Check out the courses we offer
Knowledge Base » Mental Health » Addressing the Taboo: Opening Conversations about Child Loss

Addressing the Taboo: Opening Conversations about Child Loss

Child loss is a topic that strikes at the very heart of our humanity. It touches upon the deepest emotions and fears we hold as parents. It’s a subject often shrouded in silence, surrounded by societal taboos that make it difficult to broach, let alone discuss openly. Yet, as painful as it may be, breaking this silence is profoundly important for the healing of those who have experienced such a devastating loss.

In this article, we aim to address the taboo surrounding child loss. We recognise the sensitivity of this topic and extend our compassion to all those who have been touched by it. We aim to offer guidance on how to navigate supportive conversations and raise awareness about the reality of child loss.

Breaking the Silence

Unfortunately, thousands of children die each year – and with them parts of their parents too. In the year ending 31st March 2023, there were 3,743 child deaths in England alone. And with these, 3,743 sets of parents were affected. These numbers aren’t just statistics; they represent shattered dreams, unfulfilled potential and unimaginable grief.

Yet, despite the prevalence of child loss, it remains a topic clouded by societal stigma and silence. There exists an unspoken expectation to endure this grief privately, to mourn behind closed doors and to shield others from the discomfort of discussing such painful realities. As a result, parents navigating loss often find themselves isolated, dealing with their emotions in solitude and feeling as though their experiences are invalidated by the deafening silence that surrounds them.

By breaking the silence and openly acknowledging and discussing child loss, we chip away at the barriers of stigma and pave the way for support. When we create space for conversations about grief, we validate the experiences of those who are suffering, affirming that their pain is real and deserving of recognition.

Breaking the silence is also an essential part of the healing process. When parents are allowed to speak openly about their loss, they find comfort in knowing that they are not alone, that others bear witness to their pain and that they are in the presence of compassion and solidarity.

However, it’s also important to acknowledge that many parents are simply unable to speak about their loss – or simply don’t want to. Each person’s grief is unique, and what they need can only be decided by them.

Couple in grief counselling

Understanding Child Loss

Unless you’ve experienced child loss, it is impossible to understand. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn about it and empathise with those who have, on their terms.

However, there are a range of child loss experiences, each with its own unique challenges and grief journeys.

Stillbirth

This describes the loss of a baby before or during birth. It’s a tragedy that strikes families with profound sadness, as they grapple with the loss of a child they had anticipated welcoming into the world. The unique challenge of stillbirth lies in the anticipation and hope that accompany pregnancy, only to be shattered by the silent grief of an empty crib.

Many parents are told of an impending stillbirth, others are not. According to the charity Tommy’s, there were 2,866 babies stillborn in 2021. This equates to around 8 stillborn babies every day.

Neonatal loss

This refers to the death of a newborn within the first 28 days of life. For parents who have experienced neonatal loss, the joy of childbirth is quickly overshadowed by the devastation of saying goodbye to a child they barely had the chance to know. The challenges of neonatal loss are compounded by the complexities of medical interventions, uncertainties surrounding the baby’s health and the abruptness of the loss, leaving parents grappling with a whirlwind of emotions as they navigate grief in the early days of parenthood. In 2021, 1,715 babies died in their first 28 days of life in England and Wales.

Loss in later childhood

Loss in later childhood refers to the death of a child beyond the infancy stage, encompassing a range of ages and circumstances. Parents may find themselves dealing with feelings of guilt, regret and a sense of unfinished business, as they mourn the loss of a child who had begun to carve out their own identity and place in the world. In 2020, there were 789 child deaths (aged 1 to 15) in England and Wales. These were, thankfully, the lowest number recorded since records began in 1980. The main causes of death are congenital malformations, chromosomal abnormalities and deformations.

Each type of child loss presents its own unique challenges and grief experiences, yet all share a common thread of profound sadness, longing and a sense of irreplaceable loss.

The Impact of Child Loss

Child loss is an unimaginable tragedy that reverberates through the lives of parents, siblings and extended family members. It leaves behind profound emotional and psychological scars. The pain of losing a child is often described as one of the most intense and enduring forms of grief, defying the natural order of life and leaving families with a sense of disbelief.

Emotionally, the impact of child loss is staggering. Parents experience a range of emotions, including shock, disbelief, anger, guilt and sadness. For many, the loss of a child shatters their sense of identity and purpose. It leaves them struggling to make sense of a world that suddenly feels chaotic and unjust. Siblings, too, are deeply affected by the loss, navigating their own complex emotions while often feeling overlooked in the shadow of their parents’ grief. Extended family members also experience a sense of loss, mourning the future they had envisioned for the child and dealing with their own feelings of helplessness and sorrow.

Psychologically, child loss can have long-lasting effects on mental health. Parents may experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complicated grief. They can struggle to find meaning and purpose in the wake of their loss.

Siblings may also be at increased risk for mental health challenges. The psychological impact of child loss can be exacerbated by feelings of isolation and stigma, as families often struggle to find support and understanding in a society that is uncomfortable discussing such painful topics.

