Transforming Grief – When I Lost My Only Child | Phil Cohen | TEDxYoungCirclePark (2023)


Phil Cohen grips the TEDx audience as he describes the life-altering experience of losing his only child, his fourteen-year-old son, Perry. In what turned out to be one of the most extensive searches in U.S. Coast Guard history. In his search for healing, Phil tells how a message from his late son, delivered in his darkest moments, caused him to shift his perspective, transforming his relationship with grief. In this talk, he shares the one thing missing from his counseling sessions, a strategy that has helped him cope with the unthinkable. Cohen is the author of The Grief Continuum, a methodology for transforming loss into empowerment for those experiencing grief. Phil Cohen is an award-winning speaker, coach, and creator of The Grief Continuum™, a framework for helping others to grow, flourish and overcome despair by discovering and developing their inner resilience. For over 25 years, Phil has helped global technology start-ups grow and prosper through developing their sales teams. After experiencing the sudden loss of his son, Phil has found a renewed purpose in helping others to integrate grief into their own lives after experiencing the inevitable traumas, tragedies, and transitions in life. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at


I was seated at the kitchen table across from the admiral of the united states coast guard.

I see uttered words that no parent could possibly prepare themselves to hear tomorrow we'll be holding a press conference to publicly announce that the search is being called off I'm.

So sorry, he said after hearing those words, I sat paralyzed in my chair.

And I thought my son, my only child isn't coming home, I'm, never going to recover from this.

And while I outwardly did my best to keep it together in public inside.

I was devastated, but I became fearful of getting overwhelmed or appearing out of control.

So I buried the pain, and I tried to carry on as normal at one point having no idea what I'm supposed to do.

I actually googled how to grieve and the well-known model referred to as the five stages of grief, has dominated searches around this topic for decades.

In case, you're unfamiliar, the model suggests that grief begins that denial and ends at acceptance.

And almost immediately.

I felt a sense of pressure like I was doing something wrong because I didn't experience grief, like this.

I was surprised to eventually come to learn that the stages model was originally introduced in the late 60s and that it was actually developed for terminally ill cancer patients to process their own grief.

And although they've been applied this way for as long as I can remember the stages model was never intended for the bereaved.

My idea is called the grief continuum.

And it suggests that navigating grief, isn't like navigating school that we don't all start at the same place graduate through the same stages to eventually arrive at the same destination.

Rather that grief would be more accurately represented on a bi-directional continuum with acceptance in the center.

And when tragedy arises, we've land on the continuum somewhere below acceptance.

And perhaps for some their first experience is one of denial or anger, bargaining or depression.

After first learning that my 14 year old son and his close friend were last seen leaving the jupiter inlet on a 19-foot fishing boat, and that the coast guard was actively searching for them.

My first experience wasn't any of these.

It was fear and a crippling sense of helplessness.

I mean, if the boys were lost in a field somewhere at least I could go to where they were and walk a grid pattern day and night until I found them.

But this was the atlantic ocean that search lasted seven excruciating days, all while it played out on national news and social media.

It actually turned out to be one of the most extensive searches in the history of the coast guard.

But neither of the boys were ever found.

And exactly what happened at sea that day still remains.

Unclear the period that followed was indescribably painful thoughts, like I'm, not a father anymore.

You couldn't even protect your own son.

And just all the what-ifs led me to stages like worthlessness and guilt and shame and sometimes even revenge.

And while I eventually did arrive at acceptance my journey.

There was anything but linear or even forward.

In fact, I'd approached acceptance in numerous times.

And each time finding a new reason to fall back into despair, like even years later after the incident, I found myself worried that I might be judged for posting a picture of myself on social media.

And it made me wonder is there a certain amount of time that needs to pass before it would be considered socially acceptable for me to be seen smiling again.

And then one moment changed everything.

And suddenly I'd felt something that I hadn't experienced in a really long time, just on the other side of acceptance.

