By Miranda Wichelns, licensed clinical social worker at the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC
If your child has died, your world may feel turned upside-down. Whether their death was anticipated or unexpected, this is out of the natural order and may feel incomprehensible. In addition to grief, you may also be experiencing trauma. Regardless of the label, this is pain unlike any you have faced before. My heart goes out to you, and I hope that this post may be helpful and comforting to you, as you find your footing — one day and one breath — at a time.
It’s important to understand the impact that grief and trauma have on us physically, emotionally, cognitively and socially. Bringing to focus how grief and trauma impact our overall well-being can eventually help decrease the intensity of the pain by understanding it better so that it lessens the sensation that it is controlling us; rather, we coexist with it.
Those of us in grief often feel that there is something wrong with us, and may shy away from openly discussing death and grief. Instead, it’s important to encourage traits like stoicism, positive thinking, self-reliance and strength. Below are some ways that grief and trauma can impact our functioning.
How grief and trauma may impact someone physically
- Hollowness or discomfort in the stomach.
- Poor appetite, weight loss.
- Over-eating for comfort, weight gain.
- Tightness in the chest, chest pain.
- Tightness in the throat.
- Increased sensitivity to noise.
- A sensation of depersonalization, like nothing seems real.
- Shortness of breath, difficulty catching your breath or feeling like you can take a deep breath and get enough air.
- Muscle weakness.
- Lack of energy.
- Dry mouth.
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
- Vague aches and pains.
How grief and trauma may impact someone’s emotional and mental health:
- Sadness. Feelings of sadness may show up in intense waves, particularly when alone or engaging in a mundane task, like taking a shower or driving.
- Anger. This tends to come from two places: First, from frustration that the parent could not prevent death. Second, the frustration may be related to feeling very anxious and helpless about the situation. Sometimes this anger may be targeted outwardly (family members, healthcare providers, God, etc.); sometimes it maybe targeted inwardly.
- Guilt. Guilt may be related to the feeling that we could have or should have known or done something differently to prevent death, to relieve the child’s suffering or to be a better parent.
- Anxiety. Someone might have a sense of insecurity and heightened awareness of death and their own mortality, fears and despair about the future, and worry about the health and safety of other loved ones.
- Loneliness. Someone grieving may feel deep emotional loneliness even when they are not physically alone.
- Fatigue. It may feel very difficult to be active or productive as you have little energy. Mental and emotional fatigue may also feel like not caring about anything.
- Helplessness. It may feel very difficult to navigate daily tasks when your child was your main priority.
- Shock. This is a very common reaction whether the death was sudden or unexpected, or whether it was anticipated. Even when our mind understands what happened, our emotions take time to catch up.
- Yearning. A parent may feel an overwhelming physical need for their child.
- Emancipation. There might be a sense of relief that the child is no longer suffering or that they no longer have to take care of overwhelming caregiving tasks.
- Numbness. This is a natural, protective response to overwhelming grief and trauma. A parent may feel empty, hollow or “blank.”
How grief and trauma may affect someone cognitively
- Disbelief. Someone who lost their child may feel things like: That didn’t happen, there must be some mistake, I can’t believe it, I’m dreaming.
- Confusion. It might be difficult to concentrate, think or communicate clearly, or someone may be forgetful or feel in a mental fog.
- Preoccupations. Someone may have ongoing, intrusive thoughts about their child. For example, they might think of their pain, the circumstances of their death, how they feel it could have been prevented, or how much emotional pain they are in.
- A sense of presence. Someone who lost their child may experience that they are still there, watching over them or with them in some way.
Read CHOC’s age-by-age guide to talking to children about death.
How grief and trauma may impact an individual’s behavior and social functioning
- Sleep disturbances.
- Appetite disturbances like undereating or overeating.
- Absent-minded behavior, forgetfulness or getting lost.
- Social withdrawal not only with people, but sometimes from the outside world. For example, someone may stop watching television or keep in touch with others and avoid social media, etc.
- Dreams or nightmares about their child.
- Avoiding “triggers” such as reminders of their child, or distressing places or things.
- Restlessness or hyperactivity.
- Visiting places or treasuring objects that belonged to their child.
Coping with grief and trauma
All these reactions are natural, expected, and believe it or not, ok. Usually, these reactions will dilute over time as we build the muscle to carry this pain and adapt to coexisting with it, hopefully with plenty of support. That said, what an exhausting list!
If your experience resonates with what I have described, I don’t want you to fear — on top of everything else — that there is something wrong with you or that you are not “dealing with this” correctly. Thus, it is important to not judge others for their reactions or lack thereof, just as it’s important to be compassionate and gentle with ourselves about how we cope with our grief.
