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Knowledge Base » Safeguarding » Navigating the Painful Journey of Child Bereavement

Navigating the Painful Journey of Child Bereavement

While a bereavement is always difficult, studies continue to provide evidence that the greatest loss, and often the most enduring one, occurs for parents who experience the death of a child. Parents typically expect to outlive their children. The death of a child, no matter the circumstances, violates this natural order of life and death, often leading to intense shock and disbelief.

Society in general often finds the death of a baby or child very difficult to approach and therefore the subject often seems taboo. This can leave grieving parents and families feeling more isolated and alone in their grief.  

According to the National Child Mortality Database, there were 3,743 child deaths in England in the year ending 31 March 2023. The highest death rate continued to be for children aged 15-17 years, followed by 1- to 4-year-olds. Deaths of infants (babies under 1 year of age) accounted for 59% of all child deaths in the year ending 31 March 2023. 

These figures do not take into account the various types of baby loss, including stillbirths. This is where a baby dies before they are born, after 24 weeks of pregnancy. According to Sands in 2021, there were 2,866 stillbirths at a rate of 4.1 stillbirths per 1,000 total births for the whole of the UK. The loss of a baby is devastating and it may be difficult to know where to find the right support. Tommy’s offers support for anyone who has experienced the loss of a baby, whether through miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death, or termination for medical reasons. They can provide ongoing emotional and practical support for parents and family members.

Understanding Child Bereavement

Understanding Child Bereavement

Children represent the future filled with hopes and dreams, their lives full of potential and possibilities. Their premature death leaves loved ones with an additional sense of loss for what could have been, including potential accomplishments, watching them grow up and reaching milestones.

The innocent nature of children can create an intense feeling of injustice. The bond between parents and children is often very deep and intense, as parents invest all of their emotional energy, time and resources into nurturing their children, making this type of loss particularly devastating.  

For someone who has experienced the loss of a child, it can be difficult to accept the reality of what has happened, and it’s not uncommon to go through a period of denial as a way of coping with overwhelming emotions. There is often a long-term impact on mental health for bereaved parents. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complicated grief are common among bereaved parents.

The death of a child is a deeply tragic event that has unique challenges and complexities compared to the death of an adult. The death of a child often leads to intense emotional pain and anguish for parents and family members. It goes against the natural order of life, where parents expect to outlive their children. The loss can create feelings of guilt, anger and despair. Getting the right support is often vital for bereaved parents in order for them to be able to process the loss and move through their grief.

The Grieving Process

The grieving process is unique to each individual person, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Different people react in different ways and find comfort in different things. Two parents of the same child may grieve completely differently. 

The grieving process for someone may involve:

  • Shock and denial – initially, parents may experience shock and disbelief. It’s hard to comprehend the reality of losing a child, and denial can be a coping mechanism to shield yourself from the overwhelming pain.
  • Anger – parents may feel intense anger. They might direct their anger towards themselves, or other people. This anger is often as a result of the deep pain they are experiencing.
  • Guilt – parents may also experience intense guilt, questioning whether they could have done something differently to prevent their child’s death. They may replay scenarios in their minds and blame themselves for the loss.
  • Depression – the profound sadness and emptiness of losing a child can lead to depression. Parents may struggle with feelings of hopelessness, despair, and a loss of interest in life.
  • Acceptance – over time, with support and healing, parents may gradually come to accept the reality of their child’s death. This doesn’t mean they ever stop grieving, but rather they learn to live with the pain and integrate the loss into their lives.
  • Finding meaning – some parents find comfort in finding meaning in their child’s life and death. They may want to honour their child’s memory through advocacy, raising awareness, creating memorials, or supporting causes that have a link to their child.
  • Seeking support – throughout the grieving process, it’s important for bereaved parents to seek support from friends, family, support groups, therapists or spiritual advisers. Connecting with others who have experienced similar losses can also provide comfort, validation and understanding.
  • Self-care – grieving parents need to prioritise self-care, even though it may feel challenging or even impossible at times. Engaging in activities that bring moments of relief or distraction can be beneficial.
  • Honouring the relationship – keeping memories of the child alive and finding ways to honour their relationship can be healing. This might involve creating rituals, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, or preserving memories or keepsakes.
  • Seeking professional help – in cases where grief becomes overwhelming or leads to significant mental health challenges such as prolonged depression or thoughts of self-harm, professional help from a therapist or grief counsellor may help.
Coping strategies

