Losing a Child Changes You Forever. There's Proof. (2023)

The loss of a child may be the worst trauma a human being can experience. Though it’s not a terribly common experience in the United States — about 10,000 children between the ages of 1 and 14 died in 2018 — the horrific potential for losing a child looms large. And although reassuring, the numbers also make plain why the death of a child brings so much grief, and why it’s so feared, so painful, and so stigmatized.

“The death of a child is considered the single worst stressor a person can go through,” says Deborah Carr, Ph.D., chair of the sociology department at Boston University. “Parents, and fathers specifically, feel responsible for the child’s well-being. So when they lose a child, they’re not just losing a person they loved. They’re also losing the years of promise they had looked forward to.”

Although parents mourning the loss of a child are, in many ways, experiencing classic grief responses — the usual battery of psychological, biological, and social repercussions — there are many unique challenges. The trauma is often more intense, the memories and hopes harder to let go of. As such, the mourning process is longer, and the potential for recurring or near-constant trauma is far greater.

“The death of a child brings with it a range of different and ongoing challenges for the individual and the family. Everyday questions such as ‘How many kids do you have?’ can trigger intense distress,” says Fiona MacCullum, Ph.D., a clinical psychology professor at the University of Queensland in Australia. “Some people do find ways of living with the loss. Others struggle to find meaning in life.”

Biological Impacts: How the Death of a Child Changes a Parent’s Body

In 2018, Frank Infurna, Ph.D. and colleagues examined the general health and physical functioning of 461 parents who had lost children over the course of 13 years. “We did see some decline, followed by a general bounce-back, or recovery, over time,” says Infurna, who studies resilience to major stressors at Arizona State University. Physical functioning was focused on one’s ability to complete various everyday tasks, and “we didn’t see much change in this,” Infurna says. But when he reviewed bereaved parents’ self-reports — whether they felt they got sick often, or whether they expected their health to improve or decline — he found poorer perceptions of health.

(Video) YoungBoy Never Broke Again - I Need To Know [Official Music Video]

As with all major grief responses, the trauma of losing a child can kick off physical symptoms, including stomach pains, muscle cramps, headaches, and even irritable bowel syndrome. A handful of studies have found more tenuous links between unresolved grief and immune disorders, cancer, and long-term genetic changes at the cellular level.

One surprising impact, often seen among parents mourning the loss of a child, is known as the broken-heart syndrome — a condition that presents oddly like a textbook heart attack. Symptoms include “crushing chest, pain, ST-segment elevation on electrocardiography, and elevated cardiac enzyme markers on lab results,” Fuller says, citing her previously written work on the subject. “As a reaction to emotional or physical stress, the body’s natural response is to release catecholamines, also known as stress hormones, that temporarily stun the heart muscle.”

Chronic stress can even impact how the brain functions, as long-term exposure to the stress hormone cortisol has been linked to the death of brain cells. And in a cruel twist of neurobiology, the regions of the brain responsible for grief processing, such as the posterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, and cerebellum, are also involved in regulating appetite and sleep. This may explain why grieving parents develop eating and sleeping disorders in the aftermath of the loss.

“There are many, many studies that have looked at the ongoing health effects of high levels of chronic stress,” says Gail Saltz, M.D., a psychiatrist at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. “And when you look at lists of stressful life events, this is at the top.”

Psychological Impacts: How the Trauma of Losing a Child Harms the Psyche

The impacts of this tragedy are not solely biological. Interestingly, however, very few studies have delved into the nightmare of the death of a child. Most of the research on the psychological response to death focuses on the loss of a spouse or a parent. Presumably, this is in part because of the difficulty of finding subjects for study and also in the potential difficulty of recruiting participants in anything longitudinal.

“While there have been significant advances in our scientific understanding of grief, we have a long way to go,” MacCullum says.

