by Carol Staudacher
“It’s not supposed to be this way,” the mother of a dying teenager cried. “I wasn’t meant to live longer than my daughter. But now I have to.”
How do you survive the death of your child? As a parent, you’re supposed to be the provider, the nurturer, the protector, the mentor, the guide. You invest love and hope and certain beliefs in your son or daughter. But most of all, you do not outlive your child.
When tragedy strikes and you do bury a child, you’re faced with reconstructing a life that has been suddenly robbed of its parental responsibilities and joys. The source of a certain kind of reciprocal love in your life is now absent. Your child may have loved openly or buoyantly, or been reserved and quietly affectionate. He or she may have been a typical teenager–aloof, moody, even a bit defiant, loving reluctantly. Your adult child may have doubled in the role of your sister, brother, friend, or caregiver. In any case, the place you reserved in the center of your heart and soul for your unique son or daughter is now aching.
Parents who lose a child to miscarriage or infant death experience a different, wrenching loss–often made more painful by people’s awkward efforts to suggest that the brevity of a child’s life should limit the extent of grief. But parental bonds begin with the dreams and hopes we carry for our unborn children. You probably enjoyed months of anticipation. You may have set up a nursery, had showers, enjoyed the eagerness of potential grandparents. For you and all who shared your joy, the loss and grief are very real.
Regardless of the age of the child, when you lose a son or daughter, part of your self is gone. In the case of mothers, part of your physical self is gone–the body that grew and quickened within you. For both fathers and mothers, your sense of family has undergone severe change. There are hopes to abandon, expectations to dismiss, and a whole array of profound emotional responses that both confuse and weaken the strongest and most determined of adult survivors.
Often parents have severe feelings of anger directed at others they see as having some direct responsibility for their son or daughter’s death. These may include members of the medical community, relatives, the child’s friends, even organizations or institutions.
It’s crucial to talk about your strongest emotions with someone you trust. Avoid friends and relatives who do not have the capacity to acknowledge your feelings of despair, sadness, longing, regret–or even guilt. You do not have any obligation to listen to someone tell you that you are lucky because you have other children, or that you can get pregnant again, or that there must be some way your child’s accident was “part of God’s plan,” or that your child’s illness could have been cured or averted. You have lost your child, and you need to talk to others who have done the same, those whose pain parallels yours, whose understanding will be deep and supportive.
You can find groups for grieving parents by contacting the pastoral care office of the largest hospital near you or by inquiring at the closest hospice. They should be able to direct you to local, specialized support, such as a group for women surviving neonatal death, or for parents surviving the loss of a child to AIDS.
There will be times when you feel especially fragmented, as if the challenge of getting through the day is beyond your capabilities or beyond your desire. When you feel this way, let your heart dictate your direction. Rest and reflect and allow your feelings to come forth without censoring or resisting them.
Don’t hold back tears. It’s not just a myth that crying makes you feel better–it actually does.
During these times of release and reflection, you might begin a project you can work on quietly, slowly, and lovingly–a scrapbook of photos, a letter or poem to your daughter, a piece of prose that describes your son–emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually. Describe everything he meant to others, everything he achieved in his life. You may tape-record your own memories or experiences. Some parents have pieced together clips from their videos and those of friends or relatives to make a composite of their child’s life.
More than anything, follow your own lead, do what allows you some relief. If you need to tell your story over and over, seek out those who will listen. If you need to reflect upon your child’s life, privately and for great lengths of time, then indulge yourself in solitude.
When you begin to regain some degree of peace and strength, consider contributing some part of yourself–your knowledge, affection, or skills–to a child or an adult in need, someone who could experience self worth as a result of your attention, guidance, and kindness.
Regardless of the brevity of your child’s life, you can build a legacy out of the love you hold by allowing it to spill over into the lives of those you don’t even know yet. As one mother put it, “You can gather the love you have and use it to lighten the darkened spirit of a neglected child who has never been the source of anyone’s pride.” Whether or not you choose to put your grief into action in this way will be just one of the choices you consider as you work to reshape your future.
Regardless of the direction you choose, you’ll continue to tap those same powerful resources that helped you to this point. “Surviving his death has brought me this far,” a young father said, “now I owe it to my son to go forward with as much perseverance and vision as possible.” Trust yourself to do the same, to follow the path that honors your heart.
Carol Staudacher is an author and grief educator whose regular column for Beliefnet focuses on the adult grieving process. Her books include “Men and Grief” and “Beyond Grief: A Guide for Recovering From the Death of a Loved One”.