How To Process Grief
Losing your child to SIDS is overwhelming and at times it may seem unbearable. There is no fixed timeline for the grieving process, each person will experience it differently. Remember that you are not alone in your journey.
There are plenty of available resources for parents, grandparents, siblings and loved ones that will help with the grieving process. We have gathered some resources to help you through this difficult time, including grief support and group counselling. Visit our Additional Resources page for more information and to get support. (target_blank)
Your loved one/friend will be going through a grief ‘process’. He or she will proceed through four stages (although these stages may often overlap each other during the process):
- Shock and disbelief
- Searching and yearning
- Disorganization and resolution
The initial reaction to the loss is intense and, relatively, short-lived; it is the period during which the bereaved seem to be ‘in shock’.
The bereaved parent:
- May appear stunned or dazed or may be continually crying.
- May experience intense panic, anger, or distress.
- Usually denies death, feelings that what is happening is unreal.
- May have difficulty concentrating and normal functioning may be impeded.
This stage is the bereaved parents’ attempt to ‘test reality’. It is the time when parents work through the extent of their responsibility for the death. The bereaved parent:
- May experience restlessness, pronounced mood swings.
- May constantly search for cause of death through questioning and conjecturing, e.g. “What if I had checked on her more, hadn’t slept in, etc.?” or “If I hadn’t left him with a sitter, had been there, had heard him”, and so on.
- Yearns for child. May ‘hear’ baby cry or ‘see’ baby while shopping.
- May continue to check on baby.
- May have great irritability and anger… At God, at doctors, at parents, other children, spouse, self.
- May experience need to ‘do something’.
Often the most ‘dangerous’ stage, this period will see the highest rate of separation and suicide. The bereaved parent, in the process of organizing his role:
- May feel empty and helpless.
- May feel deeply depressed.
- May be weak and exhausted.
- May have very little interest in anything.
- May neglect basic needs (some have large weight gain or loss, others have difficulty in going to sleep at night or have nightmares while others experience trouble getting up in the morning).
- May experience somatic complaints (headache, stomach aches, aching arms).
- May experience panic attacks, may be afraid to be alone, or be overly fearful for spouse or other children.
- May ‘pretend’ to be happy.
- May be beginning to accept the reality of death.
As the bereaved parents adapt to the loss of their child and accept the changes in their life, they:
- Will experience period of normalcy.
- Enjoy renewed energy and interest.
- Have renewed ability to make decisions.
- Return to normal eating and sleeping patterns.
- Will be able to remember the child as living, as well as the moment of death.
Men experience grief very differently than women. It’s important to recognize these differences and learn how to cope with different grieving processes. Very often, men won’t speak or mourn openly. Understanding how your partner is grieving will help with the process itself, and reduce the stress within the relationship.
Helping a Man Who is Grieving
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
A man you care about is grieving. Someone he loved has died and you would like to help him during this difficult time. This should help you know what to do and say as you offer your love and companionship to your husband/boyfriend….
Men feel the need to be strong.
Even in the face of tragic loss, many men in our society still feel the need to be self-contained, stoic and to express little or no outward emotion. It is very much in vogue today to encourage men to openly express their feelings, but in practice few men do so. The outward expression of grief is called mourning. All men grieve when someone they love dies, but if they are to heal, they must also mourn.
You can help by offering a “safe place” for your partner/friend to mourn. Tell him you’d like to help. Offer to listen whenever he wants to talk. Don’t worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on the words that are being shared with you. Let him know that in your presence at least, it’s OK for him to express whatever feelings he might have – sadness, anger, guilt, fear. Around you, he doesn’t have to be strong because you will offer support without judgment.
Men feel the need to be active.
The grief experience naturally creates a turning inward and slowing down on the part of the mourner, a temporary self-focus that is vital to the ultimate healing process. Yet for many men this is threatening. Masculinity is equated with striving, moving and activity. Many grieving men throw themselves into their work in an attempt to distract themselves from their painful feelings.
Maybe you can offer your partner/friend both activity and time for reflection. Ask him to shoot hoops, go to a movie, go bowling or play golf. Go for a hike or fishing with your partner/friend – do something he enjoys. Let him know that you really want to hear how he’s doing, how he’s feeling. In the context of these activities he just might share some of his innermost thoughts.
Active problem-solving is another common male response to grief. If a father’s child dies of SIDS, for example, the father may become actively involved in fundraising for SIDS research. A husband whose wife is killed may focus on the legal circumstances surrounding the death. Such activities can be healing for grieving men and should be encouraged.
Men feel the need to be protectors.
Men are generally thought of as the “protectors” of the family. They typically work to provide their spouses and children with a warm, safe home, safe transportation and good medical care. So when a member of his family passes away, the “man of the house” may feel guilty. No matter how out of his control the death was, the man may feel deep down that he has failed at protecting the people in his care.
If your partner/friend expresses such thoughts, you will probably feel the need to reassure him that the death was not his fault. Actually, you may help him more by just listening and trying to understand. By allowing him to talk about his feelings of failure, you are helping him to work through these feelings in his own way and his own time.
