Reaction to Any Death , but Especially the Death of a Child

It's also the first stage of grief,

When your child dies, your mind simply cannot take it in. It can't be true. He will come home any minute. But finally you have to face up to the fact that it is true and he won't ever be coming home -- even if you do keep forgetting and setting his place at the table as usual. You won't ever hear his voice live again, and you won't get another hug -- at least not from him. But before you are ready to accept this, you have to deal with the mortuary, and it can't wait until you are ready. (You will never be ready.) You have to make decisions. You have to decide how what is left of your child is treated.

This is  a difficult task, and, if possible, you should not face it alone -- especially if you've never had to deal with a mortuary before. If possible, find a pastor, church member, or trusted person with some experience in these matters to go with you. I have written what I know about the subject in this article: How to Deal with a Mortuary. I hope it will help someone facing this for the first time. By the time I wrote this I'd helped my mom bury my dad and I had also buried both children, and both my mother and mother-in-law. So I've had a bit of experience to pass on in what to expect, how to save a bit of money, and how to plan a memorial service.  As you go through this process, it seems unreal. This can't really be about your child. You will also be numb, just going through the necessary tasks -- if you can. You may not be able to sleep and you might not feel like eating, even when your friends and neighbors are keeping you supplied with food.

How to Take Care of Yourself after the Death of a Child

This is especially important if you still have other children at home.

After Jason was gone, our nest was empty. Neither of us was still employed, so no one had to go to work. If you are employed, most employers will give you time off until after the memorial service is over. We were fortunate in that regard, but not everyone is so fortunate.

I have known two other mothers from churches I've attended who did still have children at home. One was able to function and help her children grieve with her. The other was totally unable to do anything. She was so stricken by her son's death in an accident that she could barely deal with her responsibility to help her other children, some of whom were still quite young, who were missing their brother. Hard as it might be, you need to keep life as normal as possible for your other children as far as schedules go. Try to have meals at regular times and keep bedtime constant. If you have bedtime rituals, try to keep them intact, even if you don't feel like it. Someone may help you with getting food on the table, but you need to join your family to eat with them. Your other children have never been parents and can't comprehend your loss. They will be wondering why you are paying so much attention to someone who isn't there anymore and not paying as much attention to them when they still are there. You may find yourself pushing them away emotionally at the time they most need your support. 

If you can't sleep, ask your doctor for some sleeping pills to get you past the first couple of weeks. If you have no appetite, eat anyway and take stress vitamins. Make sure you eat fruits and vegetables and healthy food -- even if you have to have it brought in. Junk food and fast food won't give the nutrients your body needs. If your church and the neighbors aren't bringing you healthy food, try the take-out deli at your local supermarket. We have had good luck with Vons stores here in California, and they have some good salads at reasonable prices.

When you don't feel up to nuturing your children, sit down with them and tell them that you are missing their brother or sister very much and it makes your heart hurt. Ask them how they feel. By your example, let them know it's OK to be sad or to cry because you have lost someone you loved. Explain that not everyone feels their sorrow the same way. Some people want to talk about it  and some don't. Some grieving people want to be with people all the time and some just want to be left alone. Let them know if they want to talk, you will listen.

Links to Help you through the Death of a Child

This is not a time to choose to walk alone.

Home Page of the Compassionate Friends
This wonderful resource an online support did not exist when I lost Jason, but I do know many people who have lost children more recently who have been helped very much by this group. If you don't have a friend you feel free to talk to about your loss, check this out.

Unthinkable Grief: Coping with the Death of a Child
This article will not only help parents who have lost a child cope with that loss, but it will also help their family and friends know how to support them and what to say (and what not to say.) There are many links to more helpful resources, as well.

The Death of a Child -- The Grief of the Parents: A lifetime Journey
This is an excellent resource in understanding how parents may express their grief. A newly bereaved parent may not understand what is normal and what's not. They may not understand some of the factors underlying their relationship as they express their grief. This author also has a lot to say to those who want to comfort those who have lost children.

You and Your Husband May Grieve in Different Ways After the Death of Your Child

The death of a child is a leading cause of divorce.

