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The Role of Memory and Ritual Healing from Child Bereavement

Introduction

Most people do not even try (or want to try) to imagine life after losing a child. However, for many parents and their wider families, the loss is ever real. In 2022-2023, there were 3,743 child deaths in England, an increase of 8% on the previous year and the highest number since the data was first collected in 2019. This number does not just represent the children who have died; with it come 3,743 bereaved families – a potential 7,486 bereaved parents, and countless other relatives, siblings and friends. 

The devastating loss of a child echoes through the very core of families, leaving indelible imprints that often defy comprehension. The distress of child bereavement transcends words and plunges those who find themselves in it into depths of grief that are unimaginable to those who have not experienced it first-hand.

The Concept of Memory and Ritual

When faced with such deep sorrow, often memory and ritual are what accompany parents and carers along their path towards healing. Memory and ritual are elements that form a natural part of human existence. They offer a way of remembering and honouring as well as a means of healing. 

By understanding the significance and interplay between memory and ritual in the context of child bereavement, we can gain an insight into the multifaceted nature of grief and the intricate healing process. Memory and ritual can have transformative power, offering glimpses of hope for families and guiding the way towards healing. 

This article will explore the profound impact that both memory and ritual play in the healing process of families coping with child bereavement. In exploring their role, we will uncover the resilience of the human spirit as well as the enduring bonds that transcend the boundaries of life and death.

Understanding Child Bereavement

Understanding Child Bereavement

Before we explore the concept of memory and ritual in child bereavement in detail, it’s important to have an understanding of child bereavement and the impacts it has on parents and families. 

Child bereavement is as unique to the individual as the child is. It is a poignant and complex experience, defying conventional explanations of loss. The death of a child breaks the foundations of a family, leaving with it a sense of disbelief and emptiness. Unlike other forms of loss, child death disrupts life’s natural order and challenges the beliefs and assumptions that we have about the world. 

That being said, no matter how detailed an explanation we give, the only people to fully understand child bereavement are those who have experienced it. Despite this, we should still be able to empathise appropriately with those who have lost a child, and this requires some understanding of the loss. 

Child bereavement, the devastating loss of a child, is a profound and unique experience that is characterised by a set of challenges that are very much distinct from those faced with adult bereavement. We expect adults, especially those in the later stages of life, to die. Death is as much a part of life as being alive is. However, in experiencing the death of a child, as mentioned, the natural order is disrupted. Parental identity is challenged, and family dynamics are forever changed. Unsurprisingly, child bereavement is marked by intense emotions, complex psychological responses and profound social implications.

Emotional Implications

Emotionally, the death of a child triggers intense and sometimes conflicting emotions. Grieving parents and family members may experience deep sadness, despair, anger, guilt and disbelief. The depth of parental love and attachment amplifies the intensity of these emotions, leading to a sense of overwhelming grief that feels all-encompassing. Unlike adult deaths where individuals may have had the opportunity to create a lifetime of memories with their loved one, child bereavement often involves the loss of hopes, dreams and unfilled potential that adds much more complex layers to the grieving process.

Psychological Implications

Psychologically, the impact of losing a child can be profound and long-lasting. Parents may struggle with feelings of helplessness and may question their ability to protect their child. The loss can also trigger feelings of isolation as parents realise that few others truly understand the gravity of their loss. Moreover, their child’s death may also challenge their beliefs and lead to existential questioning as well as a re-evaluation of their faith and worldview.

Social Implications

There are also far-reaching social implications that extend beyond the immediate family. Grieving parents may find themselves thrown into learning how to navigate societal expectations including the pressure to ‘move on’ or ‘find closure’ in their grief. They may face well-intentioned but misguided attempts to provide comfort and support which may inadvertently exacerbate their feelings of alienation and isolation. This can leave bereaved parents feeling even more misunderstood and unsupported. What is more, the loss of a child can strain relations within the family as well as within the community as each person will deal with the grief in their own unique way.

Response To Grief

To summarise our understanding of child bereavement, it’s important to acknowledge the common grief responses. As you would envisage, child bereavement elicits a wide range of emotional, psychological and behavioural responses from parents and wider family members. While each person’s response will be unique, there are some common responses that are often observed in those who are experiencing the loss of a child.