I found subtle optimism, just a small sign that let me know that I might just actually recover from this.

And that led me to curiosity and eventually, courage and forgiveness.

And now a sense of purpose that I'd never imagined.

So is it possible that somewhere on the other side of acceptance grief, holds gifts.

It is possible, and I know that because I've experienced it and so have countless others.

But the point that I want you to take away here is that even if you've reached acceptance and found gifts beyond at any point in time, we could easily hear a song that reminds us of the one that we love and find ourselves in tears.

And if we do it, doesn't mean, we're grieving wrong, because there is no one-size-fits-all model for grief.

What I want you to take away and what I'm trying to illustrate here is that grief, doesn't always start at denial or end that acceptance.

And because it doesn't, I believe the journey should accurately reflect it.

Okay, phil.

So then what was the moment that changed everything? I mean, what did you actually do to surpass acceptance that moment occurred during one of the many times that I'd found myself on the floor curled up in a ball missing my son, except for this time, I saw him quite vividly.

And he looked at me and said, get up.

Dad, it's.

Okay, I'll see you when you get here.

And in that moment, I realize that whatever feeling we may be searching for in grief for me.

It was just a sense to know that life would be.

Okay, again.

Now you might call that healing or acceptance or peace.

But whatever it is that feelings, you're searching for inside is already inside you.

Because what perry's words really showed me is that sometimes we just need to give ourselves permission to feel it.

And I think that this whole notion of giving myself permission, eluded me for so long is because culturally as men, well, we're, basically brainwashed to believe real men, don't cry or share emotion or seek therapy we're supposed to just suck it up and tough it out.

But that strategy doesn't work with grief, because we can never outrun the reminders or outflank the memories.

And you can't deny or insulate yourself from the pain.

The only way that I was able to truly begin to heal from that pain was to truly begin to feel the pain to stop running from it to acknowledge it.

And sometimes to even sit in it.

And over time, I became open to the memories and connected to the reminders.

And if I'm being honest, I used to believe that I needed someone or something else to help me heal my therapist and authority figure to give me permission.

But now I believe one of the greatest acts of self-love we can offer is being our own caregiver.

Now you might think this is silly.

But one of the ways that I used to do that was with post-it notes.

And I'd place them in places where I could see them every day I called these.

My permission slips giving myself permission was the catalyst to me getting up and taking that first step and then the next.

And slowly, I watch the pieces of my life come back together.

And while I do realize that our experiences with grief, yours and mine are different eventually like my son perry, I bet your loved one would tell you to get up too.

So sometimes our grief can really be part of how we choose to honor and respect, the ones we love despite their physical absence.

My hope for all this is that the next time someone finds themselves in their own search for acceptance and googles, how to grieve that to discover the grief, continuum and realize that grief, can't always be confined to five stages, and that regardless of where we land our journeys to acceptance, aren't, always going to be the same.

And that when we finally do arrive at the threshold of acceptance, what will ultimately determine whether we keep falling back into a life of utter despair? Or whether we can push forward into a life of purpose and passion are the methods that we choose to integrate grief into our lives, it's been six years and five months since that admiral told me the search was coming to an end.

And when I relive that moment now I often picture myself saying, no, sir your search may end tomorrow, but mine, my search it's just getting started.

Thank you.


Are you still a mother if your only child dies? ›

To every courageous loss mama, with an aching heart and empty arms, I leave you with this: Yes, you are a still a mother, and you always, always will be. The love you two share is forever, just as your motherhood is forever. No one can take that away from you.

How do you live after losing a child? ›

You may find the following suggestions helpful while grieving:
  1. Talk about your child often and use his or her name.
  2. Ask family and friends for help with housework, errands, and caring for other children. ...
  3. Take time deciding what to do with your child's belongings.