Coping Strategies for Parents

Every parent will find different ways to cope in the days, weeks, months and years after the loss of a child. It is important to understand that the pain will never completely go away, and you will never stop grieving; however, you can, in time, and with the right support, learn to live with the loss. Some coping strategies that may help parents navigate their new reality include:

  • Seek support – it is essential for parents to seek support from family, friends, support groups, counsellors or other professionals who can provide comfort and understanding. Sharing thoughts and feelings with others who have experienced similar losses can be particularly helpful.
  • Give yourself the opportunity to grieve – grieving is a natural and necessary process. Allow yourself to feel the full range of emotions that come with grief, whether it’s sadness, anger, guilt or despair. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, all of your feelings are valid and everyone’s journey through grief is unique. Being open about how you are feeling and the thoughts you are having is also helpful so that the people around you can offer support.
  • Take care of yourself – it is important for parents to take care of themselves physically, emotionally and mentally during this time. This may involve getting enough rest, eating healthily, exercising and engaging in activities that bring some comfort and relaxation.
  • Find meaning and purpose – many parents find comfort in finding meaning and purpose in their child’s life and legacy. This may involve creating a memorial, starting a charity or foundation in their child’s name, or participating in activities that honour their memory.
  • Create rituals – rituals can provide comfort during times of grief, such as lighting candles, or celebrating their child’s birthday or other significant dates.
  • Find healthy outlets to express your feelings – whether this is through journaling, writing, art, music or other creative activities. Expressing your emotions can be therapeutic and help you process your grief. It is also important to talk about how you are feeling with the people around you so that they know how you’re feeling at different stages and how they can support you through this.
  • Try to be a team with your partner if you have one – the death of a child can put a lot of strain on relationships. You might find you are grieving differently from one another, finding comfort in different things, or going through different feelings at different times. Try to be understanding of each other. Everyone grieves in their own way and some people will need more time to process this than others.
  • Practise self-compassion – be kind and gentle with yourself as you navigate through the grieving process. Understand that healing takes time and that it’s okay to have difficult emotions. Allow yourself to feel what you need to feel without judgement.
  • Seek professional help if needed – if you find that your grief is overwhelming and interfering with your ability to function or cope, it may be helpful to seek professional help from a therapist or counsellor who specialises in grief and loss.
  • Find hope – this may be very difficult to think about at first; however, if possible, try to find some moments of hope and comfort. This could be through connecting with loved ones, finding solace in nature, or finding meaning in spiritual or religious beliefs.

Supporting Siblings and Other Family Members

Children who have lost their sibling may find the loss very difficult to understand. This will also depend upon their age and understanding at the time of their sibling’s death. 

Children and adults often grieve differently due to various factors including cognitive development, emotional understanding and coping mechanisms. Young children might not grasp the permanence of death and may expect the deceased person to return. As they grow older, their understanding of death becomes more concrete. 

Children may express their grief differently from adults. They may not have the vocabulary to articulate their feelings and may express grief through behaviour. Children may move in and out of grief more quickly, returning to play or other activities sooner than adults. However, this doesn’t mean they have fully processed or resolved their grief, and it is likely to resurface later.