(Video) Juice WRLD & Cordae - Doomsday (Directed by Cole Bennett)

That’s not to say we are without literature. One 2015 study of 2,512 bereaved adults (many of whom were mourning the loss of a child) found little or no evidence of depression in 68% of those surveyed shortly after the tragedy. About 11% initially suffered from depression but improved; roughly 7% had symptoms of depression before the loss, which continued unabated. For 13% of the bereaved, chronic grief and clinical depression kicked in only after their lives were turned upside-down. (If those numbers seem low, it’s worth remembering that it is entirely possible to be deeply sad without being depressed.)

Unfortunately, the research suggests that psychological damage was done by a child’s death often does not heal over time. A 2008 study found that even 18 years after losing a child, bereaved parents reported “more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, and more health problems and were more likely to have experienced a depressive episode and marital disruption.” While some parents did improve, “recovery from grief…was unrelated to the amount of time since the death.”

“The first year after losing a younger child, a parent is at an increased risk for suicide and everything from major depression to complicated grief,” Saltz says. Complicated grief differs from expected, normal grief, in that “there are more intense symptoms, alternating with seemingly no symptoms — a numbness — which potentially impairs their ability to function.”

“A parent who grieves without any type of serious complications, such as suicidal thoughts or self-harm behaviors, would be the best-case scenario,” says Kirsten Fuller, M.D., a physician and clinical writer for the Center of Discovery treatment centers. “Worst-case scenarios would be experiencing suicidal tendencies, psychosis, or developing a mental health disorder or an eating disorder.”

Predictors: How Age of the Child and Other Factors Impact Grieving Parents

A handful of studies have tried to pinpoint key factors that influence how well parents adjust in the aftermath of losing a child. One 2005 study found that the child’s age, the cause of death, and the number of remaining children were strongly linked to the levels of grief displayed by parents, while depression was linked to gender, religious affiliation, and whether the bereaved sought professional help. Subsequent studies have uncovered other predictors of lower grief responses: a strong sense of purpose in life and having had the opportunity to say goodbye.

“It depends on the psychological makeup of the parent, whether they have a history of mental illness, what coping skills, and what social supports they have,” Saltz says. Outside factors can play a role, too. Suicide is often more difficult, but a terminal disease can present recurring traumas over a long period of time.

(Video) These parents once consumed by drugs are using radical honesty as a starting point for change

Saltz also suspects that gender may be part of the puzzle. “This will undoubtedly shift, but historically mothers have been the primary caretakers and more likely to have their identities wrapped up in being mothers,” he explains, adding that this may result in stronger responses among women who lose their children.

One of the most salient predictors of trauma is the age of the child. Miscarriages and stillbirths are devastating and made worse by the fact that the loss is often diminished by the public perception that a fetus is not a fully-formed child. But “is it as devastating as the death of a child who has been alive for many years? Not to diminish this experience, but I think not,” Carr says.

Once a child is born, however, the script flips. Older adults who outlive their children generally have an easier time coping than parents who lose very young children. “The age of the child is really important because it speaks to promise,” Carr says. When a young child dies, that promise dies with them: “the graduation, the grandbabies, the marriages — that’s lost, too.”

Nonetheless, even older adults may suffer intensely after the death of an adult child. “You can meet someone who is 75 who loses a 50-year-old child, and it’s still devastating,” Carr says. “There’s this belief in the natural order. A parent should die first. So even though age matters, older parents still are quite bereft. They’re just losing less of that long-term promise.”

Social Impacts: How the Loss of a Child Strengthens (Or Ruins) Families

Major life stressors naturally take a toll on marriages. But divorce in the aftermath of a child’s death is not inevitable. “It’s really important to underscore that the death of a child is not going to ruin a marriage,” Carr says. “It generally makes a troubled marriage worse, and a strong marriage better.” When dealing with illness or addiction, spouses who disagreed over the best course of treatment are at particularly high risk. “If one spouse blames the other, or feels the other did something to hasten the death, that’s almost something that cannot be recovered from.”

