PTSD and the Loss of a Child
Recognizing the Symptoms of PTSD
There is no greater fear for a parent than the thought of losing your child to cancer. Losing a loved one is one of the most heart-wrenching experiences a person can go through; if the lost loved one is your child, it could seem, and sometimes is, unrecoverable physically and emotionally. No one prepares for such a loss, nor should they. Our children shape our lives and own part of our identity. So, losing a child is akin to a parent losing part of yourself. Memories of life with our child shape who we are as people, and when this precious child’s life is gone, so departs part of us. These once-happy memories invade daily thoughts and can incapacitate a parent for months and sometimes years.
An Estimated 3,180 Parents Will Lose a Child to Cancer This Year
It is estimated that 1,040 deaths from cancer will occur in the United States this year (2023) in children younger than 15. An estimated 550 deaths from cancer will occur in teens ages 15 to 19. The emotional blow associated with the death of your child can lead to a wide range of psychological and physiological problems, including depression, anxiety, cognitive and physical symptoms linked to stress, marital issues, increased risk of suicide, pain, and guilt. Losing a loved one, weeks, months, and sometimes years that follow seem to make time standstill. Parents are supposed to outlive their child, not bury them before they have lived a full life.
As parents search to make sense of their loss, they cry more, eat more or less, cannot sleep, long for their child, and wonder how they will live without them. Then, finally, trauma occurs, which is an emotional response to a shocking, distressing event. There are several trauma symptoms, including nausea, dizziness, sadness, anger, denial, fear, shame, nightmares and/or difficulty sleeping, insomnia or altered sleep patterns, difficulty maintaining and starting new relationships, emotional and/or angry outbursts, gastrointestinal problems.
The loss of a child is not something that seems possible, and it is no surprise a child’s death triggers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the American Psychiatric Association, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychiatric disorder that can develop after having witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. PTSD affects about 3.5% of adults in the United States. It is estimated 7 to 8% of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, with women being twice as likely as men. Grief from the loss of a child is so intense many suffer from PTSD for years after their child’s death.
There are many different symptoms someone with PTSD may experience. PTSD does not require a person to experience all these symptoms. They include:
- Lack of interest in activities the person once enjoyed
- Negative thinking or mood about oneself, other people, or the world
- Easily startled or frightened
- Lasting feelings of anxiety
- Avoiding places, activities, or people that remind the person of their child
- Flashbacks or nightmares
- Recurrent, distressing memories of the suffering and ultimate death of the child
- Aggressive and/or reckless behavior
- Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of your child
- Feelings of hopelessness, detachment, sadness, anger, guilt, shame, or irritability
- Difficulty concentrating and memory problems
- Difficulty maintaining or creating close relationships
Getting Help for PTSD
Most people recover from the trauma of a child’s death after a period of adjustment. However, if symptoms persist for more than three months, getting help from a therapist will help you adjust to what happened and get back to living life. Mental health professionals who can help include:
- Licensed clinical social workers
- Licensed professional counselors
- Licensed trauma professional
- bereavement specialists
Cognitive-behavioral therapy has proven effective for people with PTSD. This type of therapy teaches ways to replace negative, unhelpful thoughts and feelings with more positive thinking. Behavioral strategies can be used at the patient’s own pace to help desensitize the traumatic parts of what happened.
Complicated Grief Disorder (CGD)
For most, grief passes with time for some people. But, unfortunately for others, the feelings and emotions after suffering the loss of their child do not improve after significant time has passed. ART International (Accelerated Resolution Therapy) calls this persistent bereavement Complicated Grief Disorder (CGD). A sub-sect of PTSD, also known as Complex Bereavement Disorder, is a common manifestation in the process of intense grief. The emotions attached to such gut-wrenching loss can be tough to navigate and recover from, to the point that the one suffering can find it hard to move on with their lives or even how to live.
The symptoms of CGD include:
* Inability to focus on anything,
* Extreme avoidance of reminders,
* Numbness or detachment,
* Feelings of bitterness or that life has no purpose,
* Lack of trust in others,
* Feelings of guilt or self-blame,
* Either extreme focus or avoidance of reminders of a loved one,
* Unable to focus on anything other than the loss,
* Inability to accept the death,
* Feelings of bitterness or that life holds no purpose.
Here to Serve
At Here To Serve, we believe that caregiving continues, even if the absolute worst happens when a child passes away. Supporting the families by checking in and encouraging their community to do the same makes this unique devastation less isolating. People may feel like they are on an island, but they don’t have to, nor do they want to be a majority of the time. Yes, therapy can help should be encouraged and recommended. Still, the method that even therapists would agree with is interacting with your community and friends and having people walk the journey of losing a child and navigating PTSD together. Here to Serve is here to assist you during this difficult time.
About the Author
Bryan Quintas, M.S. M.F.T.
Bryan Quintas is a Stage IV childhood cancer survivor. After battling cancer at 16, he has endured life-long effects from his treatments. Even so, he graduated from USC’s Annenberg School with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications. He also holds a Master’s Degree from Fuller Seminary in Clinical Psychology, specifically in Marriage and Family Therapy. He has dedicated his life and career to helping others through life’s challenges.
All information on this blog is for informational and educational purposes only. Always consult a medical provider in your particular area of need before making significant changes in your medical decisions or lifestyle.