In Flux

Embracing transitions and change

When a Child Dies

Transition through unimaginable loss

In the natural order of things, parents are not meant to bury their children, yet through illness or accident, a parent’s worst nightmare can and does occur. Unlike illness, painful as that kind of passage is, which gives some extended, quality time with the child, death by accident (or suicide) offers no warning, no time to prepare. There is no time to process everything, no time to say good-bye. When death occurs in this way, it’s often more damaging to those left behind; it’s as if the invisible cords that connect us to one another are abruptly and violently severed.

Losing a child in any way is probably the singular most devastating passage anyone could be asked to endure during a lifetime. Some people I’ve met over the years still have not fully resolved the deaths of their children. And when that occurs, getting on with their own lives doesn’t fully happen. Many others have made peace with their losses, having emerged perhaps more appreciative of the life they have moving forward.

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Each person’s capacity to endure through difficulty, to cope through hardship, and to handle extremely adverse obstacles throughout life is dependent on many things. Some people seem to have a natural ability, whether constitutionally inherent or acquired over time, to effectively meet life’s challenges.

Some people heartily embrace and even thrive on situations that require drawing upon inner resources, seeing these as welcomed opportunities for growth. They may even choose to view these difficult situations as vehicles for discovering their inner strength, for learning how tough they are, and for seeing what they’re really made of. On the other hand, some individuals simply “fall apart” at what appear to be the smallest changes in their lives, seeming to lack the capacity or the flexibility to rise to the occasion.

The way that each of us has learned (or not) to adapt to challenging situations and life transitions determines in good part the way we will process whatever happens to us in the future. The individual who has learned to expect and handle adversity will most probably be able to anticipate whatever comes their way and will be able to meet the challenge.

For those who have lost a child, the rituals of one’s religion often help to guide them through the funeral and the required period of mourning. Having that structure certainly helps those suffering the loss to get out of bed and move through the day, though much of that time might be remembered as feeling as if they were living in a fog. But as one women explained to me, “The story is simply that all the rituals and ceremony that surround someone’s death are adequate enough---that is, until you lose a child. Then, at least for a while, nothing works and nothing matters.”

The death of a child shatters the myth of how life is supposed to unfold. Parents are not supposed to bury their children. Parents expect to watch their children grow into adulthood, having given them what they’ll need to succeed. And then as life continues, parents expect to sit back and enjoy their children’s lives, and the lives of their grandchildren. The death of a child cheats parents (and sibs) of this reward.

Having said that, and acknowledging that this unimaginable loss is probably the toughest and harshest of all transitions, here are some important things to help you heal when a child dies.

Acknowledge your loss. Acknowledging implies an understanding about what has happened. By acknowledging you are recognizing the reality of the situation and somehow are accepting the meaning of this reality.

Mourn your loss. Mourning is the emotional acknowledgment of what has happened. Mourning goes to the heart of expressing what the child and your relationship to that child has meant to you, and how the cessation of that life and of that relationship will impact you moving forward in your own life. While a deceased child will never be forgotten, the work of mourning is to be able to separate from the child emotionally in a way so that life can go on for the parents, sibs, and family members.

Take the appropriate amount of time to grieve. It’s essential to recognize that there is no specified time period for grieving a loss. Your loss is unique to you. Each person will find his or her own way through grief, creating his or her own time frame.

Above all, it’s essential to complete the grieving since prolonged grief and/or incomplete grief or non-closure may create a pathological state that interferes with moving forward in your life in a healthy way.

Don’t succumb to stereotypes about loss. Especially about the loss of a child, since many people will never know this situation, and as sympathetic as they are, will never know what you’re experiencing.

Don’t allow others’ opinions or experiences to influence you about what to feel, think, or do. People who claim to know what you’re feeling probably don’t. People who attempt to help you cope by delivering pat advice and often misguided information may mean well but just aren’t being sensitive to your specific situation.

Treasure your memories. Annual days of remembrance such as the anniversary of a death or the deceased child’s birthday are ways to honor your child. For some, this might mean keeping those days private and apart from the everyday life, allowing for reflection and the sharing of memories without outside distraction.

Gather keepsakes. Keep those personal items that were most prized by your child. Perhaps, establish a memorial in your community, or create a “memory book”. Have those people who were close to the child---classmates, teachers, siblings, relatives---write about an experience they’ve shared with the child, or a memory they had of him/her, or any feelings they may have had about him/her. The book of vignettes and reflections will serve as little “snapshots” of your child, little stories that you as parents (and sibs) may never have known about.

Take care of yourself. Expect that all of your inner resources will be fully spent---over and over again, over a long period of time. Honor your limitations while you are mourning and grieving…and beyond. Don’t pressure yourself to do or be anything other than who and where you are. Don’t undertake too much. Save important decisions for a later time. 

Create a support system. Gather caring friends and relatives who truly understand you and what you’ve gone through; those who you know will be there for you when you need them---to listen, to be compassionate, to support and encourage you. Individual therapy and a support group are very useful while you’re trying to sort through the process of grieving, trying to pick up the pieces of your life, and trying to make plans for the next phase of your life.

Allow yourself to heal. This is probably the hardest thing you will have to do. A mother I know promised herself that she wouldn’t continue on depressed and morose as the way to honor her child’s life. She determined that her sorrow would not be her child’s legacy. Affirm your own healing through the life your child lived---through their character, through their gifts, and through their courage to the end. If you’re able, honor your child’s memory by choosing life.

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life and other books.

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