There are also factors, beyond the couple’s control, which may sour or save the marriage. “Grief, trauma, and depression impact one’s ability to participate in all meaningful relationships,” Saltz says. “But I have seen couples where the opposite is the case. They become closer, they support each other. This is the only person who can really understand how you feel.”

(Video) Among Us Moments that prove Nogla's always sus

Mothers and fathers who lose a child often must also contend with surviving siblings. Figuring out how to parent after losing a child is a unique challenge. Here, too, experts agree that the outcomes for both the surviving children and parents largely depend on the state of the relationship before the trauma. Death can bring a family together or tear it apart.

When dealing with terminally ill children, one particular risk is that other siblings may feel neglected, or find too many responsibilities foisted upon them while the parents shift their focus solely to the suffering child. A sick kid “is going to consistently get more attention, because they have to,” Carr says. “Sometimes the other children’s needs aren’t met, or they are treated like little adults, given more chores to do, or expected to provide emotional support to the parents.”

“That can be really troubling for them. Or it can be empowering, but difficult.”

Coping: How to Seek Comfort After the Death of a Child

After a child dies, those who are left behind may experience depression, biological and neurological changes, and a destabilization of the family and marriage. “If you’re in this situation, and it is impairing your ability to function, you need to seek treatment,” Saltz says. “Parents who fall into major depression will be unable to parent other children or be in a marriage. Psychotherapy can be helpful and medication can too, at least in the short run.”

The best thing that friends and loved ones of bereaved parents can do is be present, available, and supportive. If the bereaved speak of suicide, take them to an emergency room; if the situation is less dire, but the grief does not seem to abate over time, help them make an appointment to speak with a professional or attend a self-help group with other bereaved parents. Because even the most sensitive souls are seldom equipped to help parents cope with a loss of this magnitude — and no matter how hard you try, you’re unlikely to really understand.

That’s where a self-help group’s value really shines through. “The one thing that people who have lost a child hate hearing from others is ‘I know what you’re going through,’” Carr says. “They cannot possibly know.”

(Video) The Dark Truth Behind Balenciaga

This article was originally published on


Does losing a child change you? ›

You should expect that you will never really “get over” the death of your child. But you will learn to live with the loss, making it a part of who you are. Your child's death may make you rethink your priorities and the meaning of life. It may seem impossible, but you can find happiness and purpose in life again.

Does losing a parent change you forever? ›

Losing a parent can lead to increased risks for long-term emotional and mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Losing a parent in childhood only increases these odds, and about one in 20 children aged 15 and younger have suffered the loss of one or both parents.

What losing a child does to you? ›

Parents of children and adolescents who die are found to suffer a broad range of difficult mental and physical symptoms. As with many losses, depressed feelings are accompanied by intense feelings of sadness, despair, helplessness, loneliness, abandonment, and a wish to die [28].

What is a parent who loses a child called? ›

Origin of the term “Vilomah.”

The term “Vilomah” describes a parent who has lost their child. Life has its natural order, and in that order, children are supposed to outlive their parents.

What do you call a person who lost a child? ›

bereaved Add to list Share.

How do you honor a child who has died? ›

Create and plant a memorial flower garden; add solar lights. Plant a small tree in your own yard, on school grounds or through the public parks program; add a plaque. Adopt a highway segment (a sign with loved one's name or pick up litter). Establish a charity foundation or fundraiser in memory of your child.

Why are death anniversaries so hard? ›

It's a natural part of the healing process. No matter how many years have passed since the person you're grieving has died, a grief anniversary can evoke powerful memories and trigger trauma or an anniversary reaction. Every experience of grief is unique and shows up in different ways.

How do you help a grieving parent who lost a child? ›

Other ways to help a parent who lost a child
  1. Call them.
  2. Send a sympathy card. ...
  3. Hug them. ...
  4. Call the child by name (even if was a baby that they named after the death).
  5. Encourage the parents to share their feelings, as well as stories and memories.
  6. Share your own memories of the child and/or pregnancy.

