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Parental Grief

Part Two

This is the second part of the required reading text. Please read this before taking the examination.

Causes of Death


When the death of a child is caused by a traumatic accident, or even a careless or premeditated homicide, feelings of anger and frustration may flare out in explosive quantities. This is because many people in our society place a very high value on being able to control their own lives and even the lives of those family members and friends that they care for and love the most. In these situations the control factor is completely taken from them, generally without any notice. It is generally done by someone, something or a process they were not adequately acquainted with or could not preview the arrival of. It leaves them in a very similar state of mind as someone who has been robbed or raped. This is because they have been placed in a position of complete vulnerability, and obviously against their will. Parents in such a situation are also confronted with the fact that death is permanent and irreversible in every aspect. The control as a parent that they may have been previously able to exercise over their child has now been taken from them. In some situations, the loss of that control is as great of a loss to that parent as the actual death itself.    

A child committing suicide creates an even more complex web of psychological trauma and grief for those parents and survivors left in its wake. Even when the act is threatened or implied to those around them in advance, the positive nature of loving parents, family members and caring friends tends to naturally dismiss or diminish the ultimate possibility of the act actually taking place.

Counselors often hear post suicidal statements from parents like “I didn’t realize that things were really that bad” or “I just thought it would get better in time”. These are generally statements made from feelings of personal guilt, because the surviving parent regrets their perceived inadequate responses to the child’s suicidal threats and cries for help.

When this type of uncontrolled death of a child occurs, those who are left in its mysterious shadow are never properly prepared to deal with it for two primary reasons. The first reason is because as we have previously discussed, it is so out of order to the normal sequence of life and death. The other is because of their previously misplaced optimism against the threat of such an act occurring .

In many religions, suicide is considered to be psychologically dark, spiritually uncertain, and maybe even ultimately sinful in nature. When we describe such an act as “psychologically dark”, it means that most people do not venture into the thought patterns that would produce such results. Most people strive to extend their lives by seeking medical attention when needed, eating healthy and nutritional based meals, exercising regularly, and maybe just simply behaving in ways that naturally keep them out of harm’s way. Humanity is born into the urgent light of survivorship and procreativity. It is natural to want to survive, to reproduce or perpetuate our lives in some way or another, hoping to postpone or at least soften the affect of that dreaded inevitable event, our own mortal death.    

When someone reaches out to embrace the conclusive event of their own death in an unnatural way, they are generally perceived as dark or somewhat mysterious people. Because of its ultimately unknown final results, there is a dark and uncertain mystery cloaking death that appears to be an unnatural object to embrace.  

This is why many religious groups and organizations have a negative concept and perception of suicide. To devout practitioners of such religious groups, this simply adds to the complexity of the situation and the out-of-sequence pattern a child has created in consummating their own mortal death in this manner. Depending on the personal loyalty to the relationship to that child, the parent’s own religious and spiritual values may be threatened, or even subject to change. Many parents use their religious doctrines to justify the circumstances surrounding why the suicide actually happened. This is especially true in the case of the elderly, and specifically older women (particularly mothers) in North America. Religious beliefs may also strongly influence the parent’s perspective about the eternal destiny of the child who has committed suicide. 

The natural response to the suicide of a child by most parents is generally to try to define it rationally. Many times the attempt to understand the circumstances may be attributed to the unbearable stress and pressure placed on the child from the society’s pace and the culture’s excessive demands on them. Other parents will place blame a non reconciled or a broken relationship the child experienced. Some parents may even perceive that another form of loss was not properly grieved through by their child and thus contributed to their ultimate demise. Parents may also place blame on their child’s medical and/or mental background as the contributing factors for the suicide. 

The psychology and even the psychiatric conditions and care of the deceased child are often heavily scrutinized from within family boundaries. The professional analysis and the care the deceased received may be reviewed to see what might have been more needed in their treatment plan. Many times these intense inquiries and discussions can cause more family relational issues than they resolve in determining any reason for the suicide. In some cases the discovery of physical abuse or other unknown sexual activities is exposed to the survivors. The reconciliation and/or acceptance of these circumstances may often become an even more difficult task to manage or cope with in the grieving process.      