What are the 5 stages of grief after losing a child? ›

Swiss psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, described grief as having five specific stages, moving from denial to anger to bargaining, then to depression and finally acceptance. In fact, while this is a useful framework for describing the components of grief, people do not move through the stages in a linear fashion.

Is there a name for a parent that loses a child? ›

Origin of the term “Vilomah.”

In recent days, this word is gaining acceptance and is building a community around itself. The term “Vilomah” describes a parent who has lost their child. Life has its natural order, and in that order, children are supposed to outlive their parents.

How does a mother feel when her child dies? ›

Many parents are filled with intense feelings of sorrow, despair, anger, fear and emptiness. They may replay and question the circumstances of their child's death over and over, experiencing feelings of guilt and frustration. These reactions are normal.

What happens to a parent when a child dies? ›

Parents of children and adolescents who die are found to suffer a broad range of difficult mental and physical symptoms. As with many losses, depressed feelings are accompanied by intense feelings of sadness, despair, helplessness, loneliness, abandonment, and a wish to die [28].

How many parents stay together after the death of a child? ›

Newer data shows that only about 16% of marriages end in divorce after the death of the child, and only 4% of those say it was due to the death. If 50% of all marriages end in divorce, the low rate of 16% for bereaved parents is quite remarkable. Highly stressful life events can be polarizing for a couple.

How do I rebuild my life after the death of my child? ›

There are ways to connect with a child which help to rebuild a life, stay in touch with their friends – they will help you remember the good times, celebrate their birthday, take specific time out of a day to remember, embrace dreams of the child, keep a journal of things remembered; this way they are not forgotten.

Is losing a child traumatic? ›

Compared with other parents, bereaved parents are more likely to experience a series of mental disorders, including complicated grief, anger, guilt, anxiety, depression and so on. Moreover, losing a child can be traumatic and result in long-term health consequences [2].

What does unresolved grief look like? ›

Unresolved grief, or complex grief, is different from normal grief in various ways. First, it lasts much longer, at times for many years. Second, it's much more severe and intense, not lessening with time but instead often worsening. Third, it interferes with a person's ability to function normally in daily life.

What is dysfunctional grief? ›

Abstract. Dysfunctional grieving represents a failure to follow the predictable course of normal grieving to resolution (Lindemann, 1944). When the process deviates from the norm, the individual becomes overwhelmed and resorts to maladaptive coping.

Can losing a child cause PTSD? ›

One study found that 35 percent of parents who lost a young child unexpectedly met the criteria for PTSD. While losing an adult child may be less shocking, it still has the potential to trigger symptoms.

What is the symbol of the loss of a child? ›

The rainbow symbol has been used by members of the baby loss community for many years. For some parents, the symbol of a rainbow over-simplifies their experience because the arrival of a rainbow baby doesn't take away the grief they feel about their loss.

What percentage of parents lose a child? ›

Bereaved Parents

By age 60, nine percent of Americans have experienced the death of a child. By 70, 15 percent of American parents have lost a child. By age 80, 18 percent of American parents have experienced the death of a child.

Does grief ever go away? ›

Although the intensity of your feelings may lessen over time, there is no timetable for how long you will grieve. The length of time is different for each person. For most people their mourning period is a long process and it can take years.

What does the Bible say about the loss of a child? ›

Bible Verses About Grieving The Loss Of A Child

'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare.

What are the symptoms of grieving mother? ›

Therapeutic/helpful responses to the bereaved mother

Affirm that feelings of guilt, envy, anger, loneliness and anxiety are commonly experienced by mothers who have lost children. Reassure the searing pain is expected, most mothers experience unspeakable suffering with the loss of a child.