Losing a sibling can be an incredibly challenging and painful experience for a child. Here are some ways you can support a child after the loss of their sibling:

  • Encourage open communication – encourage the child to express their feelings openly and without judgement. Let them know that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, confused, or any other emotion they may be experiencing.
  • Listen actively – be present and attentive when the child wants to talk about their sibling or their feelings.
  • Validate their feelings – let the child know that their feelings are normal and natural reactions to loss. Avoid dismissing or minimising their emotions, even if you don’t fully understand them.
  • Provide reassurance – assure the child that they are loved and supported, and that it’s not their fault that their sibling passed away. Reassure them that they are not alone in their grief and that you are there for them.
  • Maintain routine – try to maintain a sense of normalcy and routine in the child’s life as much as possible. This can provide stability and a sense of security during a time of upheaval.
  • Offer opportunities for remembrance – encourage the child to share memories of their sibling and participate in activities that honour their memory, such as creating a scrapbook, planting a tree, or holding a memorial service.
  • Seek professional help if needed – if the child is struggling to cope with their grief or showing signs of depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, consider seeking the help of a therapist or counsellor who specialises in grief counselling for children.
  • Take care of yourself – supporting a grieving child can be very difficult, particularly if you are overwhelmed with grief yourself. You may need to ask other people to support your child as well.
  • Do not be afraid to show your own emotions – it is ok to show children your own emotions as it teaches them that all emotions are ok and they do not need to push these down or hide their own emotions.
  • Encourage peer support – if possible, encourage the child to connect with peers who have experienced similar losses. Support groups for children who have lost siblings can provide a sense of understanding and connection to other people.
  • Be patient – grieving is a process that takes time, and the child may experience ups and downs along the way. Be patient and understanding as they navigate their grief journey.

If wider family members are struggling with their feelings of grief, you can all lean on each other. Talk about the child, how you feel about them, and the memories you all have. You can look at keepsakes together and discuss the idea of doing something in memory of the child. Do not be afraid to mention the child’s name as this can often be more upsetting if people avoid talking about the child who has died for fear of upsetting someone. 

Often when a child dies, people can forget about the wider family members and how difficult it is for them, therefore it is important that anyone who is affected by the loss of a child discuss their feelings and access support.

Seeking Professional Help

Seeking Professional Help

Seeking professional support to help you navigate through your grief may be helpful for some people. Especially after the loss of a child, the grieving process can be so complex that the only way forward is through seeking professional support. You can speak to your GP and get a referral for bereavement counselling through them. 

There are several charities and organisations that can offer support to bereaved parents and family members. 

Child Bereavement UK supports children, young people, parents and families to rebuild their lives when a child grieves or when a child dies. 

Cruse Bereavement Support supports parents with peer support groups, local services and a helpline.

The Good Grief Trust provides support for parents whose child has died and provides details of support organisations near you on their UK map. 

The Lullaby Trust raises awareness of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and offers emotional support for parents. 

Tommy’s is dedicated to finding causes and treatments to save babies’ lives as well as providing trusted pregnancy and baby loss information and support. They have a dedicated helpline where specialist Tommy’s midwives support people who have had any type of pregnancy loss, including miscarriage, stillbirth, ectopic pregnancy, molar pregnancy or termination for medical reasons. You can call 0800 0147 800 or email 

Sands exists to reduce the number of babies dying and to support anyone affected by the death of a baby.

Honouring the Child’s Memory

Honouring a child’s memory after they have died is often very important for the child’s parents and wider family members. Keeping the memory of the child alive helps families maintain a connection with them. It allows them to feel as though the child is still present in some way, even if physically they are no longer there. This connection can provide solace and a sense of continued closeness. Honouring a child’s memory is a way of acknowledging their existence and validating the impact they had on their family’s lives. It affirms how much the child is loved and continues to be cherished. 

Families often find comfort in creating memorials or participating in activities that honour the child’s interests or values. This ensures that their memory lives on and continues to make a positive impact in the world. Many families find comfort in knowing that others remember and honour their child alongside them.