Less than 20% of successful suicides leave a note. It is very common for parents and family members to try and “read between the lines” of a suicide note that is left by the child. But more times than not, the note is written to try to console the ones left to read it, rather than to give an accurate account of the genuine reasons for why they chose to conclude their own life. Many times these notes are directed at the closest family members such as a spouse, children or life partner. When the parents are not included in part of the discourse, they may feel rejected or unimportant. In some cases the parent or parents will take offense to their exclusion and react in anger and rejection of the child. Many parents perceive their lifetime investments of effort, time and even monetary support as being rejected or unappreciated by the child because they were not addressed or mentioned in such a note. These reactionary emotions can often complicate their ability to rationalize and eventually make sense of the circumstances even more than if a note had not been left.

Suicide is a form of psychological and spiritual devastation and destruction that any parent struggles with intensely, whether it is externally noticeable to others or not. The younger a victim of suicide is, the more difficult the loss is to comprehend and work through by the surviving parents. It generally has negative affects on their inner family relationships with their other children and close family members. Parents who do not seek help from their religious and/or faith based leaders, or other qualified caregivers and trained professionals, generally live out the remainder of their lives at a high level of  frustration, anger, bitterness and in a constant posture of questioning life and the normal authoritative counsels that they previously accepted prior to the loss. When a child’s suicide is the source of parental grief, the journey will not be brief.

It is good to know, and encourage such victim’s that they are not alone and that there is support and help if they are willing to receive it. Though this uncontrollable event has radically changed their lives and their perception of the world they live in, they can regain control of their own life and circumstances and learn creative and helpful ways to help others from the pain of their own personal grief.      


Extending Care


There are a few ways which we as professional caregivers can offer support in these complex arenas surrounding the out-of-order death of a child. One key way is to verbally rehearse to them that you not only understand the natural sequence of life and death, but that you as a caring professional also recognize that the circumstances surrounding the death of a child (of any age) is completely out of that natural order of life and death. Many times people can gain comfort from simply hearing an audible confirmation of what their minds are telling them is not right about a particular event or circumstance. Your voice reciting these facts may be the initial start of their healthy grieving process.

You may also give them permission to experience a more intense form of their grief because of this abnormal order of events. You may do this in a very subtle way. A sentence worded like this may be very appropriate. “It is only natural (or normal) for you to feel this amount (or intensity) of pain and grief in these circumstances.” You are not using the actual phrase “I give you permission” but the strong implication is there, and generally understood by even the most distraught victim of such a loss.

In some cases, the caregiver may need to focus on the grieving parent by asking them to literally look at them as they make such statements. Another therapeutic method is to enable the parent to verbally tell themselves that what they are experiencing is a common reaction to this particular type of situation.

Both of these first two care giving techniques are part of the normalization process of the griever. The more normal the grief and mourning experience can be portrayed to the person living through it, the more likely they will experience their grief and accept their loss in an emotionally and spiritually healthy manner. Presenting the plain truth to them couched in love and compassion, will help them come to an understanding of how normal their personal grief actually is.   

One other thing a care giver should always do is assure these parents of their continued support and care as they grant them this permission to grieve this loss in a more intense way. Without that care and support, giving them “permission to grieve” is hollow and empty. One of the best ways to issue care and support for them is to dedicate time to spend with them and ears to listen to them with. Time does two things for the person in severe grief situations. It helps in the healing processes involved in the grief phases by distancing them from the actual point of the initiation of their loss. That point of initiation is the most painful part of any death or loss, simply because that is where the loss is first introduced as a definite reality instead of a possibility.

Time is also the component of the compassion that the caregiver can and should give as freely as possible in the act of listening and encouraging the grieving parent through the journey of grief.    

