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January 15, 2014
by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

How Parental Grief Affects Surviving Children

January 15, 2014 02:55 by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

Few things in life are more difficult than losing a child. At a time when you are likely most devastated by your own grief, surviving siblings are also learning to cope with a significant loss. It is important to understand how the grief of a parent affects surviving children, and ways to ensure that your child’s need are met while you are processing your own grief.

It is possible that you will be easily triggered during the first year after the loss of a child – and possibly longer. Any reminders of the loss may elicit an emotional reaction that seems uncontrollable. The best way to manage this is by being proactive. Get involved in a support group or talk to a grief counselor – don’t wait to see if it you need it – you will heal sooner and be more functional if you are proactive in addressing your feelings. The best way to help your child(ren) is to help yourself.  

Asking for and Accepting Help

Perhaps the first thing you need to know is that you don’t have to help your child get through this his/her grief by yourself. It is a time to ask for and receive help openly. If you are a single parent with limited family and friends nearby, you might need to reach out to people and organizations in your church, school or community.

While it may be hard to do this, particularly for those who are unaccustomed to asking for or accepting help from ‘strangers’, it may be the best way to ensure you and your child(ren) get what you need. If you are struggling with this, you might need to speak with someone you trust about why this is difficult. Many times, we have beliefs learned in childhood that get in our way years later. These beliefs may need to be challenged with the help of a professional – especially if they are preventing you from getting your (or your child’s) needs met.

An example of this that I often hear is people who don’t believe in therapy, or think that people ‘should’ be able to solve their own problems. Often we learn from our grandparents/parents to keep our private business private – don’t let other people know what is wrong.

This is a belief that will limit your ability to get the help you need after the loss of a child. It may have served a purpose many years ago. But, in today’s society where families are more isolated we depend on neighbors, church or synagogue members, professional helpers and others to make transitions and crisis situations easier.  

Self Care

Get plenty of rest, eat good food regularly, get at least 20 minutes of sunshine and some movement each day – these basic self care practices will help you manage your grief. By doing these things, you are meeting your own needs and modeling good coping skills for your child(ren). Getting your physical care needs goes a long way toward healing your psychological needs.

Physical Safety Needs

Your child(ren) obviously still rely on you to meet his/her physical safety needs. If you include your kids in your own self care routine, they will benefit from the care, time with you and structure. Others physical safety needs include stable housing or shelter, clothes that are adequate for the weather, structure and consistent rules that keep children safe.

The most important thing you can do to ensure their physical safety is to recognize your own limits. If you know that you are not able to provide basic care, ie. bathing, meal preparation, etc., ask for help in this area. Neighbors, friends, family members, churches/synagogues are really good at helping with these basic care needs.

If you need to find someone to drive you child home from school, ask around at the school. If you don’t have the energy to do the research, contact your medical provider or church/synagogue for help. People love to help, but often don’t know what to say or do – let them know your needs. If your community has a local United Way agency, call their resource line at 211 for assistance, or contact local social services agencies. Ironically, crisis situations bring out the best in most people.

Emotional Safety Needs

Meeting the emotional needs of your child(ren) may be quite difficult as you cope with your own grief. Kids need emotional safety – meaning they need to know that it is safe for them to openly express their thoughts and feelings without fear of rejection or judgment. In this case, they may also need to know that their thoughts and feelings do not make you sad – and that your emotional reactions are not too overwhelming for the child to manage.

You will not be able to hide your grief and emotional reactions from your child(ren). It is best to talk to them about your own grief and help them understand that you are sad, too, but you will always make sure that they are cared for and safe. Let them know what you are doing to take care of yourself, and that your tears are an expression of your love for the lost child.

Grieving parents who are struggling with complicated grief may need more help providing emotional security for their child(ren). Recruit grandparents, aunts, uncles, longtime family friends and trusted neighbors to help you. Explain what you need from them, or enlist a doctor or therapist to help you articulate your needs. Someone who is not so overwhelmed by the loss of the child may be more emotionally available to listen, talk or just sit with your child(ren). Professional counselors can also help you with this.

If you are enlisting the help of others to provide emotional security for your child(ren), give him/her permission to talk to others about these feelings. If this is not the kind of conversation you generally have with your kid(s), ask your medical provider or counselor to help you with these discussions.

By proactively seeking help to address your emotional needs, you are more likely to be emotionally available for your child(ren). There are also grief groups for children, and lots of books to help them make sense of the loss. Ask your medical provider for suggestions.

Healthy Boundaries

Sometimes adults try to get their emotional needs met through their child(ren). This is unhealthy and usually creates long-term problems for the child. After the loss of a child, it is understandable to want to cling to your other child(ren), but it is not healthy. The best way to guard against inadvertently creating problems for your child later in life is to find appropriate ways to get your needs met, as discussed earlier.

Children may feel very insecure and anxious after the loss of a sibling. What they need from their parents and trusted adults is reassurance that they will be safe and their needs will be met. By providing the things listed above, most of those needs will be met.


"The Death Of A Child - The Grief Of The Parents: A Lifetime Journey." The Death Of A Child - The Grief Of The Parents: A Lifetime Journey., n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2013.

Child Grief., n.d. Web. 8 Sept. 2013 

About the Author

LuAnn Pierce, LCSW LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

I offer solution-focused counseling to people in Colorado and Wyoming from the comfort of your own home via teleconference or telephone.

LuAnn Pierce, LCSW can be found at
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