Holding in the Grief of Child Loss

I’ve suffered child loss for a few years now, and I still vividly remember the day my son died. He passed away in the morning, and for several hours after he died, I couldn’t cry. The tears just wouldn’t come. I thought something must be wrong with me. Why can’t I cry? After that, a few tears would appear, a tear here, a tear there. By evening, the dam broke and my tears flowed like a river. 

The type of grief I experienced when my child died was a form of delayed grief. Delayed grief is where a person might not feel sadness over a loss till hours later. Sometimes, one may experience delayed grief days, weeks, months, or even years after the event occurred. This type of grief usually results from an unexpected trauma. My son died suddenly. I was in shock at the suddenness of it all and, at first, I couldn’t grieve. 

As time passed, my grief became more intense with the bouts of crying taking longer to subside. Although it’s been a while since my child died, I still cry. The grief of child loss never goes away.

Sometimes, the emotions need time to open up. The outlet for sadness manifests itself later. The emotional numbness that accompanies delayed grief is normal.

What isn’t normal is when the outlet for grief remains closed. 

Why Do People Hold In Grief?

Men and Women Grieve Differently

Although men tend to hold in grief, women may also be reluctant to talk about their feelings.

In general, men tend not to discuss their feelings, and therefore tend to hold in grief more than women. There are a variety of reasons for this. Talking about feelings may be perceived as ‘unmanly’. A man may feel ashamed because he sees himself as vulnerable. A man may not have the vocabulary to express complicated feelings. Women tend to be more verbal than men and are able to express themselves better with words.

Holding in grief is not the exclusive domain of men. Women may also hide feelings of grief. A woman may be afraid that people just won’t understand why she feels the way she does, thereby minimizing her feelings. A woman may be a very private person who won’t discuss personal problems with anyone. A man may also hold in grief for these reasons as well.

Society encourages holding in feelings of grief. From childhood, we are warned not to ‘wear our hearts on our sleeve’, meaning that it’s a social no-no to openly discuss personal feelings. Most people take this maxim to mean that one should not discuss private details with casual acquaintances or strangers, and that’s fine. Unfortunately, sometimes even close friends may be uncomfortable talking about another’s loss.

Holding in Grief is Emotionally Unhealthy

Psychology Today in their article Expressing Grief vs. Holding It In reported the results of a study that showed when parents suffering from child loss both held in their grief, the grief of each partner was more intense. Sometimes, parents choose not to discuss the loss of a child with each other. ‘I don’t want to feel sad’, ’I don’t want to see him/her cry’, ‘I have to be strong for my husband/wife’ are just some of the reasons why parents won’t open up to each other. However, the truth is that when both parents express their feelings of grief, each can better cope with the loss they both share. 

Holding in Grief is Physically Unhealthy

Studies have shown that the physical health of bereaved parents can deteriorate after the death of a child. From the article ‘Bereaved spouses, children, parents and siblings are all at-risk of premature death as a result of their loss’:

‘Scientific evidence indicates that bereaved parents are more likely to suffer more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, less purpose in life, more health complications, marital disruption, psychiatric hospitalization, and even premature death for both mothers and fathers as early as age 40.’

These articles didn’t say whether the parents in these studies were hiding their grief. I assume they were not. The results for a parent who holds in grief must be worse. If bereaved parents are more likely to suffer increased physical and mental problems than non-bereaved parents, how much more so for bereaved parents who hold in feelings of grief.

man alone on couch covering face, grieving alone

Choosing to bear grief alone is neither emotionally nor physically healthy.

Holding in Grief Hurts Relationships

As opposed to both parents hiding their grief, a more common situation in child loss is where when one parent holds in grief and the other doesn’t. The parent who keeps emotions inside may develop health issues as discussed above. The parent who wants to talk about feelings of grief has no one to talk to, is grieving alone, and feels anger and resentment against their spouse.

The Key to Coping with Grief is to Talk it Out

If you’re uncomfortable talking to others about your grief then sit in a quiet spot and talk to yourself. If G-d is a part of your life, talk to Him too. The most important thing is to get the words out.

When you’re ready, find a child loss grief support group. At the beginning, you don’t even have to say anything. Just be there, either online or in person. Other grieving parents will understand that you’re not yet ready to talk. People are there to help each other without being judgmental. You may find that you’re not the only one hesitant to talk about grief. When you feel more comfortable with the people in the group, you’ll be ready to contribute your thoughts and feelings.

A personal grief therapist is also an option. The first session is usually getting to know you and the circumstances surrounding your loss. The remaining sessions will consist of the therapist gently trying to coax the words out of you. For a person uncomfortable speaking in a group setting, a one-on-one therapist may be a good choice.

Art therapy is another outlet to express feelings of grief. Sometimes, it’s easier to express an emotion in pictures than words. One doesn’t have to be an artist to benefit from art therapy. Just draw what you feel. The drawing doesn’t have to look like anything. One can do this privately at home, or under the direction of an art therapist.

As with all types of grief therapy, it’s just a matter of finding the right group or therapist that works for you. Read this article on the pros and cons of various types of grief therapy.

It’s hard to talk about child loss. Holding in grief makes child loss a lot harder.

It’s hard for to take that first step to talk about grief, but it’s necessary for one’s emotional and physical wellbeing.

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