PTSD and the Loss of a Child

PTSD and the Loss of a Child

Signs, Symptoms, and Help

  • baby holding fingerThere is no greater fear for a parent than the thought of losing their child to cancer. Losing a child is one of the most heart-wrenching experiences a person can go through and can seem unrecoverable physically and emotionally.

Life with our child shapes who we are as people. When this precious child’s life is gone, parents lose part of themselves. Once-happy memories invade daily thoughts and can incapacitate a parent for months and sometimes years. Parents are supposed to outlive their child, not bury them before they have lived a full life.

The psychological effects of losing a child can lead to a wide range of mental health issues, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Cognitive and physical symptoms linked to stress
  • Marital issues
  • Increased risk of suicide, pain, and guilt

How Many Parents Lose a Child Each Year?

The The New York Times reported in 2017 that 7% percent (or 23.3 million people) are parents grieving the loss of a child.

child memorialTrauma

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.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is an emotional response to a shocking, distressing event. Losing a child is one of the most traumatic events a parent can experience.

Trauma Symptoms

There are several symptoms of trauma for loved ones grieving the loss of a child including: 

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Denial
  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Nightmares
  • 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).

What is 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 symptoms

How many people suffer from PTSD?

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. 

Can losing a child cause PTSD?

The psychological effects of losing a child can lead to a wide range of psychological and physiological problems, including PTSD and associated mental health disorders.

PTSD after the death of a child causes weeks, months, and sometimes years of pain. Losing a child can make life feel like time stands still. Parents are supposed to outlive their child, not bury them before they have lived a full life.

PTSD Symptoms

Someone with PTSD may experience a range of different symptoms. 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 ultimately death of the child
  • Aggressive and/or reckless behavior
  • Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something reminding 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
Dad kissing child on foreheadGetting 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:

  • Psychologists
  • Psychiatrists
  • 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. 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.

CGD Symptoms

The symptoms of CGD include:Mother struggling to rest

  • Inability to focus
  • 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

How can we help? 

Here To Serve believes that caregiving continues, even if the absolute worst happens and a child passes away. Checking in with loved ones battling cancer and encouraging the 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. Therapy can help and 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.

About the Author

Bryan Quintas is the son of the founder of Here to Serve, who also battled stage IV cancer himself. He knows the gut-wrenching battle to keep living when your body turns against you. He has devoted his life to helping others. He is a graduate of USC, and is now getting his MS in Marriage and Family Therapy at Fuller Seminary.

 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.