2 Major Feelings You’ll Face After Your Child’s Heart Transplant

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When your child has had a heart transplant, an ocean of emotion might come crashing into your mind. Bewilderment, hope, dread, protectiveness—all of these things kick in almost instinctively.

If your emotions are all over the map, please be assured it’s normal, and it’s just a measure of how much you love your child. 

That said, I’ve seen two common emotions arise again and again in parents whose children have had a heart transplant. Here’s some information about those emotions, where they come from, and how to cope with them effectively, so you can be there for your child.

Emotion #1: Fear

Fear is probably the biggest emotion I encounter in parents of transplant kids, and that’s very understandable. It’s especially strong right after the surgery, when a child is still in pretty serious condition and there’s concern about whether the new heart will work out.

As times goes on, the situation changes from an acute illness to a chronic illness. And it can be very demanding to adjust to new issues like medication schedules, follow-up appointments, and more.

At the same time, parents might still be worrying about whether the new heart will continue to work. This can make it tough to function during what you, as the parent, might have hoped would be a purely happy time.

Feeling #2: Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor’s guilt is usually talked about when people experience trauma. For instance, a plane crash survivor might think, “Why did I survive when so many others didn’t?”

But survivor’s guilt is absolutely something I’ve seen in parents of heart transplant kids, too. They’re so happy their child got a new heart and can live a full life. But at the same time, they know that someone else’s child lost his life to provide that heart.

heart transplant

How do you get beyond those mixed emotions? It helps to find ways to honor the deceased child. For example, you might encourage your friends and family to pray for the child’s family.

Or you might post a tribute to the anonymous child on social media, and ask friends and family if they would consider donating to a charity in that child’s memory. These are some ways to honor the deceased child while respecting his family’s privacy at this difficult time.

How Can You Cope?

Don’t Keep Your Feelings To Yourself.

It’s important to try not to keep everything you’re struggling with to yourself. Don’t isolate or withdraw. Pulling away opens the door to dwell on negativity, which only makes things worse.

Instead, reach out to support groups or members of your own support system, like friends, family, and church members. The simple act of talking about your feelings can start the healing process.

Get Into A Routine.

Try to get back into a routine and stick to a schedule. It might be different than it was before your child got his new heart—and that’s okay. What matters is that you develop a sense of normalcy again.

Challenge Your Negative Emotions.

I also encourage parents to challenge what I call “thinking errors.” These happen when we’re unnecessarily hard on ourselves, chide ourselves, or take ownership of things that aren’t actually in our control.

So, challenge emotions like guilt or sadness. Coming to the realization that it’s not your fault prevents you from going back to old patterns of negativity and allows you to make room for healing.

And with healing comes the opportunity to celebrate your child, and honor the person whose heart has given your child a new chance at life.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Sean Akers

Hi, I’m Dr. Sean Akers, and I’m a Licensed Clinical Pediatric Psychologist at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha. I serve as the primary psychologist for the heart transplant team as well as the coordinator of the Consult Liaison Service. My job is to provide heart kids and their families with support throughout their journey.

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