A Rough Guide for Surviving the Unthinkable: the Loss of a Child

A Rough Guide for Surviving the Unthinkable: the Loss of a Child

Five years ago we lost our baby daughter. At the time many people suggested writing a book would help not only me but others going through the same thing. At the time I remember thinking that reading a totally miserable book about personal anguish was the last thing I wanted to do and would make me even more unhappy. What I now realise would be useful is a simple guide as to what to expect and what was normal when you lose a child. So this is what I have attempted to compile. It is from personal experience and talking to one or two others, I do not assume it is complete, but I hope it is of use.

It’s called heartbreak/ heartache for a reason. Bereavement at this scale really really physically can hurt. For a long time. Make sure it’s not because of a chest infection though.

Anyone that tells you to take life one day at a time has to be kidding. Try one breath, one minute, maybe even an hour at a time.

Survival pack for leaving the house: Tissues, sunglasses and throat sweets. First one is obvious, sunglasses hide traces of tears/ red raw eyeballs etc, throat sweets for the sore throat after honking, wailing crying. Glycerine, honey and lemon drinks help there too.

Many people find it very hard to know how to interact with you, some you will lose as friends (their loss) as they won’t be able to cope with your situation or how it plays on their fears. This is about them, not you.

On the subject of friends, tell people how you need to be treated. You may need sympathy and sympathetic hugs, or this may be the worst thing for you and staying matter of fact is what you need. It is helpful to be ruthless on this one – you need the support of friends in the way that works for you. Some people may be less than helpful or make you feel worse. Tell them what you need and if they can’t or won’t do it, avoid them for a bit.

If you cry a lot of the day your contact lenses get blurry. It’s not that your eyesight is going. Just wash the lenses. Same applies for glasses.

Sleep – insomniac or sleeping 14 hours a day, any variation is normal. Relax about it, it’ll sort itself out over time in most cases

Fatigue – can be huge due to the amount of emotional energy used up, and the effort it takes to get through a day

Food – comfort eating or zero appetite and huge knot in the stomach making it hard to eat. All normal. Be conscious about it, see a therapist/ doctor if it becomes too extreme. It can take a while (few years) to get back to normal in some cases.

Brain – usually absent a lot of the time, along with any ability to cope with stress, concentrate or focus. This can go on for a while (year or two) to some degree. Things like crying because the icing ran off the cake/ exploding at a cold caller from British gas and losing it when viewing a house with an unexpected presence of a baby playing on the rug are the sort of things that have happened to a few of us.

The stress level is considerable. B vitamins, C and zinc are really useful nutrients and help make life easier. Best to see a practitioner if possible to see what is right for you.

Rescue remedy is really useful. For meltdowns, tough occasions and for sneaking into the drinks of distressed friends and family.

Funerals. Do it how you want not how you or others think you should do it. It will be hard whatever you do, but if it feels right to you it will help.

Try to make something constructive out of tragedy, for instance raise money for a charity that has relevance to you or your child. We chose the smile train and know that because of our donation 22 kids got their cleft lip and palate repaired in various developing countries. Even years on, that still helps.

The first Christmas – again what is right for you. It will be tough, upsetting at times but there will be good bits. Doing something different can really help, the lack of association with prior, or even future Christmases can make this time of year easier for years to come.

Relationships – we all grieve very differently. Talking about it can be tough. Text and email can actually be easier. Respect the right of the other person to do what they need to in order to get through. Keep lines of communication open on this one. Be kind to each other. Get a dog/cat if you need to – something to look after that can be cried over and on, and won’t mind, and will love you no matter how irrational/ stressed/ upset/ wired/ depressed you are.

Sex – the expectation is that it is something that you won’t want to do, but it is quite normal, and actually more common to end up going at it like rabbits. The mood lift, escape, relaxation and life affirming nature of sex are so useful.

Distraction really helps. Taking up a new challenge that occupies your head is useful.

Whatever you do some days will just be bad. Tomorrow will be different. Relax about it, get as much grief up and out if you can, let yourself be miserable. Trying not to just puts way too much stress on you and stores up problems.

The bad days become bad hours, then bad minutes over time. Grief ‘matures’. It will always be there, it will still hurt, but the level of pain changes from unbearable agony to dull ache with occasional sharp bursts.

Talking about it. You won’t always want to. If you’ve finally got yourself together enough to get out of the house, the last thing you need is someone ‘wanting you to talk about it as that’ll help you’. When you do want to talk, have tissues.

Also talking about it. Telling people is easier by text/email than in person or by talking – the emotional hit is far less and you don’t get hit by their shock either- that can be really hard to deal with when you are fragile and even years down the line.

Figure out in advance answers to the difficult questions. The ones like ‘do you have any kids/ how many kids do you have?’ An answer that is truthful but doesn’t obviously reveal your loss is a method preferred by some, others are fine to say what has happened. It doesn’t matter what you say, but thinking about it in advance and having a strategy can prevent unexpected pain.

Be kind to yourself. Guilt is normal, relax about it. If you could have changed anything/done anything differently you would have. Hindsight is 20/20, real life as it happens is not.

Do not go down the route of torturing yourself by running different scenarios in your head, of what could have happened, how you child would be at some future age/event etc had they lived. It is not helpful and can make you more distressed. Remember you did the best you could. If there is anything you need to learn, learn it to prevent a future tragedy, and move on.

Find joy and happiness when you can. It is not all doom and gloom. Profound appreciation of life and the ability not to take anything for granted can be the ‘gifts’ from your loss. Reassessing life and following the direction that is right for you can make life richer.

Good luck.

Written by Dr Fi Dann


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