Doing something meaningful in memory of the child often gives families a sense of hope and may even bring some joy in difficult moments. It can promote healing and personal growth within the family. Some ideas of ways in which you can honour your child’s memory include:

  • Create a memorial – this could be in the form of a memorial garden, a bench in a park or your garden, or a plaque in a meaningful location.
  • Hold a memorial service – organise a memorial service or ceremony to celebrate your child’s life.
  • Create a memory box – this can include anything you have that has any form of link to your child. This can be a beautiful keepsake for you and your family to cherish.
  • Charity work – raising money or awareness for a cause which is linked to your child can bring some comfort and truly honours your child’s memory.
  • Celebrate special dates – you could mark your child’s birthday, the anniversary of their death or other significant dates with special rituals or traditions. This could involve releasing balloons or a lantern, lighting candles, or participating in activities that your child enjoyed.
  • Share their story – share your child’s story with others to keep their memory alive. This could be through writing, public speaking or participating in awareness campaigns related to the circumstances of their passing.
  • Plant a tree – planting a tree in your child’s honour can be a beautiful way to create a lasting tribute to their memory. You could choose a tree that holds significance for your family or select a location that was special to your child.

Every family will be different in how they choose to honour their child. If you are a family member or friend wishing to support grieving parents, you may wish to ask them if and how they would like to honour their child and support them with doing this.

Community and Peer Support

Community and Peer Support

Losing a child is unimaginable for anyone who has not experienced this and navigating such grief can be an incredibly isolating and overwhelming experience. In these times, community and peer support play a crucial role in helping parents to cope with their loss and begin the healing process. Connecting with people who have an understanding of your loss and can empathise is important in order to:

  • Help you to feel understood – other parents who have experienced a similar loss can offer a level of understanding and empathy that may be difficult to find elsewhere. They have first-hand knowledge of the pain and complexities involved in grieving for a child, which can be deeply comforting to those who are suffering. If you can find peer support groups specifically for the type of loss you have experienced, this is likely to be even more comforting.
  • Validate your feelings – grief can be a complex and unpredictable emotion, and people may experience a wide range of feelings, including sadness, anger, guilt and despair. Being part of a supportive community can help to validate these feelings, reassuring grieving parents that what they’re experiencing is normal and natural.
  • Share your experiences – connecting with others who have gone through similar experiences can provide a sense of solidarity and belonging. Sharing stories, memories and coping strategies can help grieving parents feel less alone in their grief journey.
  • Provide practical support – community and peer support can also offer practical assistance with tasks that may feel overwhelming to grieving parents, such as arranging funeral services, managing paperwork, or simply providing meals or childcare.
  • Create continued bonds – for many grieving parents, maintaining a connection with their child who has passed away is incredibly important. Sharing memories with others, talking about their child, creating rituals, and participating in support groups can help keep the memory of their child alive and honour their legacy.
  • Provide hope and healing – while grief will never fully go away, supportive communities can provide a safe space for parents to process their emotions and begin the journey towards healing. Through shared experiences and mutual support, grieving parents can find hope for the future and learn to integrate their loss into their lives in meaningful ways.
  • Offer professional referrals – peer support networks can offer valuable insights and recommendations for professional support services that may benefit grieving parents.
  • Provide long-term support – grief is not something that can be resolved in a short period of time, nor is it something to be completed; it is a lifelong journey. Community and peer support networks can provide ongoing assistance and companionship as parents navigate the ups and downs of this complex grief over time.

If you know someone who has lost their baby or child, please continue to support them in any way you can. Sometimes you may not know what to say and it is ok to say that you are finding it hard to know what to say, but that you want to be there for them in whatever way they need. You can simply offer a safe space for them to express their feelings, allowing the grieving person to share their emotions without judgement. During times of grief, everyday tasks can become overwhelming. Friends and family often step in to provide practical support, such as cooking meals, running errands, or helping with household chores, allowing the grieving person to focus on their emotional well-being. 

Our thoughts are with anyone who has been affected by the death of a child, and we hope that this article can provide some guidance on navigating this painful journey.

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About the author

Claire Vain

Claire Vain

Claire graduated with a degree in Social Work in 2010. She is currently enjoying her career moving in a different direction, working as a professional writer and editor. Outside of work Claire loves to travel, spend time with her family and two dogs and she practices yoga at every opportunity!

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