  • Intense Grief
    The most immediate and prevalent response to child bereavement is intense grief. Parents and family members may experience overwhelming feelings of sadness, despair and longing for their child. This may manifest physically and emotionally and will affect all aspects of their lives. However, we must also acknowledge that some parents’ intense grief may well have started before their child’s death if the death were anticipated or expected such as in the case of terminal illness.
  • Shock and Disbelief
    Upon receiving the news of their child’s death or witnessing it, parents often experience a profound sense of shock and disbelief. It can be difficult to comprehend the reality of the loss, leading to feelings of numbness and detachment as the mind struggles to process the magnitude of the loss.
  • Guilt and Self-Blame
    Many parents struggle with feelings of guilt and self-blame after the death of their child. They may question their actions or decisions leading up to the loss, wondering if they could have done something to prevent it. This self-blame can be especially pronounced in cases of sudden or unexpected death.
  • Anger and Resentment
    Grieving parents may also experience intense feelings of anger and resentment. They may direct these emotions towards a higher power or fate. Anger is a natural response to feelings of powerlessness and injustice in the face of such a profound loss.
  • Depression and Anxiety
    Child bereavement often triggers symptoms of depression and anxiety in parents and family members. They may struggle with persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness and despair as well as overwhelming anxiety about the future and their ability to cope with life without their child.
  • Social Withdrawal
    Grieving parents may withdraw from social interactions and isolate themselves from friends, family and community support networks. They may feel unable to relate to others who have not experienced a similar loss, leading to feelings of loneliness and alienation.
  • Searching for Meaning and Purpose
    In their grief, parents may search for meaning and purpose in their child’s death. They may engage in activities that honour their child’s memory, such as creating memorial tributes, participating in charitable causes or advocating for causes related to their child’s life and interests.
  • Spiritual and Existential Crisis
    The death of a child can provoke profound spiritual and existential questioning in parents and family members. They may struggle with questions about the meaning of life, the nature of suffering and their beliefs about death and the afterlife.
  • Continued Bond with the Deceased Child
    Despite their physical absence, parents often maintain a deep and enduring bond with their deceased child. They may continue to feel their presence in various ways, such as through dreams, signs or memories and may find comfort in rituals and practices that keep their child’s memory alive.
  • Fluctuating Emotions Over Time
    Grief is a dynamic and evolving process that unfolds over time. Parents and family members may experience fluctuations in their emotions, moving through periods of intense grief, numbness, acceptance and hope as they navigate through their grief.

Understanding these common responses to child bereavement can help provide validation and support to grieving parents and family members as they go through the complex and painful process of grieving the loss of their child.

The Power of Memory in Healing

The Power of Memory in Healing

“Death ends a life, but not a relationship. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there.” Morrie Schwartz. Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom.

Memory serves as a profound and potent force in a parent’s healing journey after the loss of their child. Far from being confined to the past, memories provide a tangible link to the legacy and presence of the deceased child. They offer solace, comfort and a sense of connection that transcends the boundaries of life and death. 

Memory serves as a cherished repository of shared moments between parents and their deceased child, helping preserve their essence and spirit long after they have died. Whether it’s the sound of the child’s laughter, the sight of the dimples on their cheeks or their cheeky grin, memories encapsulate the unique qualities and experiences that defined their presence in the lives of their loved ones.

Moreover, the act of reminiscing, storytelling and sharing memories emerges as a powerful therapeutic practice in the grieving process. By recounting cherished moments and anecdotes, parents and family members create a sacred space for honouring the memory of their child and celebrating their life and legacy. In the process, they find solace and comfort in the collective sharing of grief, discovering a sense of solidarity and support in the shared memories.

Indeed, memories can offer moments of respite and connection amongst the sadness and overwhelming sorrow. Parents may find themselves drawn to living in their memories as they become a source of comfort, where they seek refuge and a sense of familiarity when all around them everything feels vastly different. 

Memories are part of the child’s legacy too, ensuring that their life continues to have relevance and can potentially inspire future generations. This can be through photographs, keepsakes, videos or simply anecdotes.