What not to say to a grieving parent? ›

What Not to Say to a Grieving Parent
  • Don't say you know how the bereaved parent feels.
  • Never say, "It must have been for the best," or "It was God's will." You can not make sense of loss in these ways. ...
  • Never say the child is in a better place. ...
  • Don't trivialize the parents' story by telling one of your own.
Feb 16, 2023

How do you help a grieving parent who lost a child? ›

Other ways to help a parent who lost a child
  1. Call them.
  2. Send a sympathy card. ...
  3. Hug them. ...
  4. Call the child by name (even if was a baby that they named after the death).
  5. Encourage the parents to share their feelings, as well as stories and memories.
  6. Share your own memories of the child and/or pregnancy.

How does death affect someone mentally? ›

People might feel or act differently to usual when they are grieving. They might have difficulty concentrating, withdraw and not enjoy their usual activities. They may drink, smoke or use drugs. They may also have thoughts of hurting themselves or that they can't go on.

What is the message of 40 days after death? ›

Rest in peace and fly high – you will forever be remembered as my OG!
  • It's been 40 days since you've been gone, and today we are still very sad to say goodbye. ...
  • To say that we are devastated is an understatement. ...
  • I want to thank you for being my father, friend and teacher. ...
  • Dear Dad, I miss you terribly.
Mar 30, 2022

What hurts more losing a child or a spouse? ›

Both are very difficult and no two people grieve the same way. I know several people who have lost both children and spouses and I believe they would all say losing the child was worse. Everyone knows there's a 50% chance they'll outlive their spouse: it's not pleasant but we all know it's at least possible.

Why do marriages fall apart when a child dies? ›

Profile of a Grieving Couple: Four major issues that grieving couples repeatedly reported resulting from the death of their child are (1) sexual problems, (2) emotional distance, (3) more conflict and/or fighting, and (4) if the child was the glue that held their marriage together, they have a need to find a new ...

Why do relationships fail after death of a child? ›

As negative changes in their relationship following the death of their child, parents reported the following: problems caused by failing mental health, problems due to changes in identity, increased difficulty of emotional communication, and decreased sexual intimacy.

Why is losing a child the hardest? ›

It's hard because we miss our babies and we can't see them. The difficulty with child loss exists because we are wishing for something we can't ever have. We miss the children we lost so deeply and all we want is to hold them again. We will never again hold our babies here on Earth.

Why is losing a child so painful? ›

The pain of grief is extremely intense as parents digest the finality of never seeing their child again and the loss of future hopes and plans. While memories of the child flood their mind, they also experience a deep emptiness and unimaginable void in their lives.

What is the divorce rate after death of a child? ›

Newer data shows that only about 16% of marriages end in divorce after the death of the child, and only 4% of those say it was due to the death. If 50% of all marriages end in divorce, the low rate of 16% for bereaved parents is quite remarkable. Highly stressful life events can be polarizing for a couple.

What does losing a child do to your brain? ›

Grief and loss affect the brain and body in many different ways. They can cause changes in memory, behavior, sleep, and body function, affecting the immune system as well as the heart. It can also lead to cognitive effects, such as brain fog.

What happens to a parent when they lose a child? ›

For parents, the dissolution of the attachment relationship with the child elicits severe anxiety and other negative emotions associated with loss (Bowlby, 1980). Parents might also experience guilt about having been unable to protect the child (Gilbert, 1997).

Is there a greater pain than losing a child? ›

There is "no greater pain" than losing a child, says Sylvester Stallone.

Why do parents divorce after losing a child? ›

Research on bereaved parents found that they experienced more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, and other health problems which could lead to marital separation (Rogers, Floyd, Mailick, Greenberg, & Hong, 2008).

What is the toughest stage of grief? ›

What is the hardest stage of grief? Depression is usually the longest and most difficult stage of grief. Depression can be a long and difficult stage in the grieving process, but it's also when people feel their deepest sadness.

Which grief is the hardest? ›

The death of a husband or wife is well recognized as an emotionally devastating event, being ranked on life event scales as the most stressful of all possible losses.

What are the 7 stages of grief after losing a child? ›

The seven emotional stages of grief are usually understood to be shock or disbelief, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and acceptance/hope.

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