The phenomenon of bereaved parenting: Parenting surviving children after the death of a child from cancer

Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

The death of a child is a tragic, devastating event that has enormous emotional and relational impact on the family unit. Parental changes are significant, encompassing the psychological, physical, spiritual, and interpersonal realms. Little bereavement research has focused on the relationship between bereaved parents and their surviving children, or more precisely, the crucial familial role of parenting after another child's death. A noteworthy gap likewise exists in current literature regarding the experience of parenting within families who suffered the death of a child due to an extended, life-limiting illness such as cancer.

The purpose of this interpretative phenomenological analysis was to explore the lived experience of bereaved parents who parent surviving children after the death of a child from cancer. Seven mothers and four fathers (n=11) across the United States participated in video or face-to-face semi-structured, individual interviews. Parents had a range of 1-2 surviving children whose ages spanned 23 months-18 years (M=8.27; SD=5.07) at the time of their sibling's death (M=5.43 years earlier; SD=3.17). Data analysis revealed two primary themes representative of parenting after a child's cancer death. A New Mind denotes bereaved parents' new, contrasting mindsets of: (a) desiring to maintain the old self yet needing to become a new, changed person; (b) wanting to attend to personal grief (internal needs) yet needing to care for surviving children (external duties); (c) realizing powerlessness yet choosing intentionality in parenting; (d) fearing tomorrow and cherishing the present; (e) being protective and permissive with children; (f) hanging on to what was and bridging into life again; and (g) disconnecting from those who cannot understand and connecting with those who can. Be Beside Me highlights parents' deep desire that others come alongside them by validating their emotions and experience and providing opportunities for family renewal.

These findings reveal the unique nature of parenting after a child's cancer death and contribute to the current understanding of family functioning in bereavement. Clinicians working with bereaved families should have awareness of and consider parents' changed perspectives, challenges, and supportive needs in order to deliver family-centered care and education and enrich existing services and support programs.

Bereavement, Parenting, Pediatric cancer, Interpretative phenomenological analysis