Finding solace after the death of a child


For the Gazette
Published: 5/2/2016 3:27:32 PM

The death of a child is among the most devastating things that can happen within a family.

It brings with it pain, shock, disbelief, guilt, anger, depression, despair, loneliness, regret and many more emotions.

Families deal with the death of a child in different ways. Some seek solace in their church, through their extended family, or in therapy. Others look to those who have had similar experiences and find help in peer support groups such as those offered through The Garden in Northampton.

In the 14 years I have been running groups like these, women are the primary participants and almost always the ones who make the initial contact. I believe the value of these programs is to provide a safe place for moms (and dads and siblings) to listen, learn, and share their experience and their grief.

The first and possibly the primary benefit of peer support groups is that participants quickly learn that they are not alone. The emotions we feel upon the death of a child are universal. Sharing grief with others who have or are experiencing these same emotions can bring great comfort. For one thing, in a peer group setting no one has to explain why they are crying or sad (or why they are not crying or are happy). While each person’s grief is individual, the group offers a sympathetic sounding board for the safe display of emotions.

In addition, attending group sessions with those who have walked in your shoes breaks the isolation that some moms and dads feel after a child has died.

The group setting and support from those with similar experiences also helps grieving parents with other issues.

One is dealing with the loss of hopes and dreams. There is the vision of the years and years to come when moms and dads won’t be celebrating the many milestones in a child’s life, from birthdays to proms to sports to graduations to grandchildren: “I’ll never be able to go wedding-gown shopping with my daughter.” “I’ll never be able to play the Tooth Fairy.”

The loss is not simply that of a child, but the loss of the adult he or she will never become. There is even some loss of identity — “I used to be a mom; now I am not.”

While the death of a child at any age is heartbreaking, a stillbirth or the death of a newborn is often life-shattering. Some say the death of an older child at least leaves parents with memories of the time they had together. But when a mother has conceived a child, carried the child, then loses the child at or shortly after birth, coping with the loss may seem insurmountable.

Life was centered for many months around that pregnancy and that baby — and then there is only a void. Many mothers who have miscarried have said they felt the fetus was just as much a part of the family as another child in the home would be.

Many women who lose an infant at birth are overwhelmed with guilt, believing the death was related to something she did or didn’t do during the pregnancy. Guilt morphs into blame when the spouse and remaining children have similar thoughts.

Everyone wants answers and reasons for how the unthinkable actually happened. Families can be further stressed if some members are able eventually to “move on” while others hang on to their grief, guilt, blame, and other negative emotions.

Commemorating the child who has died — from formal recognitions such as graveside services to informal family get-togethers centered on favorite foods — is an extremely important part of the grieving and healing process. These moments and activities bring people together, encourage them to share stories about the child and send the clear message that “this child was a big part of our lives.”

Some families, seeking meaning behind the death of their children, become activists – working toward a cure for childhood cancers, for example.

Others who are financially able set up charitable foundations in honor of their child.

Grief is a physiological and psychological response to loss and it is a normal part of living. It is a journey with ups and downs, ebbs and flows, but it will be a part of affected families’ lives forever.

This doesn’t mean that grieving parents can never be happy again — allowing oneself to find joy in life following the death of a child is just another part of the grieving process.

Shelly Bathe Lenn is the coordinator of The Garden: A Center for Grieving Children and Teens Cooley Dickinson VNA & Hospice.

Women’s Health is written by health care professionals affiliated with Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. It appears here monthly.

Free workshop
for grieving parents

The Garden: A Center for Grieving Children and Teens, will offer a free workshop for parents/caregivers who have experienced the death of a child May 14, from 12:30 to 4 p.m. at Cooley Dickinson VNA & Hospice, 168 Industrial Drive, Northampton.

Although the event is free, registration is required. Contact Shelly Bathe Lenn at 582 5312 or email her at

The session includes a screening of the video “Helping Parents Grieve: Finding New Life after the Death of a Child.” A preview of the video is available at

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