Different grieving styles are common among couples. A father may withdraw and not want to talk about it while a mother might want to do nothing but talk about it. They may feel the same sort of pain but deal with it in different ways. Sometimes, because they need to find a reason for this unreasonable thing that has happened to their child, they blame each other. If you find yourself blaming or being blamed, or if you sense you or your partner is withdrawing, it's time to see a grief counselor. Hospice will often provide help in finding one. It's bad enough to lose a child. It's even worse to lose your spouse, as well. Learn to accept each other's grieving styles. Don't assume your spouse's lack of desire to talk is due to lack of caring. That spouse may be blaming himself for the death and dealing with guilt on top of grief. This is a time to be especially kind to one another. What is happening is very normal. Sorrow can bring you closer or it can drive you apart. There is nothing more you can do for your child. There is still plenty you can do with your spouse. Reassure your spouse of your love and his or her importance to you.

Books to Help Those Dealing with the Death of a Child

Paper is nice, but ebooks are delivered immediately when speed is important.
The Death Of A Child: Reflections For...
ACTA Publications
Only $13.94
Gone but Not Lost: Grieving the Death...
Baker Books
$3.49  $0.96
Creating a New Normal...After the Dea...

What You Do after the Death of a Child Can Affect the Rest of Your Life

It can also affect the rest of your family's life.

I have tried to help you know what to expect and what you should try to do right after you lose your child. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Do expect, though that after the memorial service is over your real grief work will begin. Your numbness will have worn off and you will feel the pain more. You will need to face that pain and work through it. It won't be easy or pleasant. It will be a bit like having a limb amputated. Part of you is gone. You will feel the loss and wish it hadn't happened. You will have to adjust the way you live your life. But I can promise you that if you do your grief work properly, you will be able to function normally again. It takes time and work, but someday the intense pain will be over and you will participate fully in life once again. To learn how I worked through  losing Jason, please read How to Grieve and Go On With Life. It and the resources it points to will help you understand and work through your grief as time goes on. The books above have also helped many people, including me. Right now it may be hard to believe healing is possible, but I can testify that someday you will feel better and be able to get on with your life.

Updated: 01/30/2018, BarbRad
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BarbRad on 02/01/2018

Margielynn, I'm sorry to take so long to reply. I've been absent here for a while. I am very sorry you lost your son. I'm glad you were able to draw on God's comfort, as I was, and that you also had a supportive family to help you through the crisis and in your healing. I see you also were motivated to start a business after the death of your son. I wish you continuing success with that. Thanks for stopping by and taking time to comment.

Guest on 07/13/2017

I truly know your feelings, I lost my son my only child at 31, in 2003. I had him much longer than you had yours. God and my family were my saving grace! He left me with two beautiful granddaughters that I see him in! Time is a great healer, but the void in the heart hurts! I started designing western jewelry in memory of my cowboy son and selling it, I had a sign up in the stores were I sold it telling about him! From one mother to another, take care!

Kim Nolywaika on 10/02/2016

Very useful resources here, some of which I have read already. Very glad to have found your site. Thank you for taking the time to put all this together.

georgettejohn on 03/26/2013

My heartfelt sympathy for your loss. I am sure this was a difficult article to write but you have touched the hearts of many and have provided guidance and direction for others that may face this tragedy. I will add you and your family to my prayers for strength and comfort.

tandemonimom on 06/04/2011

I'm sitting here with tears in my eyes. So sorry for your loss. I will give each of my four wonderful children a hug for Jason.

BarbRad on 06/02/2011

Web Writer, It's not exactly something one daydreams about. I'm sure most parents don't spend any time imaging it until it happens to someone they know and they realize it has become a reality in their circle of friends. It's not supposed to happen, and that's one reason it's such a shock when it happens so suddenly.

WebWriter on 06/02/2011

Thanks for sharing. I can't imagine the loss of a child, and feel for those who lost one.

ohcaroline on 05/31/2011

These are some wonderful points that will help many a parent, no doubt. Someone needs to write them for others...and you did.

Sylvestermouse on 05/31/2011

I am so sorry that your precious son died and I wish I knew what to say or do to comfort you. I know from the deaths in our family that it takes years to ever reach a point of living beyond death and I have indeed witnessed first hand how each person grieves in their own way as you have pointed out. No doubt, your words and articles with help guide others to recovery and understanding.

dustytoes on 05/31/2011

How tragic. I can't imagine going on without a child, and this page will be a comfort and help to many I am sure. Thank you for bravely sharing your story.

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