Grief and Bereavement Support

Frequently Asked Questions

 

Questions about myself

  1. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grieving is a very individual experience. The way you are grieving now may be very different than the ways you grieved following losses in the past. There are some common characteristics of grief, although not everyone experiences all of them.

    Common symptoms after the death of a child:

    Physical

    • Changes in sleeping patterns
    • Exhaustion
    • Headaches
    • Crying
    • Changes in appetite
    • Weakness
    • Feelings of heaviness

    Mental

    • Inability to concentrate
    • Difficulty carrying out normal routines
    • Difficulty remembering
    • Inability to focus on anything other than your child’s death
    • Avoiding any reminder of your child’s death
    • Vivid dreams about your child
    • Questioning whether you could have done something

    Emotional

    • Mood swings
    • Extreme sadness and yearning
    • Feeling “crazy”
    • Anxiety
    • Guilt
    • Anger
    • Frustration
    • Feeling like you cannot live without your child, wishing you could die to be with your child, or wishing you had died instead of your child

    Social

    • Feeling numb and detached from others
    • Isolating yourself from social contact
    • Behaving in ways that aren’t normal for you

    Spiritual

    • Questioning reasons for the loss
    • Questioning the purpose of pain and suffering or the purpose of life
    • Doubting the existence of God
    • Questioning the meaning of death
    • Being angry at God

    If these symptoms continue at the same intensity, have increased, or impair your work performance or ability to function after a year, please seek professional help.

    You should seek immediate help if you are having suicidal thoughts and think you may act on them. Call 911, your local emergency services number right away, or call a suicide hotline number. If you are living in the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) or text 'HOME' to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 to reach a trained counselor.

  2. Life will never be same as it was before the death of your child. However, you will develop a “new normal” that will include space for happiness, joy and laughter. There will always be sadness and a painful place in your heart because your child is not with you, but the intensity and frequency of the pain will decrease over time. In the beginning, the pain of your grief can make it hard to breathe, think, get out of bed or maybe even want to live. Over time, you will find yourself enjoying a moment, thinking about something in the future, or getting excited about something. However, waves of grief will likely come—some at the most unexpected moments—and take the breath out of you again.

Questions about my family

  1. There is no right or wrong answer. You can decide what is right or easiest for you. Many bereaved parents find it helpful to prepare a response ahead of time for this question.

    Parents can respond in many ways, depending on their personal preference. For example, parents who have had four children may choose to say, “I have three children” once one has died to avoid having to explain his or her death. Other parents may choose to say, “I have three children with me and one child in Heaven” or “I have four children, three living.”

    Some parents may continue to say, “I have four children” and when asked the children’s ages, they will say the age the deceased child would be (e.g., “John is 8, Sarah is 6, William would be 4 this year, and Beth is 3.”). It’s OK if your answer changes over time or according to the situation. The most important thing to remember is to answer in the way that is most helpful to you in that moment.

  2. Children grieve differently than adults. It is important to understand your child’s level of development may influence his or her understanding of death.

    Infant (birth to 2 years): Most children this age have no understanding of death. Your child may sense your distress or sadness and may react to your increased absence through sadness, changes in sleep and fussiness.

    Pre-school Age Children (3 to 6): Children this age may be curious about death and see it as temporary or reversible (e.g., may view death as sleeping, may think the person can come back if they behave in certain ways or are “good enough”). Many children say they feel guilty and think they caused the person to “go away.” Children may be very tuned in to their parent’s or caregiver’s sadness and may worry about who will take care of them.

    School Age Children (6 to 12): Children this age understand death is final and that everyone dies. They may experience a range of emotions or worry about their own death, may show more behavioral changes and physical complaints due to difficulty with identifying and expressing their emotions, and may be more likely to worry about their own safety and security. They may be interested in details about death and what happens to the body after death. They may believe they are personally to blame for the person dying.

    Teenagers (13 to 18 years): Teenagers may have an adult understanding of death without the life experience, coping skills or adult behaviors. Teens may experience a wide range of emotions, but not know how to handle them or feel comfortable talking. They may lash out at family members or show reckless, impulsive behaviors. Common behaviors also include spending more time with friends or withdrawing from friends and family to be alone. Teenagers may also question their faith and ultimately their understanding of the world.

    How to help:

    1. Use honesty and simplicity when discussing the death. Younger children may be confused by inaccurate terms to describe dying, such as “when we lost your brother” or “gone to sleep.”
    2. Encourage your children to ask questions and answer them directly. Let your children ask more questions to gauge what information to provide. Older children may want or need more details.
    3. Share your family’s religious or spiritual beliefs about death.
    4. Be available to listen when they are ready to talk. You can’t determine when they should be ready but let them know you are available. Listen with your full attention and minimize interruptions.
    5. Let them describe any feelings they might have (e.g., sadness, fear, anger, worry, relief and guilt) and normalize these feelings. Give examples of how you have had the same feelings and how you have dealt with them. Address your children’s fears, guilt and worries, and assure them that they are safe and protected.
    6. Discuss and share your feelings with your children. By doing this you are showing them it is OK to have feelings. Teach them how to express and deal with their feelings. Let them know they don’t have to protect you. Teach them it is OK to talk about their sibling, and normalize the grieving process. Reassure your children it is OK if you cry when you are sad, even if it is after something they say or do, and they do not have to feel bad about it. Let them know crying may help them feel better. Suggest other ways to express feelings such as writing in a journal or drawing a picture.
    7. Explain that it is normal for grief to come and go like a wave, and they cannot always predict when they will feel sad.
    8. Keep your routines as much as possible. This predictability will help children feel more secure and safe.
    9. Let your children help with planning the funeral or memorial service, if possible. Make sure to explain what they can expect to see and what it means. Involve them in activities to honor your child, such as creating memory boxes, scrapbooks or journals. Help them come up with ways to remember their sibling at special times, such as birthdays and holidays.
    10. Support your child’s return to school. Talk to school personnel about how much detail should be shared. Research what grief support programs the school offers such as grief groups, school counselors and school psychologists and determine your comfort level in participating in them. Make sure there is a safe person for your child to talk to, as well as a place your child may go to have time alone. You may want to discuss academic expectations for the first semester after your child returns to school. (Read more at grievingstudents.org.)
    11. Grief camps can be very helpful in allowing kids to connect with other children who understand their grief.
    12. Provide books for your children that may explain grief in a way they can understand.
    13. Speak with a psychologist, grief counselor or other mental health professional if you are concerned about your child’s behavior.
    14. Teens may feel more comfortable expressing feelings of grief in ways other than talking. Provide alternate avenues for expression through art (drawing, picture collage, etc.), journaling, watching a sad movie or listening to sad music together with your teen. Use the time to let your teen talk or just sit quietly, depending on their need.
    15. Tell other significant adults in your teen’s life about the recent loss. A coach, teacher or school counselor may be able to help your teen work through his or her grief.
  3. There is no normal or right way to grieve the loss of a child. Men and women tend to grieve differently. Women tend to be more vocal and seek out others to express their grief. Men may be uncomfortable talking about their feelings and prefer to find things to do to cope. However, this is not universal. Some women may grieve more like men and vice versa.

    The key is to accept that both parents are grieving and will likely grieve in different ways and at different moments when there has been a significant loss.

    1. It is important to accept without judgement that the way your partner is grieving is what he or she needs to do to heal.
    2. Do not try to change the way your spouse grieves. For example, one parent may spend a particularly hard day in their pajamas looking at old photos, while another may need to go for a run or work on a project.
    3. Give your partner space when he or she needs to feel sad.
    4. Ask how you can support your partner, if you are in a place to do so.
    5. Do not be afraid to seek professional advice, whether individually or as a couple, if you feel your relationship is struggling.
  4. Professional counseling can be helpful for anyone who is grieving. Grieving parents often worry that their friends and family will get tired of hearing about their grief. They will often “put on a happy face” so others will not feel uncomfortable or stop visiting them.

    Having someone who is not a friend or family member listen to your feelings, without judgment, can be very healing. Many parents have regrets, feelings of guilt or traumatic memories about their child’s death and it may be necessary to talk through these things with a counselor. Family counseling can be helpful for families to learn about their grief and how to navigate through it. Grief support and grief therapy groups can be helpful. Many parents state they learn from others’ tips for surviving their grief and gain validation for their feelings. Parents often prefer to look for grief support groups specifically for bereaved parents, as they often feel best understood by other parents who have experienced the death of a child.

    You should seek professional help if you or a family member is:

    1. Having suicidal thoughts
    2. Having significant sleep or appetite disturbances that last more than a couple of months
    3. Engaging in alcohol or substance misuse
    4. Having significant problems functioning that do not improve at least one year after the death of your child

    You should seek immediate help if you are having suicidal thoughts and think you may act on them. Call 911, your local emergency services number right away, or call a suicide hotline number. If you are living in the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) or text 'HOME' to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 to reach a trained counselor.

Questions about my child

  1. The ways you can honor your child’s memory and share his or her legacy are countless. Some options may feel overwhelming when you are grieving. Remember, honoring your child’s memory can be as simple as:

    • Getting out of bed
    • Leaving an open seat at the table for special times like birthdays or holidays
    • Creating or purchasing an ornament every year to place on the Christmas tree
    • Creating a memory box or scrapbook
    • Paying good deeds forward in your child’s memory
    • Remembering your child’s birthday or death anniversary with a special event

    Other ways to honor and share your child’s legacy are:

    • Living your life (or each day) the way your child would have wanted
    • Volunteering
    • Becoming involved in a cause that meant something to your child
    • Establishing a scholarship in your child’s name
    • Starting a foundation

    Don’t rush to decide on what you should do. Take time to heal and do the things that feel best for you and your family as they become clear.

    If you would like to know more about opportunities like these at St. Jude, please contact Lisa Clark, PhD, grief support coordinator.

  2. It was an honor for the St. Jude Biomedical Communications photographers to have captured important moments in your child’s life. We believe it is one of our primary responsibilities to pass on these legacy images to the patient’s family. Upon request, we will search our image catalogs and create a CD of your child’s image files. You can make a request by calling 901-595-3380 or emailing BMCA@stjude.org.

Questions about my future with St. Jude

  1. Our faculty and staff at St. Jude love to hear from families. The best way to contact your doctors or care team is by sending a card or letter. You can send mail to a clinic, a specific doctor or staff member using the following address:

    [name of doctor, nurse, clinic or inpatient service]
    St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
    262 Danny Thomas Place
    Memphis, TN  38105