It’s OK for men to grieve differently.
We’ve said that men feel the need to be strong and active in the face of grief. Such responses are OK as long as your partner/friend isn’t avoiding his feelings altogether. It’s also OK for men to feel and express rage, to be more cognitive or analytical about the death, to not cry. All of these typically masculine responses to grief may help your partner heal; there is no one “right” way to mourn a death.
Sometimes words, particularly clichés, can be extremely painful for mourners. Clichés are trite comments often intended to provide simple solutions to difficult realities. Men are often told “You’ll get over this” or “Don’t worry, you and Susie (can) have another child” or “Think about the good times.” Comments like these are not constructive. Instead, they hurt because they diminish a very real and very painful loss.
Your presence at the funeral is important. As a ritual, the funeral provides an opportunity for you to express your love and concern at this time of need. As you pay tribute to a life that is now passed, you have a chance to support your grieving partner/friend. At the funeral, a touch of your hand, a look in your eye or even a hug communicates more than words could ever say.
But don’t just attend the funeral then disappear. Remain available afterwards as well. Grief is a process, and it may take your partner/friend years to reconcile himself to his new life. Remember that your grieving partner/friend may need you more in the weeks and months after the funeral than at the time of the death.
Understand the importance of the loss.
Always remember that the death of someone loved is a shattering experience. As a result of this death, your friend’s life is under reconstruction. Consider the significance of the loss and be compassionate and available in the weeks and months to come.
“Helping a friend in grief is a difficult task. Helping a man in grief can be especially difficult, so few friends follow through in their desire to help. I encourage you to stand by your friend during this painful time. Your ongoing presence, patience and support will help him more than you will ever know.”
This booklet is a wonderful source and touches on all areas of support for grief and support of other family members: https://www.ndhealth.gov/sids/Publications/TheGrief%20of%20the%20Parents%20ALifetimeJourney.pdf
It is important for bereaved fathers to seek out support for themselves individually, and to help with the healing of the family. Find more support (target_blank)
Fact Sheet: The Grief of Children
By: Susan Woolsey, Maryland SIDS Information and Counseling Project, and the SIDS Clearinghouse Staff
One of the most difficult tasks following the death of a loved one is discussing and explaining the death with children in the family. This task is even more distressing when the parents are in the midst of their own grief.
Because many adults have problems dealing with death they assume children cannot cope with it. They may try to protect children by leaving them out of discussions and rituals associated with the death. Thus, children may feel anxious, bewildered, and alone. They may be left on their own to seek answers to their questions at a time when they most need the help and reassurance of those around them.
All children will be affected in some way by a death in the family. Above all, children who are too young for explanations need love from the significant people in their lives to maintain their own security. Young children may not verbalize their feelings about a death in the family. They might hold back their feelings because they are so overwhelming that they may appear to be unaffected. It is more common for them to express their feelings through behaviour and play. Regardless of this ability or inability to express themselves, children do grieve, often very deeply.
Some Common Expression Of Children’s Grief
Experts have determined that those in grief pass through four major emotions: fear, anger, guilt, and sadness. It should be remembered that everyone who is touched by a death experiences these emotions to some degree – grandparents, friends, physicians, nurses, and children. Each adult and child’s reactions to death are individual in nature. Some common reactions are:
- The child may not believe the death really happened and will act as though it did not. This is usually because the thought of death is too overwhelming.
- Physical Symptoms
- The child may have various complaints such as headache or stomachache and fear that he/she too will die.
- Being mostly concerned with their own needs, the child may be angry at the person who died because they feels that they have been left “all alone” or that God didn’t “make the person well”.
- The child may think that they caused the death by having been angry with the person who died, or they may feel responsible for not having been “better” in some way.
- Anxiety and Fear
- The child may wonder who will take care of them now or fear that some other person they love will die. They may cling to their parents or ask other people who play an important role in their life if they love them.
- The child may revert to behaviours they had previously outgrown, such as bedwetting or thumb sucking.
- The child may show a decrease in activity – being “too quiet”.
It is important to remember that all of the reactions outlined above are normal expressions of grief in children. In the grief process, time is an important factor. Experts have said that six months after a significant death in a child’s life, normal routine should be resuming. If the child’s reaction seems to be prolonged, seeking professional advice of those who are familiar with the child (e.g., teachers, pediatricians, clergy) may be helpful.
Explanations that May Not Help
Outlined below are explanations that adults may give a child hoping to explain why the person they love has died. Unfortunately, simply put but dishonest answers can only serve to increase the fear and uncertainty that the child is feeling. Children tend to be very literal – if an adult says that “Grandpa died because he was old and tired” the child may wonder when he too will be too old; he certainly gets tired – what is tired enough to die?
- “Grandma will sleep in peace forever.”
- This explanation may result in the child’s fear of going to bed or to sleep.
- “It is God’s will.”
- The child will not understand a God who takes a loved one because He needs that person Himself; or “God took him because he was so good.” The child may decide to be bad so God won’t take him too.
- “Daddy went on a long trip and won’t be back for a long time.”
