Should the worst-case scenario happen to you, how would you react? And what can you do?

Getting over the loss of a child


Everyone reacted with shock and horror on reading reports of 4-year-old “Little Light Bulb” Liu’s death in Taiwan, and felt saddened by the death of “Courageous Caitie” of a rare cancer at the National University Hospital. But do you know how to cope should the worst happen — to you?

Psychologist Daniel Koh, from Insights Mind Centre, says that as such a traumatic time, “Acknowledge your emotions and feelings because they are natural and normal responses. Give yourself permission to let go and feel. This helps you take the first step forward.

“Grieve your own way and at your own pace. It is for yourself and NOT how others want it or for others’ sake.”

The grieving process

Mourning the loss of a child very often feels much more intense than of an adult relative. However, the basic reactions are similar. These include:

  • Intense shock, confusion, disbelief, and denial Even if your child's death was at the end of a terminal illness and long anticipated. It is very rare that we don’t hold the faint hope that “maybe something would save my child”.
  • Overwhelming sadness and depression You may find that daily tasks or even getting out of bed can seem impossible, that you can “never” laugh or smile again. It is normal to feel this way. Koh says that it is important to focus on grieving at this time, so you may let the “normal” things go. “Decrease other stressors and take time off to have some personal time to grieve, revisit emotions and resolve your pain — this makes you stronger.”
  • Feelings of extreme guilt or failure for not “protecting” your child You may question yourself, your spouse/family and your doctors/nurses for not having done something, anything that could have kept your child alive.
  • Feelings of intense anger and bitterness Are often tied to the feelings of guilt and failure. You may also feel bitter at the unfairness that your child’s life is unfulfilled or you may rage that life dares to go on without your child. Again, this is normal, but if you have other children, do not let your anger/bitterness fall on them. Ditto your spouse.
  • Fear of being alone You will need your family and friends around you, but after a few months, start practising being alone, even if it’s just to see a movie or go out to shop. When you’ve been so badly hurt, it’s normal to cling for support, but other people do lead their own lives.
  • Dreaming about your child Or feeling your child's presence nearby is normal.
  • Overprotecting any surviving children Everyone feels that way.

Photo: iStock

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Click next to see our suggestions for coping with your grief — and for helping friends who are bereaved.

  • Feeling resentful You may feel this way towards parents with healthy children, or possibly towards your own surviving children. Again, acknowledge that you are mourning, but do not let your resentment grow and affect your relationships with other people. If you can, talk to them and explain why you may suddenly grow quiet when they are talking about their kids’ lives. Your friends will understand.
  • Feeling depression You may wish “release from the pain” or “to join your child”, or question your spiritual beliefs and feel alone because no one understands your pain. While no one has undergone what you have just experienced, this doesn’t mean someone will not understand. TALK to somebody: A religious counsellor, a therapist — you can talk to counselors at IMH or chat groups of fellow parents who have also suffered loss of a child. Please don’t try to do this alone.


Grief has no fixed timing, so although it may feel less and less intense eventually, you may suddenly feel blindsided by such emotions months or years after the fact. Koh advises that when you grieve, “Do not rush — give yourself time to heal. Memories can be painful but with time and remembering the person in your own way, the pain will decrease.”

Your behaviour may be different from your spouse’s. For starters, men are supposed to be less expressive, women are expected to reach out to family and friends and cry. But both of you are probably feeling the same things — be patient and kind and supportive to each other. If you are a working parent, you may become more involved in your job to escape the daily reminders of your child at home. A stay-at-home parent may feel a lack of purpose, especially if they have been caring for a child with a long-term illness.


Steps on coping with your bereavement

1. Talk to someone We say it a lot, but giving voice to your emotions really does help you to cope better with your loss. Talk to a friend, relative, counsellor, or a bereavement support group. It’s okay to talk to your dead child, too. Says psychologist Daniel Koh, “Engage with family members or close friends for support and comfort. You are not alone. Talk about the death can help you see that everyone is the same.”


2. Take action. Do something to help you heal, something to stop the same thing from happening to other children, anything. Madam Claire Wang, mother of the unfortunate 4-year-old girl attacked in Taiwan issued a call for calm, and has spoken to the press, all positive actions. In the US, bereaved women organised Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and a power against drunken and drugged driving.


3. Celebrate your child’s life. It doesn’t have to be a party — it could be a solemn memorial moment. It could be a video of highlights of your child’s birthday party. This is both a bonding opportunity and a chance for catharsis. On Facebook, some people keep up “conversations” on a dead child’s page. But it’s a chance for you and your loved ones to share what your child meant to you all.


4. Get back to normal life It will not feel normal yet, but start faking it, until it becomes normal again.

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Click next to learn how you can help a bereaved friend…

How to help a friend who has lost a child

1. Be there

Just be prepared to listen to her — if she needs to talk about herself, her child, her pain, listen to her. Don’t try to offer solutions (you cannot bring back the dead). Instead, provide support and have faith that they can come through it. And seriously, bring tissue paper — they will need to grieve, so let them cry, wail even.

2. Be there physically

When people are grieving, they may not take care of themselves properly. Look at their circumstances and if needed, buy food and leave it at the house (don’t hang about to be thanked). Do the laundry. Help shop. Pick up things from the floor. Again, be ready to listen. Be prepared to do this for several weeks (and perhaps organise a group of friends which will take turns to support them.

3. Never compare

It’s not helpful to say that “you know how they feel because dotdotdot”. What you may do is share how you dealt with your own loss (preferably of a human — comparing a beloved pet to a dead child does not go over well). But be ready to drop the topic if your friend is upset.

4. Let her talk about her child

If they feel up to it, encourage them to memorialise their child’s life, whether through a scrapbook, on Facebook, by setting up a support group for other sick children, organising charity fund drives…

5. Stick with them

Grief doesn’t follow a timetable. And even if you cannot give them constant support, schedule a time every couple of days to WhatsApp or call her or him to check how things are going for her/him.

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