And finally the care giver may want to offer to “assist” the grieving parent(s) with many of the tasks they need to accomplish to step back into their normal circles and patterns of their life. It is better to ask them how you can “assist” them rather than what you can “do” for them. “Assisting” them makes them part of the “doing” of those things, rather than simply being the beneficiary and/or observer of those things to be done for them. Many caregivers create an unhealthy dependency by doing much or everything for the “griever” while they (the parents) are engaged in the initial experience of their loss. When you do those necessary things together, their thoughts should slowly start to re-focus on the realities of their life left for them to live. In affect this starts the process of teaching them how to re-learn their life and the world around them without their child’s presence. This process of “assisting” them is a healthy process and helps them once again establish a purpose for their own continued life.


Complicated Relationships

Through all of this desire to render care to the parents who have experienced this death out of the normal order of human life sequence, we must not forget the siblings, grandparents and other closely connected family members also experiencing the same situation of loss. This may mean that we should also include the actual children of the deceased in the formulation of our care giving plan. These children are actually experiencing the loss in the normal sequence of life and death, but because of the influence of their grandparent’s expressions of grief, or maybe even the lack of such expressions, the progress towards resolution and/or acceptance may be somewhat hindered or impaired.    

It is not uncommon for grandparents or even siblings to raise, or have raised, or acted as a primary caregiver or “parent figure” for many years to the child who has died. In these situations a grandmother or an aunt or an uncle or a grandfather may be experiencing the same intensity of grief that a birth-mother or natural father could or would be experiencing in the same situation. The circumstances surrounding such a death may also produce a father and/or mother that minimally participated in, or maybe never participated in the child’s life at all. In our society, this could be for any number of reasons. Yet, in all of these previously mentioned people, there may be the same or similar attitudes of grief being expressed as there would be in the traditional mother and/or father figures who have experienced the loss of their child in death.

Obviously, this could breed a variety of complicated scenarios and relational problems. Often the younger parent figures will react with a volatile anger if they are crossed or ignored.  Sometimes lesser important family members will try to express their anger and frustration, apply excessive pressure to or inflict guilt into the family environment because they do not think that their family is responding adequately or in a socially acceptable manner to the loss.

Other family members may completely ignore key family members or close friends of the deceased because they personally perceive that there is no value in those people participating in the grieving or mourning process with them. This form of ignorance is actually an attitude of condemnation. When we condemn someone, we in theory are saying that they hold absolutely no value to us or our current situations and circumstances.

Some family members may even inflict guilt on others to enhance or promote their own image in the psychological family portrait. Often people will perceive other family member’s responses and expressions of grief based on their own expectations in these situations. When they don’t meet up to expectations of such people, they may attempt to intervene by issuing some form of illegitimate control or instruction on how others should act or respond to their grief.  These types of emotions and expressions can often be a double edged sword. When we as caregivers can practice good and accurate discernment of these matters and relationships, we will be able to help the various grieving family members find a measure of harmony needed to initiate the beginnings of a compatible journey through grief and loss.

Family dynamics in the post modern society are constantly evolving under the public media’s influence. Between the ill fated portrayals of family and public social life on popular confrontational television shows, to the vast array of opinions and questionable information available on the internet, the average family is constantly exposed to a virtual blizzard of destabilizing psychological and emotional threats that challenge the traditional cohesiveness and the common value systems of such a family experiencing grief in the loss of a child or sibling. The post modern culture enables most people to generally live more individualistic lives because they are capable of doing more on their own with the technology provided for them by computers and the internet. Most people’s abilities are no longer confined to their own skill sets and personal knowledge parameters. Information regarding family relationship management and even grief and loss issues are readily available to them at the click of a mouse. Some of that information is reliable and some is rather questionable in its motive. 

All of these things can be potential problematic issues that confront the person genuinely wanting to care for and support parents and nuclear family members in these situations of grief and loss. Only those who are extremely genuine in their intentions and are able to discern, understand and practice the facilitation of proven helpful and healing techniques in these specialized grief environments, should become pivotally active in the care of such grieving parents. These grieving parents are usually very sensitive to the various details and relationships surrounding the loss of their child, and yet can be somewhat insensitive to the circumstances of the environment of mourning taking place around them. A discerning and compassionate caregiver will recognize both the positive and troubled relational issues in the griever’s life and help them move towards healthy and active expressions of grief that will assist them back into a posture where they can relearn their lives in the absence of their deceased child.      




