Grieving the loss of a child
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
The most often used description that I've heard bereaved parents use is the feeling of “brokenness” after a child’s death. We go on, but we do not exist in the same way as we existed before the tragedy. We really do suffer from PTSD and a multitude of symptoms that don’t magically vanish after a prescribed grieving period. We also see ourselves as different from people who have not lost children to death; that separates us from the good wishes or strength of our friends and (sadly) oftentimes even family. They can't understand, we tell ourselves.
Many of us dwell on the unnaturalness of a child preceding a parent in death because we believe that there is a natural order to things. This loss defies even nature. This “my child should not have died before me” covenant is a concept which has only lately entered the human psyche. Even in the 1800’s, a family was likely to lose one-third of the children who were born alive — either to accident or fire, water-born disease or plagues.
My pioneer ancestors buried a 23-year old son who could not make it through the first brutal Michigan winter eating only hard-tack and tree bark. My ancestral grandmother surely grieved her son's death as sorely as I grieved over the loss of Daniel, even though she likely expected to lose — and did lose — many of her dozen children before taking her last breath.
We don’t really grieve our children’s death because we had some unwritten, unspoken guarantee that it wasn’t supposed to happen; we grieve their death because we loved them with all of the servitude and protectiveness of a parent. Once we conceived this precious person, we could never again imagine our lives without them. And then we found we must.
One of the most popular blogs I’ve written continues to be “Why should I live after my child has died?” which new visitors always choose to read. This reinforces my view that many bereaved parents seriously consider suicide in the aftermath of a child’s death. Some of you admitted to hanging around only because you have another living child to parent. You know — and this is an important truth — that if you exit of your own free will, your suicide would deliver them a crushing blow. They will have proof that you didn’t love them as much as you loved a child no longer here, and that’s already their newly found fear.
Let’s at least admit that we do elevate a deceased child into something of a saint — even when, as in Daniel’s case, he WAS a saint 🙂
So we decide (it is a decision, after all) to stay for the benefit of a child or spouse or frail mother or whomever. We then have to work through our own internal rages at these anchors for holding us here, when we’d rather be dead ourselves to escape our suffering. Or we don’t think they are suffering enough to justify the hanging-on, whatever “enough” is. It’s all too painful to explore very closely, like picking at the edges of a fresh scab.
Or -- just as traumatic -- we have to face our fears for our existing children that they will die next. Certainly I didn’t want my other kids out of my sight after Daniel died in a car accident unexpectedly, and I did pull them out of public school and put them into a more cloistered (more “safe”) private school. There are so many feelings to struggle through at the very time when we consciously only feel numb and on autopilot. When we feel broken.
To cope, some of us self-medicate. Some turn to psychics. Some to prayer. Some turn away from God or faith. Some turn to sex. Some become cutters, to feel anything at all. Others just go back to work and try their hardest to compartmentalize their grief so they can continue functioning at all. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve, only healthier choices we might make to move forward in a way that really honors the love that continues to exist between parent and child.
However you are feeling today, you are encouraged to express it here. We are not so much your audience as we are the invisible hand on your shoulder or ear turned toward your plight. We get it. Someone in the group has suffered a stillborn loss. Someone’s child was also murdered. Someone’s child took their own life. Someone was hit by a train or fell down the stairs or hit their head on the sink in the bathroom. Someone’s precious child died of cancer. We understand your pain. You are welcome to express both your sorrow and your hope — what hurts you and how you cope. What helps? We certainly want to know that.
You’ve made the choice to stay. That is, in itself, a milestone. Now take another step into our circle. We’re here for you.