Parenting After the Death of a Child

The death of a child is complicated to navigate for the whole family

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Each year about 42,000 infants and children die in the U.S, a staggering and upsetting fact.

A child’s death can have a profound effect on surviving parents and siblings, and it can be nearly impossible to know just how to handle the grief.

Many studies show that the death of a child causes more complex grief than any other kind of death.

"Seek counseling to cope with grief."

Lynne Webb, PhD, professor of communications with the University of Arkansas conducted research based on a series of interviews of mothers who had lost a child. Her goal was to understand how the mothers interacted with their surviving children and what kinds of communication were the most helpful for the family.

Previous studies have shown that children respond to grief differently from adults, often their behavior is unpredictable. At times, a child will seem happy, and then suddenly regress into anger or sadness. It is common for children to go through phases of grieving, moving back and forth between grief and being ok.

The mothers noticed that surviving children responded not only to the loss of their sibling, but also to the grief they witnessed in their parents.

Dr. Webb recruited 20 mothers for interviewing, a relatively small group for research. The mothers’ experienced the death of one child due to various birth or health reasons, but also had at least one surviving child.

In the interviews, the mothers were asked about their communication patterns with their surviving children. They were asked whether they changed the way they spoke with and behaved around their children or if they attempted to return to normal.

The researchers compared the interviews that were conducted, searching for themes in the mothers’ responses. This method of research is different from statistical testing, but it is often used for gathering information. The researchers argue that this method gives them an inside perspective of the grief process within the family, as perceived by the mothers.

From the interviews, the researchers found that after the death of a child most mothers’ changed the way they spoke and interacted with their surviving children– some changed in a positive way and some in a negative way.

Almost all mothers wanted things to “feel normal” for their surviving children and so they worked to make life feel as though things had not been changed by the death of the child.

However, virtually all the mothers admitted that at some point open communication about what had happened and the grief everyone was experiencing was necessary to comfort their surviving children.

The study concluded that surviving children are most comforted by open communication about the lost sibling as well as non-verbal comforting from their mothers like holding and physical closeness.

With the loss of a child, the family unit as a whole has changed, the process to adapt can be a long one, but parents play a vital role in helping everyone cope. By attempting to maintain a balance between open grief and normalcy, parents can make the transition easier.

This study was published in May as a chapter titled, “Death of a Child: Mothers’ Accounts of Interactions with Surviving Children” in the book, Communication for Families in Crisis: theories, research, strategies. No reports of funding or conflicts of interest were made.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 3, 2012
Last Updated:
October 3, 2012