“I’ll lend you for a little while
A child of mine God said”
(From the poem Lent Child – Author unknown)
Our children are only lent to us is an old familiar saying and so true. Parents expect their children to be ready to leave home and live independent lives on completion of their education and finding a good job. They don’t really focus too much on this in the early years as the very idea of not having their children around can be too overwhelming. I have written about empty nest syndrome in a previous article and the sense of grief and loss that can be experienced when the last dependent child flies the nest.
The thought of losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, but sadly for some, the nightmare becomes reality.
The late Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described the loss of a child as the “worst loss”. It goes against the grain to have to bury a child, let them go, and try and get used to a life without their physical presence in it. For parents who experience a miscarriage, or a still birth, I can only imagine the devastation they go through as their unborn baby slips away and they go home empty handed. There are no words that adequately describe the excruciating emotional and sometimes physical pain the loss of a child can bring. Not only is it the “worst loss”, it is also the “hardest goodbye”.
Grief is the price we pay for love and I always say, how privileged we have been to know such love. Our grief is as unique as our fingerprint and this is true for parents also. Even though they mourn the same child, they will each have had their own individual relationship with him/her therefore there will be similarities and differences in how they experience grief.
What is grief? When a loved one dies, we are bereaved. Mourning is what we do, it is what people can see on the outside, and grief is what happens to us on the inside. It is that deep and excruciating pain parents experience when their hearts have been broken into billions of pieces.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote extensively about grief in her lifetime and described five possible stages people may go through following the loss of a loved one.
1 Denial: This is where the bereaved person knows their loved one has died but cannot yet accept it. Shock and numbness usually follow the death and may last for some time; the nature of our grief depends on the severity of our loss.
2 Anger: This can be very much part of the grief journey. There may be valid reasons for it and sometimes people may simply feel angry that their loved one is no longer here and they are experiencing such emotional pain as they try to process it.
3 Bargaining: I refer to bargaining as the “if only” stage. Everybody has their own “if onlys” to contend with.
4 Depression: A huge sadness falls on people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. This can be experienced at quite a deep level following the death of a child. In Irish we say “Tá brón orm” there is a sadness on me, and that is such an accurate reflection of grief.
5 Acceptance: Eventually people get to a place of acceptance their loved one is dead, but it can take another while to accept the reality of the loss.
David Kessler, who has co-written books with Kubler-Ross, has recently written about a sixth stage, finding meaning in loss.
When a child dies, many parents set up fundraising events in memory of their child to support the various organisations that may have helped them if their child had been ill before dying. A wonderful example of this is the LauraLynn foundation. In cases of death by suicide, many foundations have been set up to educate teenagers and adults who may be experiencing depression and suicide ideation by parents bereaved in this sad way.
Some parents may find themselves eventually offering grief support to others through organisations like Anam Cara, or qualifying as a grief therapist. This helps them find meaning in the sad and untimely loss of their precious child.
It can be difficult for grieving parents to be emotionally available to each other. They are both in their own subjective worlds, trying to make sense of their loss and literally survive each day without their child in it. It can seem like an invisible wall has sprouted between them, each lost in their own pain.
There are many factors to be taken into account when a child dies. The primary focus, understandably, is on the parents, in particular the mother. The reality is that the entire family system is affected, some members more so than others. Grandparents are sometimes overlooked. The reality is they are experiencing a double-grief. They mourn the loss of their grandchild and also have to look on helplessly as their own precious child struggles to cope.
Kessler has described children as the “forgotten grievers”. People forget that children grieve too and need to have their pain acknowledged and need to have the supports necessary to help them make sense of life without their brother/sister as well as seeing their parents so distraught. Life has changed utterly for every single family member, and it is so important to know and understand and acknowledge this.
Men grieve too. Society has created a lot of myths around death and loss and the grieving process. There is a misconceived notion that the man has to be strong for his family, be a rock of support for them all. It is as if they are not allowed to grieve, to be open and honest about their pain and sense of loss. The reality is, grief is the price we pay for love, and gender does not come into it.
Know it is OK for men as well as women to feel sad, anxious, overwhelmed, worried about the future. Each person needs to give themselves permission to grieve.