Rituals as Healing Tools

Almost everyone has some experience and knowledge of rituals. They are the ways we mark important events and life changes: baptisms, graduations, bar mitzvahs and funerals, for example. However, rituals do not have to be formal either. We can (and do) create our own. 

The power of a ritual is with its symbolism. People from all walks of life regularly drink wine, but during certain Christian rituals, the wine takes on a powerful meaning that it does not have when drinking it over dinner with friends. The rituals’ symbolism can enhance our emotions and mark the importance of events in our lives. More than this, studies have shown that some rituals have shown to help our bodies release feel-good chemicals (endorphins) that help us reduce pain and anxiety. 

In the aftermath of losing a child, rituals emerge as powerful and often transformative tools for processing grief and facilitating healing. Rituals are often rooted in cultural, religious and personal traditions and provide a structure through which the bereaved can work their way through the immediate days and weeks following a death. Rituals can help people find meaning and solace during this difficult period as well as giving them a focus for their grief. Whether it’s a solemn funeral ceremony, a candlelit vigil or a personal ritual in the privacy of one’s home, rituals create a sacred space for honouring the life and legacy of the child. By participating in these rituals, family members and friends often draw strength from the embrace of their community and find solidarity from those who share their grief.

Cultural Rituals

  • Funeral Ceremonies
    Funerals are among the most common cultural rituals observed in the context of child bereavement. These ceremonies often involve religious or cultural customs such as prayers, eulogies and rituals that symbolise the transition of the deceased child to the afterlife. For example, in some cultures, white doves may be released as a symbol of peace and freedom.
  • Mourning Attire and Practices
    Many cultures have specific traditions surrounding clothing and activities during periods of mourning. This may include wearing black clothing or other symbols of mourning and abstaining from certain activities or celebrations.

Religious Rituals

  • Memorial Services
    Religious communities often hold memorial services or ceremonies to commemorate the lives of people who have died. These services may include prayers, hymns, scripture readings and rituals specific to the religious tradition. For example, in Christianity, a memorial service may include the lighting of candles or the recitation of prayers for the deceased child’s soul.
  • Rituals of Remembrance
    Many religions have specific rituals and observances to mark anniversaries or other significant milestones in the grieving process. For example, in Judaism, families may observe the yahrzeit, an annual memorial observance held on the anniversary of the child’s death, by lighting a candle and reciting prayers in their memory.

Personal Rituals

In addition to the traditional cultural and religious rituals with which many of us are familiar, many families create their own personal rituals as a way of honouring the memory of their child and helping find purpose and meaning in their loss. These rituals may take various forms from planting a tree in their child’s memory to dedicating a special day each year to commemorate their life. By infusing these rituals with personal significance and symbolism, parents and family members create time and space for remembrance and reflection, fostering a sense of connection to their departed child. 

Ultimately, rituals are transformative agents that provide a tangible expression of grief and a pathway towards the later stages of the grief process, including acceptance.

Memory-Making Activities

Taking part in memory-making activities can be a profound and therapeutic way for individuals and families to honour the life and legacy of the child they lost. These activities provide ways of engaging in memories, fostering connections and finding soothing ways of healing in the midst of loss. Let’s take a look at some practical suggestions for memory-making activities:

  • Memory Boxes
    Gather items that hold special significance and memories of the child. This can include items of clothing, photographs, drawings, letters and keepsakes.
    Decorate a special box or container in which to place all the items.
    Set aside time to revisit the memory box. You can also add new mementoes if you wish. For example, as milestones pass such as birthdays or anniversaries, you can add mementoes or gifts to mark the moment.
  • Journals or Diaries
    Start a journal or diary to document thoughts, feelings and memories related to the child.
    Write letters to the child as an outlet for feelings and expressing love, gratitude and reflections.
    The journal can be used as a tool for self-reflection and processing emotions throughout the grieving process.
  • Scrapbook or Albums
    Compile photos, artwork and mementoes into a scrapbook or memory album.
    Include captions, anecdotes and stories that capture the special moments and memories shared with the child.
    Invite family members and friends to contribute their own special memories and reflections to the scrapbook.
  • Commemorative Events
    Organise or participate in commemorative events such as activities in honour of the child, such as charity walks, memorial services or fundraising events.
    Plant a tree, dedicate a bench or install a memorial plaque in a meaningful location.
    Host an annual gathering or remembrance ceremony to celebrate the child’s life and legacy with loved ones.
  • Artistic Tributes
    Channel creative expression into artistic tributes. This could involve painting, drawing, sculpting or crafting.
    Create a memorial garden or art installation dedicated to the child, incorporating elements that reflect their personality and interests.
    Display or share artistic creations with others as a way of preserving and sharing the child’s legacy.