Seeking help for grief and trauma
Please note that if you feel that your grief is worsening over time, you may want to consider reaching out for help. Examples of when you may want to seek support include if you can’t eat or sleep normally after several months, can’t take care of your basic needs and responsibilities (taking care of other kids or going to work), you are engaging in harmful behavior (like drinking too much) or you have repeated thoughts of suicide or harming yourself.
In the event you are having suicidal thoughts or a plan to hurt yourself or others, please call 911. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which can be reached by dialing 9-8-8, can also help when you have thoughts of suicide or self-harm. In addition, your primary care provider can refer you to mental health resources, such as a therapist or a support group.
If you identify with a particular faith, your church, congregation or religious community may be able to provide emotional and spiritual support. Home hospice agencies and local hospitals usually offer grief support groups too.
Here at CHOC, we have weekly and monthly grief support groups for parents and adult caregivers and a quarterly group for siblings. Please contact email@example.com for more information and to join a group.
Short-term and long-term coping strategies for grief and trauma
Although there is no timeframe for grief, and it is not a linear experience, it might be helpful to prioritize certain coping strategies in the short term and others in the long term to help alleviate how overwhelming this can be. There is no recipe or ideal approach to follow, but here are some ideas to help nurture yourself during this extraordinarily challenging time
Short-term coping strategies
- Eat regularly.
- Sleep enough, or try to rest frequently even if actual sleep is difficult or impossible; grief is exhausting on so many levels.
- Take a walk for a break, for fresh air, to move your body, and go as slowly/quickly or long/short as feels right.
- Don’t neglect your own health (take medications, keep medical appointments or schedule them if they’re due).
- Stick to a routine as much as possible. There can be comfort in the structure.
- Try to avoid big decisions or major life changes.
- Ask for help and allow others to help; consider delegating tasks.
- Allow emotions as they come AND allow a break from emotions.
- If spirituality or religious faith is an important part of your life, try to ground yourself with aspects of it that are comforting during this season.
- Try to relax and nurture/nourish yourself through breathing, exercise, nature, friends, comfort foods or activities/rituals that you find peaceful.
- Spend time with (comforting, safe, supportive) people; even if you’re not yourself, the gentle company right now is often a good thing.
Long-term coping strategies
- Continue to plan things (eventually) for personal growth and enjoyment, even small pleasures which are soothing, interesting or uplifting.
- Compassionately permit yourself to be imperfect or to feel like a different person than you felt before. You are not a failure; you are in the worst pain you’ve ever experienced and you are doing the very best you can.
- Allow yourself to say “No.” You only have so much energy and bandwidth, and your priorities may have shifted.
- Spend time in nature, with animals/pets or in a garden.
- Be creative or expressive, either actively or passively. Try writing, art, crafts, music, making a scrapbook/photo album by visit an art gallery, watch a favorite film or listen to music that you enjoy.
- Do something you’re good at to ground yourself in your skills and strengths during this time which can feel so upside-down and powerless.
- Use your sense of humor.
- Reflect on your own unique and wonderful qualities, your strength throughout this unimaginable situation, the people who have loved and supported you, the people you’ve helped and touched and the life experiences that you are proud of.
- Be as gentle and compassionate with yourself as possible, particularly in your inner self talk. If it helps, you can try to talk to yourself like a kind, supportive coach or like you would talk to someone you loved who was going through this.
- Try to openly and authentically express your feelings sometimes. Talking with trusted, caring loved ones, in a grief support group. Express your feelins through writing or crying and allow what comes out to simply flow without judgment
- Remember positive, loving memories of your child. Consider sharing these memories with others when you are thinking about them — this can be in whatever way feels right to you — in-the-moment conversation, texting, emailing, checking in with a close friend or family member or using social media.
- Sometimes doing favorite hobbies, interests or rituals of your child like going to their favorite places or eating their favorite foods can be a comforting connection; being with or speaking with “their people” is soothing since memories and grief can be shared with those remembering and grieving them too (even though everyone will grieve in their own way).
- It may help to think of ways you can honor your child, in large or small ways; you can think of their values, interests or how they positively impacted those around them in considering how you can contribute to their legacy or pay tribute to them.
- Consider reaching out to professionals or a group for support; sometimes people fear that “talking to someone” has a stigma that means something is wrong with them, but reframing it to (more accurately) mean that you are bolstering yourself with more support during an extraordinarily challenging time, giving yourself more tools in your healing and thinking about it as self-growth rather than “treatment” may help.
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