Mourning over a child's death

Dear Alice,

My oldest daughter died in a motor vehicle accident seven months ago. I have a husband and three other daughters. I am very depressed. Some days I think I won't make it. Some days I don't want to. I know that my life has been changed forever, but what can I do to help ease the pain — and to help me "move on" with my life?


Dear J,

Grief for the loss of a loved one is a complicated, non-linear process that varies from person to person, and you may find that your experience differs from your husband’s and daughters’ experiences. There is no set timeline for grief, and you may notice that your reactions will ebb and flow. While it sounds negative, grief (the complex set of cognitive, emotional, and social difficulties) along with mourning (the internal process of adaptation to loss) are essential to help the mind process the reality of loss in order to move on with living. While the pain of the loss may never go away, there are coping strategies that may help you start to feel more at peace and be able to think clearly about your future.

Research has shown that parents who have lost a child experience one of the greatest and most enduring types of stress. It may feel unnatural to outlive a child. This is why it's common for parents to report physical responses of excruciating pain and numbness as well as emotional responses including, but not limited to, shock, denial, yearning, confusion, guilt, powerlessness, anger, and a loss of hope. These emotions are sometimes helpful or even necessary for the process. For example, denial gives your mind time to unconsciously absorb the information and adjust to new pain and stress. However, long-term denial might ultimately prevent you from getting help, so be mindful of how long and how strong you feel these emotions. Rest assured, the feelings you’re experiencing are a typical part of the grieving process. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t strategies that may help you feel better. Some strategies include allowing yourself to express your fears and emotions through art and journaling or through talking with a trusted friend or family member. Additionally, you may find it useful to connect with a community or support group of peers who have experienced similar loss and may relate to your emotions. Lastly, speaking with a mental health professional such as a grief counselor or a religious community leader may help to process your emotions over the long-term.

One of the most difficult challenges facing grieving parents such as yourself is the continual care for your surviving children. Parents may feel torn to continue their role as a functioning parent while also taking the appropriate time to grieve and heal alone. Surviving siblings often describe a lack of support and communication from their parents, potentially leading to social withdrawal. Alternatively, some siblings report experiences of overprotective, controlling parents that may be acting in fear of losing another child. In order to grieve as a family, it may be beneficial for you and your husband to support each other emotionally while maintaining an open line of communication with your surviving daughters to help them process these changes as well. Additionally, if you feel unable to provide the support that your husband and daughters may need it's okay to reach out to other extended family members, close friends, or mental health professionals who may be able to provide sufficient help to lighten your load.

Seemingly random reminders of your daughter or significant anniversaries of her life’s milestones may leave you with feelings of grief at unpredictable times for many years to come. To be prepared for these emotions it may help to plan distractions with friends and family or to start a new tradition, such as a charitable donation in your daughter’s name. It's equally valuable to allow yourself to feel the range of emotions that come with these reminders and to take the appropriate time to reminisce about your relationship with your daughter. In addition, remember to take care of yourself during this healing process both physically and mentally. You might find that maintaining a lifestyle with physical activity and balanced nutrition helps you to feel better. Additionally, experts advise limiting the use of alcohol and other drugs that may affect your ability to fully process the grief. Ultimately, practicing self-compassion, by allowing yourself to make these lifestyle changes, may help you to feel more okay. Remember, there is no correct way to grieve and with time, hopefully you'll be able to find a process that works for you.

Thinking of you during this difficult time,

Last updated Nov 19, 2021
Originally published Sep 18, 1998