When you lose a child you lose the future? ›

It has been said that parents who lose a child also lose the hopes, dreams, and expectations they had for that child. They lose a part of themselves. They lose their future because their child represents their sense of ongoing life.

Can grief change your personality? ›

Grief can change your personality on a temporary or more permanent basis based on various factors including how profound the loss was, your internal coping skills, your support system, your general temperament, your general stress tolerance, and your outlook on life.

What's worse losing a child or parent? ›

People who lost parents experienced more moderate increases in distress than those who lost children or those who lost parents. Researchers also studied the impact of the death of a partner or a child using an extended time frame.

What does losing a child do to your brain? ›

Grief and loss affect the brain and body in many different ways. They can cause changes in memory, behavior, sleep, and body function, affecting the immune system as well as the heart. It can also lead to cognitive effects, such as brain fog.

How do parents heal from losing a child? ›

Coping strategies include finding support, expressing your feelings verbally or through creative outlets, and seeking professional help from a therapist. Healing from a loss can take many years. You don't have to deal with grief on your own.

How do you live after losing a child? ›

How to Deal with Grieving the Loss of a Child
  1. Possible Reactions to the Loss of a Child. ...
  2. Don't Dismiss Your Own Personal Grief. ...
  3. Understand Loss Can Be Experienced Differently for Each Partner. ...
  4. Seek Grief Counseling to Work Through the Pain. ...
  5. Learn to Accept Happiness After the Loss of a Child.
Feb 21, 2023

Can you get PTSD from losing a child? ›

Can losing a child cause PTSD? The psychological effects of losing a child can lead to a wide range of psychological and physiological problems, including PTSD and associated mental health disorders. PTSD after the death of a child causes weeks, months, and sometimes years of pain.

What percent of parents lose a child? ›

Bereaved Parents

By age 60, nine percent of Americans have experienced the death of a child. By 70, 15 percent of American parents have lost a child. By age 80, 18 percent of American parents have experienced the death of a child.

What is it called when a mother leaves her child? ›

Abandonment typically refers to a parent's choice to willfully withhold physical, emotional, and financial support from a minor child. In other words, abandonment occurs when the parent fails to fulfill his or her parental responsibilities and chooses not to have contact with his or her child.

When a person loses a child? ›

The death of a child is devastating and often referred to as the worst experience a parent can endure. A child's death causes a profound family crisis. It shatters core beliefs and assumptions about the world and the expectations about how life should unfold.

When someone lost a child? ›

If your friend or family member recently lost a child: Offer genuine support: "I love you and am here for you." Acknowledge when you don't know what to say: "I don't have words to fully express just how sorry I am to hear about your loss." Be there for them: "I'm here for you if you ever want to talk."

What does it mean to be a lost child? ›

The “lost child” is the family member who retreats from family dysfunction due to feeling overwhelmed. They can spend a lot of time alone, pursue singular interests, and/or struggle to establish or maintain relationships with others.

What is the prayer when a child dies? ›

Lord of all, we thank you for your work in creation, for nourishing life in the womb, for your love even in death. Thank you for the life of this child [NAME], whom you gave to us and have taken to yourself. Thank you for the arms of your love, embracing both us and [NAME] in your family.

Who comes down from heaven whenever a good child dies? ›

Every time a good child dies, an angel of God comes down to earth. He takes the child in his arms, spreads out his great white wings, and flies with it all over the places the child loved on earth.

What is called 1 year after death? ›

The first death anniversary is called a barsy, from the word baras, meaning year in Hindi. Shraadh means to give with devotion or to offer one's respect.

Does your body remember grief? ›

As with many psychological phenomena the anniversary effect happens for a reason. Research shows that our brains store painful, sad or traumatic memories in an easily accessible way so that we can be reminded of, and warned off, the dangers to protect us from something similar happening again.

