Parents Who Are Now Childless
The death of any child overwhelms that child’s parents regardless of the
cause of death or the age of the child. Parental grief is intense, long-lasting and complex.
Many believe that this grief, desolation, and pain exceed all other bereavement experiences a
person encounters in a life time. Bereaved parents are completely bewildered and find it difficult
just to function.
When a parent faces the death of an only child or the death of the last child or children,
bereavement is compounded by additional issues that ultimately must be resolved if healing
is to occur.
Suddenly we are childless. The new and total silence in our lives is unbroken. The lack of
surviving children is but one additional heartbreaking issue that initially deepens our
However our children have died, the joy we knew in sharing their lives is forever gone. Our world
feels abruptly empty. We think that we stand alone. Many question the value of existence.
These feelings may last for many months, even years, as we move through early bereavement.
It is important to remember that these thoughts and feelings are normal.
Although these early months and years seem endless and the anguish bottomless, we can slowly get
better. Those of us who share this experience know that with effort and slowly emerging resolve,
we can make progress. Although many of us will remain childless, we have sought and embraced
healing. Our lives may not be what we had planned, but living can still hold beauty, joy and peace.
Are we still Parents?
We who are without surviving children find our own parental identity suddenly questioned because
we no longer practice parenting. Ultimately, however, we realize that we are forever parents.
The memories of our children and the love we shared with them live on, a part of us always.
During early bereavement, memories can be extremely painful. In the years beyond bereavement,
our memories, while bittersweet at times, are usually sources of comfort and even joy.
The Journey Through Grief
You are probably reading this pamphlet early in your bereavement. Therefore, it is wise to deal
first with the problems of this period and later to cope with the quest for renewal.
Do not postpone your grief nor walk too quickly through the pain of your forced goodbye. Sorrow
will surely accompany you on this journey, but do not fear or reject it. It is as natural and
normal as the night which follows day. Your emotions will resemble a turbulent roller coaster for
a long time. You may find that tears respect neither time or place. Remember that tears release
emotional pain and help to prevent physical ailments caused or exacerbated by stress.
You will find that laughter as well as tears are equally important in your recovery. Although you
will need time to genuinely enjoy yourself again, you need not feel guilty about expressing either
emotion. Try to accept such relief when it occurs.
You may find joy in commemorating your child’s life by sharing it with others. You will rediscover
a greater depth of joy and laughter, finding once more that your life with your departed son or
daughter held far more happiness than sorrow. Others who have not experienced the death of their
children cannot know or even imagine what you are enduring. To explain to these persons that your
feelings are real and appropriate can be beneficial both to them and to you.
You may wish to surround yourself with others who have experienced the pain of a child’s death.
Locate a Compassionate Friends’ Chapter or other support group that you can attend regularly.
Although most parents who have surviving children cannot understand the full dimensions of your
situation, you will quickly see that every child’s death is the end of a unique only child. Other
bereaved parents will understand your pain, your emptiness. With them, you can cry and grieve,
knowing that you are understood. You will not feel alone. With them, you can approach a new future
to replace the one you have lost.
How Many Children Do You Have?
Bereaved parents find it difficult to answer the question, “How many children do you have?”
Some wish to honor their children’s memories by acknowledging their lives and answering,
“I had one child,” or “I had two children”. Others are more comfortable answering, “None”.
You may find that your answer changes as your needs change. The key is to be prepared to say
what you want to say at the moment.
As we mourn our great losses, some family members and friends urge us to concentrate on what we
have left. Since we often feel that we have nothing left, we may resent these urgings. At
these times it is important to remember that our family and friends want to alleviate our
suffering. They want to see us whole once more, not only because they love us, but also because
our pain reflects their own fears of death, both for themselves and their loved ones.
Nevertheless, healing will take considerable time (and there are no prescribed limits!) before we
see with clarity just what we do have left.
Do not be afraid to keep the memories of your child alive. It is possible to take the mementos
of the past and make them a part of today and tomorrow. You may find it comforting to wear some
article of clothing or a favourite piece of jewellery that your child once wore. You might choose
bits and pieces that were a part of your child’s life and make a collage or a quilt to hang in your
home. Even a favourite toy on a shelf is a way to ensure that your child’s memory is a tangible
presence in your daily life.
One of the most demanding challenges we face is to refocus our lives. The loss of purpose and
the thought of a lonely life, possibly without subsequent children or sons/daughters-in-law or
grandchildren can be frightening. In general, we often find it difficult to see anything beyond
Gradually, however, we find new friends and our lives begin to inch forward. Old friends who have
been unable to bear misfortune with us often take lesser roles in our lives. Family ties enter a
slow period of readjustment. Reinvestment is difficult as we re-evaluate our current lives and
resolve to recover from our losses. At this point the grief intensity lessens, and many of us
resolve to live the remainder of our lies in a way that will commemorate our children’s lives.
Many others strive to accomplish those things their children might have tried to do if time and
life had afforded them the chance.
Reinvestment demands more than a single decision or a simple solution and awakens us to new goals
and priorities. We may reinvest in life in countless ways. Some have capitalized upon their
parenting skills by becoming foster parents or by volunteering in boy scouts or girl scouts or
other youth organizations, while others have relinquished their parental roles by working in a
variety of other community causes.
Most of us want to do something constructive in memory of our sons or daughters. Many of us have
established memorial funds, created scholarships, given books to libraries, planted trees, become
involved in helping others, or whatever else imagination and love can create. For many of us, such
memorials keep the memories for our children alive and vibrant, giving us and others opportunities
to feel the beauty of our departed children’s love.
Whatever our situation, we are not actually alone in our grief. Many other bereaved parents seek and have achieved healing. Through sharing with others, you may become one of the healed and then
help to heal. Over time, as we mutually reach out to each other in sorrow and love, all of us come
closer to being whole again.
Someday, which differs from parent to parent, you will recognize that you are certainly making
progress in your journey through grief. You will sleep and awaken, for instance, without your
child’s absence being the dominant theme. Then you will have the opportunity to reinvest in a
world in which your child’s life and death have indeed made a difference.
This brochure was funded by ITHUBA
Copyright 1996 The Compassionate Friends