Even though the death of a child is an event that is contrary to the normal sequence of life and death, we as caregivers can be effective agents for compassion, support and change in the grieving parent’s life. Realizing that death often occurs at unexpected times and seasons of our lives can be a dynamic reason for us to live our lives of service and care in a posture ready to help others and ourselves understand the sequence and realities of both life and death better. Giving those parents experiencing grief through loss the care and tools they need to re-learn their purpose for living in a different context after the death of a child has occurred, can be a very satisfying accomplishment as a professional care giving and practitioner.       



Case Studies


CASE # 1 Michael and Ruth’s infant son named Derrick dies at age three after falling from an exercise gym and living for three days. At the funeral, both parent’s stand together at the pulpit in their church and offer thanks to God for sparing their little boy from a “life of uncertainty in this sinful world”.


a). What can you discern from there statement as to how they are handling their grief ? 

b). What might you want to say to them if they talk with you about Derrick later?


CASE # 2  Darlene has been the single parent of her only son Tim since he was 18 months old. Tim dies at age nine from a complex series of diseases. At the end of the graveside service Darlene reaches her arms across the top of the small casket rests her head on the top of it sobbing uncontrollably for several minutes.


a). What is your diagnosis of this situation?

b). How long should she be allowed to continue this expression of grief?     


CASE # 3 Rita’s twenty six year old son Jimmy has lived with her all of his life. Jimmy has never held a job for very long. He is killed one night in an automobile accident. Rita has been a widow for twelve years prior to Jimmy’s death. She refuses to allow Jimmy’s only sister Susan, a CPA and her family come with her to make the funeral arrangements. Jimmy is cremated without any funeral or memorial services.


a). Define what the possible relationship is between Rita and Susan is?

b). How would you be able to help Susan?      


CASE # 4 Retired Army Captain Donald’s youngest son Nate, age thirty six, is found dead in his girlfriend’s car from an apparent drug overdose. Because Nate had served two years in the Navy before receiving a medical discharge, Captain Donald and his wife were in charge of the arrangements and focused Nate’s entire funeral around military rites and honors burying him at a National Cemetery.   


a). What is your analysis of their relationship with Nate?

b). As a good friend, how would you start a conversation with them about Nate in the future?


CASE # 5 Seventy one year old Dan accidently finds a suicide note while cleaning out his daughter Kim’s car a month after her funeral. It takes him two days to be able to read it completely. He refuses to show the note to his ex wife, Kim’s mother, Sandy, even though they were both aware that Kim had committed suicide. Six months later Dan confides in you about the note.


a). What advice would you give him regarding the note?

b). What would you say to Sandy if she learned of the note and that you knew about it?  



CASE # 6  Eddie and Hannah are both eighteen year old high school graduates. Hannah ends up pregnant and miscarries at the end of her first trimester. Eddie appears to be relieved, but Hannah is overcome with grief for the loss of her baby. Her expressions of grief are the total opposite of Eddie’s absence of grief.


a). How would you express compassion and support to Hannah?

b). How would you talk to Eddie if he asked you to help Hannah “get over it”? 

CASE # 7  Sam and Jenny’s daughter Dianne has just died from a severe form of cancer at age sixteen. She is badly disfigured on one side of her face. Both of Sam’s parents are very insistent that either the casket be closed or that they have her cremated and a memorial service at a later date. Both Sam and Jenny find their suggestions to be against their own desires. Dianne’s younger brother agrees strongly with Sam’s parents.


a). Identify the major relational problem in this situation.

b). What should Sam and Jenny do to help the family grieve together in a unified way?  


Central Institute of Theological Studies
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Dayton, Ohio    45475