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Depression after Loss of a Child

by Cindy Dix, RN

Feelings of depression and despair after the loss of a loved one, especially a child are normal but very confusing for the person experiencing them, as well as those around them. For the parent who lost a child after a long battle with an illness, it is normal to feel that they could have or should have done more, tried yet a different doctor, not have tried that experimental medication, or perhaps should have tried it.

For the parent losing a child to a sudden tragic accident, the feelings of guilt range from "I should have stopped it,” “I should have driven,” “I should have........ “ These guilty feelings in both situations are normal. We are the protectors and caretakers of our children, and when things go wrong we blame ourselves. If other parties are involved in our child's death, (a doctor's possible negligence, a negligent child care worker, or negligent driver) it puts a different twist on our feelings, leaving us angry, but with a focus. If our child's death was due to their own poor judgment, there is no ONE person on whom to place the blame and the guilt abounds.

On the Loss of Child boards we have talked numerous times about our feelings of depression and despair after the death of our children. Society places a huge burden on our backs for these feelings, believing we should snap out of it... life goes on... we have other children, or perhaps we could have another baby.

I have talked to parents about their difficulty in finding a compassionate and well informed counselor to help deal with the particularly painful feeling of losing a child. One topic that constantly surfaces is our feelings of depression, and our fear of being labeled as crazy for these feelings, therefore, too often, many parents especially the fathers go without treatment due to the stereotypes society places on those seeking help. Many parents cannot focus on daily living activities, and have a hard time even opening the mail, bills can be left unpaid due to the parents lack of energy to write checks or go to the post office.

Family members often are in different stages of grief at any given time and often there is family rife that can be harmful to the marriage and family as a whole. If the deceased child died from illness the surviving child has probably been placed on the back burner, so to speak, while the parents attended to the bedside of the sick child. If the deceased child died in an accident, the parents now seek to protect the remaining child often placing impossible restrictions on their activity. The siblings themselves often go through survivor's guilt, don't know how they can live up to the idolized status of their deceased brother or sister. They are here and living, but feel particularly unnoticed. They may act out or begin to take on the personality of the deceased sibling.

Grief is real, there is no way of avoiding it for us, it consumes our very existence. Grief mimics depression with symptoms which include eating and intestinal disorders, weight loss, and weight gain, headaches, hyper stimulation from certain sounds such as telephones ringing and sirens. Sleep disorders, nightmares and occasional night terrors, panic and anxiety in crowds.

Many parents will initially entertain thoughts of suicide, these are usually fleeting thoughts but if they persist MUST be managed medically. Many parents who lose their child to sudden accidental deaths experience post traumatic stress similar to that experienced by Veterans of war. This can include "pop-up" visions of the accident even if the parent didn't witness the accident itself, reliving the moment they had to identity their child's body, or the moment they were told of the death.

All these experiences are symptoms of situational depression. Treatment must be provided by a competent therapist. Don't be afraid to shop around, if a particular therapist isn't helpful, move on to another. Don't be afraid to "interview" the therapist, ask questions about:


1. Experience and accreditation in grief counseling.
2. Their point of view on spirituality (this can be particularly important for some, my first counselor told me in no uncertain terms that he did not believe in God, and would not let my conversation go that route, I quickly changed counselors)
3. Does this counselor have prescription writing privileges in the event an antidepressant is needed? It can be difficult to swing back and forth between the MD and the counselor for refills etc.
4. is the counselor informed about literature that could be of benefit to your needs?

I hope this article is useful. It comes from my heart, with my own experiences since the accidental death of my 17 year old son and with a bit of knowledge from my experience as a former Hospice Nurse.

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