- The child may wonder why the person left without saying goodbye. Eventually he will realize that Daddy isn’t coming back and feel that he did something to cause Daddy to leave.
- “John was sick and went to the hospital where he died.”
- The child will need an explanation about “little” and “big” sicknesses. Otherwise, he may be extremely fearful if he or someone he loves has to go to the hospital in the future.
Ways to Help Children
As in all situations, the best way to deal with children is honesty. Talk to the child in a language that he can understand. Remember to listen to the child and try to understand what the child is saying and, just as importantly, what they’re not saying. Children need to feel that the death is an open subject and that they can express their thoughts or questions as they arise. Below are just a few ways adults can help children face the death of someone close to them.
- The child’s first concern may be “who will take care of me now”.
- Maintain usual routines as much as possible.
- Show affection, and assure the child those who love them still do and that they will take care of them.
- The child will probably have many questions and may need to ask them again and again.
- Encourage the child to ask questions and give honest, simple answers that can be understood. Repeated questions require patience and continued expression of caring.
- Answers should be based on the needs the child seems to be expressing, not necessary on the exact words used.
- The child will not know appropriate behaviour for the situation.
- Encourage the child to talk about their feelings and share with them how you feel. You are a model for how one expresses feelings. It is helpful to cry. It is not helpful to be told how one should or should not feel.
- Allow the child to express their caring for you. Loving is giving and taking.
- The child may fear that they also may die or that he somehow caused the death.
- Reassure the child about the cause of the death and explain that any thoughts they may have had about the person who died did not cause the death.
- Reassure them that this does not mean that someone else they love is likely to die soon.
- The child may wish to be a part of the family rituals.
- Explain these to the child and include them in deciding how they will participate. Remember that they should be prepared beforehand, told what to expect, and have a supporting adult with them. Do not force them to do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing.
- The child may show regressive behaviour.
- A common reaction to stress is to revert to an earlier stage of development. (For example, a child may begin thumb sucking, or bed-wetting; or, may need to go back into diapers or have a bottle for a time). Support the child in this and keep in mind that these regressions are temporary.
Adults can help prepare a child to deal with future losses of those who are significant by helping the child handle smaller losses through sharing their feelings when a pet dies or when death is discussed in a story or on television.
In helping children understand and cope with death, remember four key concepts: be loving, be accepting, be truthful, and be consistent.
To give your children more support after the loss of a sibling, please see our additional resources or give us a call to talk about your options. target_blank
For Grandparents … A “Double” Grief
From the moment you became a parent yourself, you sought to protect your child from the pains and sorrows of life. Usually you were successful, you had the ability to solve problems and the power to lessen hurts.
Suddenly, your child is facing a pain far deeper than any other in life. It may be deeper than anything you have experience, or perhaps you can understand this sorrow because you, too, have lost a child.
Either way, you are now experiencing a variety of emotions: helplessness, frustration, grief, guilt, and anger. You are suffering a double grief. You are grieving for your grandchild; all your hopes and dreams have been shattered, your promise of immortality has been broken. You had wondered if he or she would favour your side of the family, wondered what he or she would become, and had perhaps even bought gifts for later on (like that first tricycle or that special doll). Your own grief may not even be recognized by your own child, but you are definitely entitled to it. Grandparents are often referred to as the forgotten grievers, yet you had a special relationship with your grandchild – one of unconditional love and untempered by parental responsibility.
You are grieving just as deeply for your own child. You feel frustrated and helpless because this is one pain that you can’t “just kiss away”. All the little ways that you had to coax a smile from that child are useless now, all the magic words that used to solve the problems are empty. You can only sit by, offer support, and watch your child learn to live with this loss.
As grandparents you may think that you should set an example, be controlled, and cope well. You may offer advice, financial assistance, the benefit of your experience, or even baby-sitting the other children and have your offer refused. That can lead to a sense of rejection and can create feelings of anger, frustration and guilt.
Guilt and anger. One often causes the other, soon the two are so intermingled that it is difficult to determine where one begins and the other ends. To some grandparents it seems unnatural that they should live longer than a grandchild and they suffer a form of ‘survival guilt’, which can manifest as a wish that they could change places with the lost child. Or there may be feelings of guilt for things which you didn’t do; such as baby-sitting every time you were asked or spending more time with the baby. It doesn’t help to know that you thought you had lots of time.
There is added grief, too if you haven’t been well, or if for some reason were unable to see the baby at all.
You may be very angry. Angry at God for ‘taking’ the child, angry at the doctors and nurses for being unable to save the child’s life, angry at your other children whose families are intact. Though this is a common reaction, grandparents often feel a great deal of guilt because of this anger. You may even find yourself angry at your own child if your understanding of SIDS is incomplete and you might wonder if there was anything they could have done or should have seen. Finally, you might be angry at yourself as you wonder if your genes or chromosomes were ‘responsible’ for the child’s death.
Psychologists have determined that the grief period following any death is between 18 months and three years. Some of the emotions that your child has may seem strange to you or they might be familiar because you are having similar reactions. These emotions are, however, NORMAL GRIEF REACTIONS. Helping your child to grieve will facilitate your own grief.