There is a tendency to be protective of children in particular or elderly parents and hide one’s feelings so as “not to worry them”. This does not help the situation. Being open and honest can make others feel more comfortable to talk about their pain. Being honest with your children in a way that is not “scary” for them normalises the grief process. What is more normal than to be sad and lonely when a loved one dies? The level of sadness is greatly amplified when a child dies.
I wish to point out that there is no age limit when it comes to grieving a child. It may be a little baby who didn’t survive in the womb, it may be a stillborn baby, it may be an adult of 70 whose 90 year old parents are still alive.
There is an old Korean Proverb that says “When a child dies, you bury the child in your heart” (Woman’s Day online.)
I believe love never dies and the love that the child had for its parents and wider family will live on in their hearts forever.
How can one cope following the death of a child?
The reality is we grieve forever because our loved one is gone forever (David Kessler). We must grieve in order to heal. There are many supports available to those grieving the loss of a child. About 10% of the population will need professional support following the death of a loved one, and this includes parents and siblings. Because grief is a unique experience, people will cope in different ways. What is important is to avail of all the help and support that you can get, especially in the early years.
Rituals can provide comfort and solace at the beginning. Funeral ceremonies are usually the primary ritual at this time. Other rituals include placing a framed photo somewhere prominent in the home with a candle lighting beside it; this can sometimes go on right up to the first anniversary. Grave visits can bring comfort for some, while others may find it too difficult in the early weeks and months. Planting a tree in the garden is also a lovely tribute. And as the tree blooms and grows, it helps create a wonderful connection to the dead child. Journaling has also proved to be an effective coping mechanism, especially in the early years following the child’s death.
No matter how dark our day is, we can always find something to be grateful for. I lost my youngest child, my beautiful daughter Marguerite, in 2004. She was 17 years and 19 days old. The lives of all who knew and loved her were turned upside down as her shining light was dimmed forever. I was blessed to be referred to an excellent grief therapist and as the weeks turned to months, I began to feel grateful that I did not miscarry her at 17 weeks, did not lose her in a cot death at 17 weeks or indeed 17 months. I found myself thanking God for the privilege of being her mother for those 17 years and 19 wonderful days. Don’t get me wrong, I wish she was given at least 87 years and 19 days. It was not to be, but feeling grateful for the length of time I did have her brought me comfort as I realised it could have been much less. I really got to know her and 17 years of memories bring a lot of comfort as time go by.
Contacting support organisations is also a good idea as it can help parents and others who grieve the loss of the child feel less alone. There are many wonderful supports available, eg Anam Cara, The Irish Hospice Foundation, Rainbows, NILMDTS, The Samaritans.
Many will be familiar with the saying “time heals”.
I believe time helps people to get used to living with the pain of loss and eventually build a new world around it. Different experiences can trigger it at any time, only it is less intense as the years go by. Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries all take their toll. As the child’s friends grow up and reach different milestones, this too will trigger the grief and sadness for a while.
Effective communication is so important to help each family member cope with the loss of their loved one. For couples who are finding it difficult to cope I would suggest you try couples counselling. Here you will be afforded a safe, comforting and non-judgmental space to talk about your grief and also an opportunity to listen to each other and gain a better understanding of each other’s pain and difficulties around the loss of your precious child. It is good to talk; sometimes we need a little support to steer us in the right direction.
Art therapy can prove very beneficial for small children as they may not be able to truly verbalise or articulate their grief. Rainbows support bereaved children and teenagers. There is help for everybody.
It is important that parents do not put their dead child on a pedestal so to speak. Over idealising him or her can make surviving children feel totally inadequate, that they can never emulate their sibling’s many wonderful qualifies or be as perfect as them.
Being a grief therapist, and a mother who lost her precious daughter Marguerite in 2004, I write from personal experience as well as from extensive studies in this area. There is life following the death of a precious child, it just takes time to embrace it. Do not compare yourself to others. It is a unique trip we all must take in order to heal and reconnect with life following the loss of our precious child or in some cases, children.
Specializing in grief therapy has given meaning to the loss of my lovely Marguerite. I believe she guides me every day.
I will leave you with this beautiful quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler (On Grief and Grieving)
“The reality is you will grieve forever, You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one, you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same. Nor would you want to.”