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Which is harder losing a child or spouse?

Losing a loved one is one of the most painful experiences a person can go through. The grief of losing a spouse or child can seem unbearable at times. Many people wonder which loss is more difficult – losing a spouse or losing a child. There is no easy answer, as both involve deep anguish and adjustment. However, by looking at the unique factors involved in each loss, we can gain some perspective on which grief may be more enduring and incapacitating.

Impact of Losing a Child

The loss of a child is devastating because it defies the natural order of life. As parents, we expect our children to outlive us and when that does not happen, it can feel profoundly wrong. The death of a child represents the loss of hopes, dreams and unfulfilled potential. Parents often feel immense guilt, blame themselves and obsess over what they could have done differently. The grief of losing a child is a trauma that can take years to accept.

Parents may suffer from extreme loneliness after their child passes away. The house may feel intolerably quiet and empty. Milestones like birthdays and holidays only accentuate the absence. Every routine and habit is disrupted. Seeing other families with children can provoke intense grief and jealousy. Parents describe feeling like a vital part of them died too.

The grieving process places tremendous strain on marriages. Spouses grieve differently which can cause misunderstandings, resentment and isolation. According to the Compassionate Friends organization, some 90% of couples divorce following the death of a child. Providing comfort and support to your partner while processing your own grief is extremely difficult.

The loss of a child violates the natural order, as parents expect to die before their children do. This can trigger anger at one’s faith or shake the foundations of a parent’s beliefs about the world. Parents describe losing meaning, purpose and the will to live after such a tragic loss.

Why child loss grief lingers

  • Death of unfulfilled potential and dreams
  • Intense guilt and regret
  • Profound loneliness
  • Disrupted routines and habits
  • Feeling like a part of you died too
  • Questioning of beliefs and faith
  • Losing sense of purpose

Impact of Losing a Spouse

Losing a spouse is an incredibly difficult transition as well. Married couples often share an intimate bond and losing that companionship can be devastating. Spouses often rely on each other for emotional support and practical help with household and financial matters. Navigating life alone after decades of marriage can feel impossible.

Widows and widowers describe profound loneliness after the death of their spouse. The loss of physical intimacy and companionship is deeply painful. Managing household tasks like cooking, cleaning, finances and home maintenance alone is a major adjustment.

Losing a spouse may also lead to a loss of identity and purpose. Marriages provide meaning and structure that is suddenly removed. Retirement plans and dreams for the future evaporate. Travel plans and social relationships shift. Financial hardships may also emerge which adds more stress.

Grieving spouses can experience intense guilt if they felt relief at no longer being a caregiver after a long illness. They may also obsess over regrets and last words shared in the final days. Holidays, anniversaries and other special occasions highlight the absence.

According to a study in The Gerontologist, about 15% of widows or widowers experience so much grief that their ability to function is impaired. This prolonged and intense mourning, known as complicated grief, prevents adapting to life alone.

Why spousal loss grief lingers

  • Loss of intimacy, companionship, identity
  • Financial and practical challenges
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Regret and guilt
  • Lost dreams and plans for the future
  • Difficulty adapting to new identity

Factors That Influence Grief

While both spousal loss and child loss are incredibly painful, there are some factors that may influence the severity and duration of grief:

  • Age of child – Losing a younger child who still needed parental care often causes more guilt and distress.
  • Age of spouse – Losing a spouse at a younger age leaves more years of life alone.
  • Suddenness – Sudden, unexpected deaths are often harder to accept.
  • Time together – The length of the relationship influences the attachment and life built together.
  • Support networks – Strong family and community support helps buffer grief.
  • Faith – Religious and spiritual beliefs may offer comfort about the afterlife.
  • Past losses – Previous experiences with grief can compound the mourning process.

The circumstances around the death and the survivors’ resources impact grief reactions. However, some overall patterns emerge when comparing the loss of a spouse to the loss of a child.

Which Loss Is More Devastating?

While both spousal loss and child loss are incredibly painful experiences, most grief experts and researchers agree that the loss of a child is generally a more devastating and traumatizing form of grief. There are several reasons child loss is often considered a more impactful grief experience:

  • The death of a child defies the natural order. Parents expect children to outlive them which makes child loss feel profoundly “wrong.”
  • The loss of unfulfilled potential and dreams is immense. Parents grieve all the future milestones that will never be.
  • Parents often feel immense guilt and blame regarding a child’s death. Questioning if they did enough plagues them.
  • The loneliness and isolation tends to be more severe after a child dies. Everyday habits are disrupted entirely.
  • Losing a child can shake the foundations of beliefs and meaning in one’s life. Questioning faith and purpose is common.
  • Marital stress and divorce rates are higher following the loss of a child compared to spousal loss.
  • Child loss grief tends to last longer and may never fully resolve. The trauma haunts parents indefinitely.

For parents, the death of a child represents the loss of a vital piece of their heart and identity. The violation of “natural order” makes the grief particularly challenging to integrate. Parents describe profound loneliness and an existential crisis of meaning and purpose. These facets tend to make child loss a singularly traumatizing form of grief.


There is no hierarchy of grief. The loss of a spouse and the loss of a child are both devastating life events. However, most grief researchers concur that the trauma of losing a child tends to be a more impactful, long-lasting and emotionally devastating form of grief. The permanency of the loss, guilt, loneliness and violation of life’s “natural order” are some factors that make child loss an exceptionally traumatizing experience. While losing a life partner is incredibly difficult, the loss of unfulfilled hopes and dreams with a child’s death makes it a singularly painful form of grief. Understanding the intense anguish of those mourning a child can help friends and family provide meaningful support through an excruciating journey and long-term healing process.