Physically, the toll of child loss can manifest in a variety of ways. Parents may experience physical symptoms of grief, including fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite and physical pain. The stress of grieving can also weaken the immune system, leaving parents vulnerable to illness and exacerbating existing health conditions. Siblings and extended family members may also experience physical symptoms of grief, as the body’s response to loss can manifest in a variety of ways.

Research has shown that the effects of child loss can be long-lasting, with parents and siblings often experiencing symptoms of grief for years or even decades after the loss. Studies show significant disparities in health outcomes for bereaved parents compared to non-bereaved parents.

Despite the prevalence of child loss, however, resources and support services for grieving families remain limited, highlighting the need for greater awareness and understanding of this often overlooked form of grief.

Mother and daughter supporting each other through grief

The Importance of Compassionate Conversations

Open and compassionate conversations about child loss can be an essential part of healing and they also serve as a lifeline for those navigating grief. When faced with the profound loss of a child, individuals often find themselves overwhelmed by a whirlwind of emotions. In such moments, having the opportunity to speak openly about their experiences can provide a sense of relief and validation. It provides an opportunity to affirm that their grief is real and deserving of acknowledgement.

Compassionate conversations offer a safe space for individuals to share their pain, fears and memories. It allows them to honour the life – and existence – of their child while also processing their grief. By listening with empathy and understanding, friends, family and healthcare professionals play a crucial role in validating the experiences of those who are grieving, offering a source of comfort and support.

Friends and family members can provide a listening ear, a shoulder to lean on and practical assistance with day-to-day tasks, easing the burden of grief and helping grieving parents and siblings navigate the challenges of daily life. Their presence and support serve as a reminder that they are not alone. It’s a difficult role to navigate and there will likely be times when they ‘get it wrong’ simply because there is nothing anyone can do to make it better.

Healthcare professionals also play a vital role in offering support to families dealing with child loss. From doctors and nurses to therapists and counsellors, these individuals provide essential resources, guidance and care to help families navigate the complex emotions and decisions that come with grief. By offering compassionate and empathetic care, healthcare professionals can help families feel seen, heard and supported.

Creating Safe Spaces

In the aftermath of child loss, creating safe and non-judgemental spaces for individuals to share their grief and experiences is important for healing and support. These spaces serve as sanctuaries where individuals can express their emotions freely without fear of judgement.

Here are some ways to cultivate such spaces:

  • Cultivate Trust and Confidentiality: Ensure that individuals feel safe and secure by emphasising confidentiality and trust within the space. Make it clear that what is shared within the confines of the space will remain confidential so individuals feel comfortable opening up about their experiences.
  • Practise Active Listening: Listen with intention, giving your full attention to the speaker without interrupting or offering unsolicited advice. Validate their emotions by reflecting back what you hear and acknowledging their pain without trying to fix it.
  • Validate Emotions: Validate the emotions of grieving individuals by their feelings. Avoid minimising their pain or offering platitudes. Instead, acknowledge the depth of their grief and offer empathy and support.
  • Avoid Judgement: Create an atmosphere free from judgement. Refrain from imposing your own beliefs or opinions onto their experiences (including religious ones if they are non-believers), and, instead, approach their grief with empathy and understanding.
  • Offer Empathetic Responses: Respond to grieving individuals with empathy and compassion, acknowledging the depth of their pain while offering support and comfort.
  • Provide Physical Comfort: Sometimes, simple gestures of physical comfort can go a long way in creating a safe space for grief. Offer hugs or a reassuring presence to let individuals know that they are not alone in their pain.c
  • Respect Boundaries: Respect the boundaries of grieving individuals by allowing them to share as much or as little as they feel comfortable. Avoid prying or probing for details, and, instead, let them guide the conversation at their own pace.

Tips for Supporting Grieving Parents

Supporting parents who have experienced the devastating loss of a child requires sensitivity, empathy and understanding. While it can be challenging to know the right words to say or actions to take, offering genuine support and compassion can make a significant difference in their healing journey.

Here are some practical tips for supporting grieving parents:

  • Listen Empathetically: Offer your presence and a listening ear freely.
  • Acknowledge Their Loss: Use the child’s name and share memories or stories if appropriate. Let them know that their child’s life mattered and that their grief is valid.
  • Offer Practical Support: Assist with daily tasks, such as preparing meals, running errands or household chores to alleviate their burden during this difficult time.
  • Avoid Clichés and Platitudes: Refrain from using phrases like “Everything happens for a reason” or “They’re in a better place”. Instead, offer genuine expressions of empathy and support.
  • Respect Their Preferences: Follow the lead of the grieving parents and respect their wishes for how they want to grieve and receive support.
  • Educate Yourself About Grief: Take the time to learn about grief and the specific challenges faced by parents who have lost a child. This will help you provide more meaningful support.
  • Be Patient and Persistent: Understand that grief is a long and nonlinear process. Be patient with grieving parents and continue to offer your support and presence, even as time passes.

Common misconceptions and myths about grief

There are several misconceptions about grief. These are:

Grief has a timeline

Imposing arbitrary timelines for when grieving parents should ‘get over’ their loss benefits no one. Grief is a complex and individualised process that unfolds differently for everyone.