What is the birthday after death? ›

On the birthday of a deceased loved one, you can reach out to their close friends and family to let them know you are thinking of the deceased individual, as well as of them on this day. You can consider saying: "I know today is (insert deceased individual's name) 's birthday.

What is a grieving mother? ›

A grieving mother is a bereaved parent who may have experienced some kind of loss. There is no strict definition of what constitutes this loss. For example, a mother may have gone through any of the following: Miscarriage. Stillbirth.

What is the divorce rate after death of a child? ›

Newer data shows that only about 16% of marriages end in divorce after the death of the child, and only 4% of those say it was due to the death. If 50% of all marriages end in divorce, the low rate of 16% for bereaved parents is quite remarkable. Highly stressful life events can be polarizing for a couple.

At what age is death no longer a tragedy? ›

It depends on how much the person was suffering in their later years, or, conversely, how vital they were. If they were in a coma for ten years at age 80, it's seen as less tragic than if they were still vital at age 90. But, all things being equal, probably 80.

Is it normal to lose it with your child? ›

Even the calmest and most patient parent is going to lose their cool with their toddler or child from time to time. While more patience is always the goal, it's a small fact of life that you're going to slip up. You're going to make mistakes as a parent, and at times, you're going to lose your temper with your child.

Can grief permanently change your brain? ›

Grief can reinforce brain wiring that effectively locks the brain in a permanent stress response, Shulman said. To promote healthy rewiring, people need to strengthen the parts of the brain that can regulate that response.

How does grief change your face? ›

Grief or bereavement releases the hormone cortisol in reaction to stress that breaks down tissue and, in excess, can lead to collagen breakdown and accelerated aging. High cortisol levels prompt the skin's sebaceous glands to release more sebum. This in turn results in clogged pores, inflammation, and an increase in p.

How deep grief changes you? ›

HOW GRIEF CHANGES US FOR NOW: Changes in sleep, eating, and overall energy. Personality changes like being more irritable, less patient, or no longer having the tolerance for other people's “small” problems. Forgetfulness, trouble concentrating and focusing.

What does the Bible say about the loss of a child? ›

Bible Verses About Grieving The Loss Of A Child

'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare.

What year of grief is the hardest? ›

Often the second year is the hardest as that's when the real grief work might begin. This is the time when you may be ready to face your grief head on and deal with any issues that are holding you back. If you're not ready yet though, don't feel guilty. There is no deadline and everyone grieves in their own time.

What is the hardest death to grieve? ›

The death of a husband or wife is well recognized as an emotionally devastating event, being ranked on life event scales as the most stressful of all possible losses.

What grief does to your body? ›

Grief has both significant and quantifiable mental and physical effects on the body. In addition to psychological symptoms of depression and anxiety, grief can cause sleep problems, chest pain, and gastrointestinal issues. In some cases, grief can increase the risk of heart attack and suicide.

Does losing child increase risk of mental illness? ›

The results showed a link between any type of parental loss in childhood and an increased risk of depression in adulthood – by 2.16 times. Analysis of the four studies focused on parental death in childhood also showed an increased risk in adulthood.

How powerful is grief? ›

Grief is overwhelming. It is painful beyond measure. Grief is the realization that you will never, ever, see, hear, touch, or smell a loved one again. It is the most painful emotion that any human can ever experience.

Can you ever be happy after losing a child? ›

You should expect that you will never really “get over” the death of your child. But you will learn to live with the loss, making it a part of who you are. Your child's death may make you rethink your priorities and the meaning of life. It may seem impossible, but you can find happiness and purpose in life again.

How traumatic is losing a child? ›

Parents of children and adolescents who die are found to suffer a broad range of difficult mental and physical symptoms. As with many losses, depressed feelings are accompanied by intense feelings of sadness, despair, helplessness, loneliness, abandonment, and a wish to die [28].

