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Parental Grief

Deanna Johnston, M.A, LPC

February 18, 2021

Moment in Time

Grief is experienced throughout the process of cancer treatment. One does not need to experience death to experience grief of what is happening in the immediate moment. Anticipatory mourning is the term used to describe this process. This “concept [is] referring not only to the grief generated by the possibility of future loss but primarily as a reaction to the losses currently experienced in the course of the illness” (Meagher & Balk, 2013, p. 21). When grief is mentioned below, it is often done so in the context of death, but not in all instances. Many of the concepts apply to parents who have children who are in treatment, who are in remission, or who have passed away. Even more so, the emphasis is on how each parent may grieve differently.

Witnessing Grief

Grief—it is both an individual process and a process that needs to be witnessed by the larger family system and community (Kessler, 2020). The type of support needed is as unique as the individual experiencing the grief. This becomes a difficult process to navigate when two parents are grieving over a child, and often, express and feel their grief in different ways. This is further compounded in that both are hurting, both need their grief to be witnessed, or seen and felt, and it is all happening simultaneously.

Some parents together, or individually, will turn to religious beliefs to help explain what has happened. Others will turn to support groups. There is evidence that a way forward in grief is to help another in grief, but this cannot be made as a blanket statement (Kessler, 2020) Compassionate Friends is a group that was developed to support families grieving the death of a child. Other groups, such as The Candlelighters, are specific to childhood cancer and provide various services and support groups during the entire process. However, they also know the importance of supporting the process of, and giving witness to, grief (Meagher & Balk, 2013). Again, one parent may utilize these resources, while the other may not wish to do so. One may find meaning in groups or religion, the other may not.


When they are experiencing grief, “bereaved parents redefine their sense of identity and their relationships to others because of their experience of bereavement” (Meagher & Balk, 2013, p. 163). In navigating their relationships to others, they are also navigating and redefining their relationship with each other in terms of being parents and/or partners.

One area that grief work has changed is to depathologize parents maintaining attachment, or the emotional connection, to their child. In maintaining attachment, the child is still with the parents, but in a different form (Kessler, 2020; Meagher & Balk, 2013). One parent may go search for, or look to, an afterlife, while another may not. “The reality is that no two people will react to an event in the same way” (Kessler, 2020). The way each parent perceives an ongoing attachment will be based on “cultural background, their family, religion, temperament, and life experience” (Kessler, 2020). In discussing the relationships between attachment to their child, and attachment to the family of a grieving parent, known as family of origin, fathers who grew up with inconsistent parents may experience unresolved grief (Kessler, 2020).

Men, as grieving fathers, are often placed in a no-win situation. Fathers may appear to make a quick recovery in that traditionally in America, men have been discouraged from showing vulnerability. At the same time, they are receiving messages that they need to care for the mother of the child, but that “correct” grieving includes discussing their emotions, or in other words, be vulnerable(Meagher & Balk, 2013).

What Does Grief Look Like?

The idea of what grief should look like also needs to be challenged. Some, men and women, “get back to ‘normal’ as soon as they can. They appear too strong. Perhaps disconnected. Since they don’t publicly or privately cry or share their feelings with friends and family, they are often misunderstood” (Kessler, 2020). Kessler (2020) calls this style of bereavement the “practical grievers.” For practical grievers, they do still feel the pain and loss. It is important for parents to understand this, and to not impose their idea of grief onto the other, instead respecting the other’s grief process.

When parents are faced with a health crisis, or death, they often go in search of answers. The search for a cause, along with multiple emotions a parent may feel related to their grief, “can militate against the parents being resources for another as they cope with their loss” (Meagher & Balk, 2013, p. 166). An adaptive task during this time is to “maintain interpersonal relationships” (Meagher & Balk, 2013, p. 166). However, some parents pull away from each other as they search for answers. However, it is wrong to assume that these relationships will not survive. With time, “bereaved parents demonstrate positive signs of healthy adjustment” (Meagher & Balk, 2013, p. 166). Some parents may seek out mental health treatment, either as individuals or as couples. “Whatever the framework, the parents’ reaction the child’s illness, and the impact on their [relationship] and family are the organizing themes” (Holland, 1998, p. 952).

Your Grief is Yours

Parents may grieve for many reasons and in many ways. The grieve may come when learning of a diagnosis and losing “what should or shouldn’t be,” even if there is no death. It may be when a child passes away. Some may sit quietly, while others turn to outward sources of support. Each parent will grieve, and each will have their own process that is to be respected.

Deanna Johnston is a Licensed Professional Counselor in College Station, Texas. She attended the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, earning a degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She previously worked as an embedded counselor in oncology before opening her private practice. Deanna is pursuing ongoing study in thanatology. She works with trauma, chronic illness, and bereavement.

Holland, J.C. (Ed.). (1998). Psycho-Oncology. Oxford.

Kessler, D. (2020). Finding meaning: The sixth stage of grief. Scribner.

Meagher, D.K. & Balk, D.E. (Eds.) (2013). Handbook of thanatology: The essential body of knowledge for the study of death, dying, and bereavement. Routledge.

© 2021 Deanna Johnston

#grief #childhoodcancer #childloss #oncology

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