Grief follows predictable stages

While some may find the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) relatable, they don’t apply universally. Grief is often much messier and less linear than depicted.

Grief should be kept private

It’s essential to create spaces where individuals feel comfortable expressing their emotions openly and without judgement, rather than keeping grief hidden. 

Grief should be ‘fixed’

Grief is a lifelong journey, and the goal isn’t to ‘get over’ the loss but to learn to live with it and find meaning amidst the pain.

Supportive Resources and Organisations

Several organisations can help bereaved parents in the aftermath of their loss.

  • The Compassionate Friends: The Compassionate Friends is a national organisation offering support to families who have experienced the death of a child, regardless of the child’s age or cause of death. They provide local support groups, online forums and resources to help bereaved parents and siblings cope with their loss.
  • Tommy’s: Tommy’s provides support to families who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or infant loss. They offer online support groups, educational resources, and a helpline staffed by trained volunteers who understand the unique challenges of pregnancy and infant loss.
  • The Good Grief Trust: This organisation supports parents when their children die. There is support for all types of grief and a UK map showing the location of local support.
  • SANDS: This is a UK-based charity that provides support to families who have experienced the death of a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death. They offer local support groups, online forums and resources to help families cope with their grief.
  • Cruse Bereavement Support: Cruse supports parents with peer support groups, local services and a helpline.
  • The Lullaby Trust: This organisation raises awareness of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and offers emotional support for parents.
  • Child Bereavement UK: This charity helps families rebuild their lives when a child dies.

These organisations and resources offer valuable support and guidance to parents and families dealing with child loss. Whether through local support groups, online forums or counselling services, individuals can find comfort and understanding through the difficult journey of grief and healing.

Memorialisation and Coping

In the wake of child loss, memorialisation can be an important part of healing. It offers grieving parents and families a tangible way to honour the memory of their child and navigate the complex terrain of grief.

The importance of memorialisation cannot be overstated. It provides a space for parents and families to express their love and devotion to their child; it keeps their memory alive in the hearts and minds of those who knew and cherished them. Whether through creating a memorial garden, writing letters to their child or participating in commemorative events, memorialisation is a tangible way for individuals to process their grief and find meaning.

Whether through religious ceremonies, annual commemorations or personal traditions, rituals can offer a framework for navigating grief and honouring the child’s memory. They can provide a sense of connection to something greater than oneself and foster a sense of belonging and community amidst the isolation of grief.

Creating memory boxes and scrapbooks and sharing stories and photographs can help keep the spirit of the child alive in the hearts of those who loved them. They provide a source of comfort and connection and allow individuals to find solace in the shared memories and experiences they hold dear.

Couple looking at photographs, sharing memories

Raising Awareness and Advocacy

Awareness campaigns can help in addressing the taboo surrounding child loss. They can break down barriers and open conversations about grief. One of the primary roles of advocacy and awareness campaigns is to challenge the cultural silence and stigma surrounding child loss. These campaigns aim to dismantle the misconceptions and societal taboos that often prevent individuals from discussing their grief openly. Through education and outreach efforts, advocates create a more supportive and understanding environment for grieving families.

Advocacy organisations may also engage in policy advocacy efforts aimed at improving support and services for grieving families. The result of an important advocacy effort was that parents in England no longer have to meet the costs of the burial or cremation of their child thanks to the creation of the Children’s Funeral Fund.

The Role of Healthcare Providers

Healthcare providers serve as compassionate guides for families during one of the most challenging times of their lives. Whether it’s obstetricians and midwives assisting families through the loss of a pregnancy, neonatologists and paediatricians caring for families experiencing the death of an infant, or counsellors and therapists offering support throughout the grieving process, these professionals offer invaluable expertise and understanding.

By empathising with the profound emotions and experiences of grieving parents and families, healthcare professionals create a safe and supportive environment where individuals feel seen, heard and understood. Empathetic care acknowledges the unique and deeply personal nature of grief. It validates the experiences of grieving families and helps them feel less alone in their pain.

Healthcare providers also play a critical role in providing information and resources to families coping with child loss. This may include information about the grieving process, available support services and options for memorialisation. They can also act as advocates for families dealing with child loss, both within the healthcare system and in the broader community.

Conclusion: Honouring Their Memory

Child loss is a devastating reality for thousands of families, yet it remains shrouded in societal silence. Through this article, we’ve emphasised how breaking that silence can help grieving parents. By acknowledging their grief, we validate their experiences and offer much-needed support. Empathy and active listening play a vital role in this process, as does advocating for better understanding and resources. In honouring the memory of these precious children, society can strive to be allies for those who have experienced the unimaginable loss of a child and help them – however that looks – as they work their way through their grief.

Child Bereavement

Child Bereavement

Just £20

Study online and gain a full CPD certificate posted out to you the very next working day.

Take a look at this course


About the author

Avatar photo

Louise Woffindin

Louise is a writer and translator from Sheffield. Before turning to writing, she worked as a secondary school language teacher. Outside of work, she is a keen runner and also enjoys reading and walking her dog Chaos.



Similar posts