These memory-making activities offer tangible ways for individuals and families to actively engage with memories of their child and find comfort and healing whilst going through their most difficult time.

Navigating the Healing Process

Navigating the Healing Process

The healing process when it comes to the loss of a child is deeply personal not to mention complex. It’s marked by profound emotions and challenges that perhaps make you feel that healing is not possible. In the aftermath of such a loss, the thought of ever healing from it seems daunting and uncertain. However, there are ways that can provide direction and support for families to work their way through the grieving process. And, whilst such a loss will always leave scars, there are ways that bereaved parents and families can begin to live their lives as healed as possible within their new normal.

Seek Support

  • Seeking support from professionals such as therapists, grief counsellors and healthcare professionals means that bereaved parents can receive validation, guidance and tailored coping strategies.
  • Connecting with support groups or online communities of people who have experienced similar losses can help. You will be able to share experiences and talk to others who understand the gravity of your loss and will provide a sense of belonging (even though it’s a club that nobody really wants to be in).
  • Lean on loved ones for emotional support and practical assistance. Express your needs and let others take control of the minutiae of life as it goes on whether that’s putting the bin out on the right day or getting you some milk in, at least for a while.

Self-Compassion

  • Be gentle and patient with yourself. Grief is not a straightforward trajectory to healing. There will be many ups and downs. On the downs, be kind to yourself and trust that it will get better.
  • Prioritise self-care by engaging in activities that nurture your wellbeing. This may include exercise, relaxation, spending time amongst nature or creative expression.
  • Practise mindfulness by trying to stay present in the moment and acknowledge your feelings with kindness.

Resilience

  • Draw upon your inner strength and recognise your own courage to keep going every day despite the pain you face.
  • Focus on building adaptive strategies that help such as setting realistic goals that maintain your sense of purpose.

Of course, after losing a child, you will be vulnerable and will require courage. Be sure to seek support from those around you, from professionals and from support groups where you can. The road will be a bumpy one, but you can work your way along it one step at a time.

Final Thoughts

In the wake of child bereavement, there is little to be said in the way of comfort. However, in celebrating and creating memories and undertaking rituals, a sense of connection and comfort can be fostered. Storytelling, reminiscing and sharing memories all create a sense of solace that weave together the present with the past amidst the sorrow and loss. 

For support, the following organisations may be useful:

  • SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society) – Offers support to anyone affected by the death of a baby, working to improve care and support for bereaved families: https://www.sands.org.uk/
  • Child Bereavement UK – Provides support and information to bereaved families and professionals, offering individual and group support sessions, as well as training and resources: https://www.childbereavementuk.org/
  • The Compassionate Friends – Offers support, understanding and friendship to bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents following the death of a child, regardless of age or cause of death: https://www.tcf.org.uk/
  • Winston’s Wish – Provides practical support and guidance for children, young people and families grieving the death of a parent or sibling: https://www.winstonswish.org/
  • Cruse Bereavement Care – Offers bereavement support and counselling services to individuals of all ages who have experienced the death of someone close, including children and families: https://www.cruse.org.uk/
  • Lullaby Trust – Provides support for bereaved families affected by sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) or sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI), as well as raising awareness and funding research: https://www.lullabytrust.org.uk/
  • Saying Goodbye – Provides support, advice and resources for families who have experienced the loss of a baby during pregnancy, at birth, or in infancy, including remembrance services and online support: https://www.sayinggoodbye.org/
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About the author

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Laura Allan

Laura is a former Modern Foreign Languages teacher who now works as a writer and translator. She is also acting Chair of Governors at her children’s primary school. Outside of work, Laura enjoys running and performing in amateur productions.



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