Six more hurdles to jump after a child dies
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
1. The decision: what to do with your child’s room, clothing, and possessions.
This is especially hard for married couples or extended families in which there some want all physical possessions and the room untouched; others want to make subtle changes and others will want to purge any and all painful reminders.
Personally, I set aside items with the strongest memories – a few rocks he had picked up on our last walk; his favorite drumming sticks; his Ronald McDonald doll (given to him by the ‘real’ Ronald at the Chicago Ronald McDonald House); a football given to him by the Philadelphia Eagles Football team. I kept these items until my other children were old enough to receive them. It took a few months before I was able to begin removing things from his room. When that didn’t ease the pain, we moved.
Moving is a common phenomenon. People say “don’t make a drastic change” for a year after a crisis. I say “do whatever feels best and right to you.” If images of your child in those rooms ambush you with pain to the point of driving you crazy, move. Martydom is not required by your child as a testamony of how much you loved them.
If remembering him or her in those places brings you comfort, stay.
2. The dread of the coming year’s “firsts” — first missed birthdays, holidays, or the first anniversary of your child’s death.
Daniel died in July. We put up our Christmas tree for Halloween and decorated it with bats. I put Thanksgiving decorations on the tree next. That way, when Christmas came and he wasn’t there, well, we were replacing ornaments, not pulling out the tree, etc. No big deal.
Today, we still name him in our opening prayers for every special event. His birthday and death anniversary, and Mother’s Day were hardest for me. I found a church for those days, and prayed with a pastor. For the first ten years or so, I took his birthday off as a vacation from work, knowing that I could be ambushed by grief. There is no preferred way to do any of this. Make new traditions or keep the old. Do what feels right to you and your family.
3. “How many children do you have?”
OMG, did you ever notice how many times you are asked that? My answer always depends on the listener. If it is someone I am meeting casually, I have decided that I don’t owe them an explanation, and it isn’t a betrayal of my son. I answer that I have three children, and say whatever else about those (now adult) children that seems relevant to the conversation.
If the person is someone I’d like to know better, I may say, “My oldest son, Daniel, was killed in a car accident when he was a teenager, but I have three other children children that I’m happy to talk about – Summer, Brook, and Philip” and then tell more another sentence or two about them, highlighting the positives about their lives.
If you’ve recently lost a child, you may want to consider what you’re going to say, so you won’t be taken off-guard so easily. I never ceased to be amazed at how often the question arises.
4. An uninformed friend or acquaintance asks about your child
I was anxious to hook up with a friend at a recent high school reunion. Nita and I had been best friends, double dating, at each other’s weddings, even throwing baby showers for one another. We had our first-born sons within a year of each other. But then she moved to a farm and I moved out of state, and then, well, all that occurred before email or Facebook.
I knew the hardest point of the reunion evening would be telling my once-close friend about Daniel’s death. As soon as Nita and I saw each other, we flew into each other’s arms. And in the same next breath, she said “How’s Daniel?” and I said “How’s Peter?” Tragically, her son Peter, a career Army Ranger, had been killed a couple weeks earlier in Iraq.
Soon we had a group of old high school friends around us – people we barely even recognized anymore – curious why we were holding each other and sobbing. And we had two husbands standing by our sides, not sure what to do or say to make us feel better.
The message is that this is a no-win situation and it may not get easier over the years.
5. You'll be infuriated to witness at least one act of child "abuse or neglect."
A woman will scream at a child in a store, calling them worthless. A parent will tell a child to shut-up and maybe even slap them. You'll look a little closer at a bruised child. A little girl plays near the street with no adult in sight. Everywhere around you, people will not appreciate what they have. You'll wonder why they still have a child and you don't. How infuriating it is! Hypersensitivity to how other parents parent is going to be a mindfield that you might not see coming.
6. Others wanting to "help" your surviving children cope.
Teachers, school counselors, and (as would be age-appropriate) your child’s peers need to hear from you how you want any surving children to be treated. Well-intentioned people may want to help you and may say things with great intention and sad results. If you are Jewish, for example, be prepared for well-meaning Christian adults to tell your children that their brother or sister is now “with Jesus”. A babysitter may try to assure them that their sibling “is sleeping in heaven.”
Many people are uncomfortable with the language of death and describe death as “sleeping”, which can have traumatic effects on children who lack the age or maturity to understand that the sibling they saw with eyes closed in a coffin was not buried or separated from family because they fell asleep the wrong way. This is a common misunderstanding that can cause serious anxiety or even a continuing sleep phobia.
Tell support people what you want privately but clearly. Explore professional help if this becomes overwhelming for you – choose someone who specializes on informing and supporting children with griefwork, and make sure their approach is consistent with yours, or at leat something you can support when you get back home. And if a caring adult does it “wrong”, you’ll not want to make your disappointment or anger obvious to your child. Seeing you angry may make them fearful of bringing up the subject of their sibling’s death with others. It cannot be a secret they are expected to keep.
The night Daniel died, our pastor arrived with what she thought was a great book – a children’s book that addressed the death of a pet. She wanted to read it to my children. I was aghast at the idea of Daniel’s death likened to the death of a dog. I asked her to instead be there to support me by being present and silent. Don't shy away; say what you need.
I hope these references are helpful, and please feel free to add your comments and experiences as well.