What is complicated grief? ›

Complicated grief is like being in an ongoing, heightened state of mourning that keeps you from healing. Signs and symptoms of complicated grief may include: Intense sorrow, pain and rumination over the loss of your loved one. Focus on little else but your loved one's death.

Does having a child really change your life? ›

Children change our lives. They make them a little more hectic and busy and complicated. But more importantly, they make our lives better in more ways than you can count. So yes, your life is going to change, but it's going to change in the best way possible.

How common is it for a parent to lose a child? ›

Bereaved Parents

By age 60, nine percent of Americans have experienced the death of a child. By 70, 15 percent of American parents have lost a child. By age 80, 18 percent of American parents have experienced the death of a child.

What are the mental disorders after losing a child? ›

The loss of a child is not something that seems possible, and it is no surprise a child's death triggers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

What is the psychology of lost child? ›

A lost child might appear as if they do not care about their family, but they do. They simply cannot tolerate the emotional turmoil that comes with interacting with their family. They avoid conflict at all costs, as they tend to shut down or check out when things feel difficult.

Can I be happy without a child? ›

Being childless can be a personal choice or the fate of infertility. While it does not mean you dislike children, it does allow for more time to invest in other things. Regardless of the reason you do not have children, you can be happy, as life without children can be very rewarding and fulfilling.

Are parents with one child happier? ›

Research has showed that, while having one child is associated with a gain in happiness, having a second is associated with a drop in happiness for mothers.

What is the happiest family size? ›

Want to be a happier parent? Grow your family to at least four children! According to a study out of Australia's Edith Cowan University, parents with the most life satisfaction (which means those who are the happiest) are those that have four or more children. Dr.

Why do most couples divorce after losing a child? ›

Research on bereaved parents found that they experienced more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, and other health problems which could lead to marital separation (Rogers, Floyd, Mailick, Greenberg, & Hong, 2008).

Do most people divorce after kids? ›

The divorce rate for couples with children is as much as 40 percent lower than for those without children. 76. Half of all children in the United States will witness the ending of a parent's marriage.

What is harder death or divorce? ›

Without a doubt, divorce is one of the hardest things most people will ever deal with. In most cases, psychologists say that divorce can't be compared to the death of a spouse because the dynamics are vastly different.

What is the most traumatic age to lose a parent? ›

The scariest time, for those dreading the loss of a parent, starts in the mid-forties. Among people between the ages of 35 and 44, only one-third of them (34%) have experienced the death of one or both parents. For people between 45 and 54, though, closer to two-thirds have (63%).


1. Details on dropped charges against mom, teen son in Chicago restaurant shooting
(NBC Chicago)
2. Climate Has Always Changed: C02 & Evidence of Humans Involvement | Richard Alley | Nobel Conference
(Gustavus Adolphus College)
3. Discovering Exoplanets with Neil deGrasse Tyson & Gáspár Bakos – Cosmic Queries
4. Influence on NFL betting lines, 'sky judge' & more (FULL PFT PM) | Pro Football Talk | NFL on NBC
(NFL on NBC)
5. 2023 Elections Is The Best We've Ever Conducted In Nigeria - Magnus Abe | Politics Today
(Channels Television)
6. Do You Know Where Your Money Is Going?
(The Ramsey Show - Full Episodes)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Lakeisha Bayer VM

Last Updated: 09/27/2023

Views: 6173

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (49 voted)

Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Lakeisha Bayer VM

Birthday: 1997-10-17

Address: Suite 835 34136 Adrian Mountains, Floydton, UT 81036

Phone: +3571527672278

Job: Manufacturing Agent

Hobby: Skimboarding, Photography, Roller skating, Knife making, Paintball, Embroidery, Gunsmithing

Introduction: My name is Lakeisha Bayer VM, I am a brainy, kind, enchanting, healthy, lovely, clean, witty person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.