Living Through the Unimaginable: The Death of a Child

What can you say or do for someone who has lost a child?

Posted Jul 03, 2013

Recently, a friend of mind was in a quandary: what can you say or do for someone who has lost a child? What words can possibly touch the place of such deep grief, of such intense suffering? The truth is there is really nothing to say. Platitudes ring empty. “She’s with God now…” is possibly a source of comfort for those of deep faith, but doesn’t resonate at all as a parent faces an empty bedroom, a backpack filled with school books, a forlorn teddy bear, a favorite dress.

There are, of course, all sorts of losses in life. Death is always with us. But somehow we live within the realm of magical thinking when it comes to those we love. Yes, an aging mother or father may die after living a long and hopefully productive life. That is to be expected, and sometimes even welcomed after prolonged illness and pain. But we send our children out into the world of school, into town on their bike to do an errand, for a swim in the pool, and believe they will be well, be safe, and come back to us. Losing a child is in the wrong order of things. It is every parent’s worst nightmare—that their child should go before they do. The weeping mother says to the friends who have come to be with her, “May you never know what it is to hold your dead child in your arms.”

Twenty children shot to death in a classroom, so many children buried in the rubble of a school that has collapsed from tornado or earthquake. In large numbers, these deaths are beyond the scope of comprehension. Walls go up around our hearts to protect them from breaking, or we let our hearts break each time another tragedy occurs. But when it is your friend’s child, or your neighbor’s child, or God forbid, your child, it is happening to you. Although death is universal, each child’s death is unique. This one becomes part of the fabric of your life. What do you say? What do you do? How do you help the parents carry on?

Although there is nothing you can say to parents who are in the immediate grief of losing a child, you can be there for them. To hold them as they shed their tears. To let them know you are there for whenever they might need you. To bring food to feed those who show up at the house, to put flowers in vases. To clean the kitchen, take the dog for a walk. To make the phone calls they cannot make. If there are other children in the family, their needs must be met, along with many hugs and shared tears.

There is so much to be done. Life doesn’t stop, although it feels like it should.

Rituals of shared grief help. Wakes, funerals, memorials, sitting shiva. The important thing is that grief must be allowed in its fullness. Burying or denying grief will only bring more suffering later on. The emotional pain in the heart, if not allowed expression, can become an illness, a deep depression. Suppressed pain is toxic to the body, mind, and spirit. And there is no time limit on grief. You can’t bury a loved one and return to “normal” the next day, the next month, or even the next year. Normal has changed. Grief is the new normal, until the pain is less sharp, until you wake in the morning and don’t feel like a steamroller has crushed you.

We all bear wounds from emotional traumas. No one lives a purely “vacation” life. But some wounds are deeper than others. Some wounds need help to heal. If you have suffered an “unimaginable” wound, please consider talking it out with a therapist or spiritual teacher or other mentor. Talking is one of the best ways to begin the road to healing.

No, life will never be exactly the same after the unimaginable has happened, but it can still hold love—the love of family, friends, neighbors, spiritual community, even whole towns—and eventually peace.