When Loss Steals A Child
Comforting those who have lost a child by any means
“When a child dies before the parent, the world is upside down.” (Old Chinese proverb)
Ruth and I did not talk very much about her impending death those seven years she battled cancer. I am sure it would have helped us some had we done more. One of the times we did have a serious talk about her going to heaven revolved around our children. She mourned her own death often and alone. She commonly said she felt like she was being “replaced” in life. The one painful topic we talked about was her mourning her loss of our children. “I probably won’t be able to see their children,” she muttered through her sobs. “I’m going to miss….” She rehearsed many things about our kids that she would not be there for. I watched her affectionately rock our youngest with a faraway look in her eye. I knew she was “missing” that bond in the future and trying to enjoy it now.
This level of loss was all so new to me. I would just listen to her as she reviewed her losses. And likewise, listening is the most powerful thing a friend can do for parents who have lost a child. The hurt comes across as unusually sharp and persistent. A thoughtless comment like, “Well, it must be God’s will,” is not a help at all. Their pain is deeply emotional and not theological.
The study I referred to in chapter four on life’s stress factors listed the loss of a child as being a close third behind losing a spouse and public speaking. There are factors about losing a child, however that can be permanently stifling. No matter how many children one has (I have eight), each one is unique. There will be always enough love for each child. Each one has their own permanent place in a parent’s heart. The loss of that child can never be replaced nor a substitution found. A child is irreplaceable.
I have heard well-meaning friends doing more harm than good to a grieving parent by saying thoughtless things like, “You can always have another one,” “Maybe you can get a dog,” and “Well at least you won’t have to go through … with this one.” You will find it always much better to identify the pain of the parent with simple statements such as, “I have no idea of how much you must be hurting right now.”
Recently I was privileged to meet Daniel Parkins in Southern California. Our get-acquainted conversation eventually exposed our recent losses. I was intrigued while listening to his process of dealing with his loss of a very young son to a serious illness. He lays it out well in his book about their journey entitled Nineteen Days:
I’m not sure I can explain the feeling well. It’s too impossibly deep for words to express. It’s as many writers and poets have said throughout the centuries — the breaking of the heart in two. It’s worse than anything I have felt, anything that I have heard, anything and everything cannot be compared to it — to take my son off life support, the beautiful Samuel whom we loved so desperately. Samuel, whom we prayed so fervently for and hoped for and dreamed for. Samuel, the younger brother, was now going to be missing in our lives for the rest of the sentence we were called to live. It really felt as though my son was being murdered; only I could not prevent it. I felt helpless. (pg. 144)
The Parkins were blessed with a circle of friends and colleagues who felt the pain with them and gave them lots of time and freedom to work through their grief. Their heart ached, not their long-term logic. Daniel pointed out to me that one of the very best thing received from others was that many were simply present for them and even gave silent hugs. Their loss and pain needed to be acknowledged, not explained away.
The loss of a child can be one of the most difficult losses. Even the Bible sees it as a severe experience. “…make mourning, as for an only son, most bitter lamentation…” (Jeremiah 6.26b)
Helping a friend or relative grieving the loss of a child may be a long-term commitment. Unlike other losses, the loss of a child returns to the mind of the parent in a fresh way when unmet milestones come along for the life cut short. You can be most helpful by supporting these times of prolonged grief. Just remembering with the parent can help soothe a broken heart at the child’s birthday or death anniversary. A card or text could go a long way to add comfort.
Loss is indeed a part of our human existence. Helping each other through these normal times increases our bonds to each other and fulfills a purpose for us being in each other’s lives.
LEADERSHIP MISSED IT
A few months following Ruth’s funeral, I met with a missionary couple who had been students under my teaching a few years prior. They had just returned from abroad where they served as missionaries in a remote area. While there, they had suffered the loss of a young child. During the year following that tragedy, their leadership had counseled with them that they should “get over” their loss and get on with life. This unwise counsel only deepened their emotional pain so severely that they packed their belongings and returned home.
I listened to their story in its entirety and expressed my empathy for their grief. The few comments I made came from the depths of my own mourning experience. At one point the wife burst out, “Finally, a leader who understands! No one else has indicated an understanding ear.” Her sobs flowed freely. The leadership in that area did not know what to say. Consequently, saying the wrong thing drove this dear couple away from their life’s passion.
Finding oneself aiding a friend or relative who has lost a child can be a shocking place to be. Knowing what to say can be a huge help in the healing process for them. It is important to remember all the standard things about the grieving process found in chapter two. In addition to these points, a few special considerations can be beneficial both to you and to the mourner you are helping.
It is very human for parents to hurt following the loss of a child. Emily Rapp, frequent memoir blogger and author, described her experience of losing a child:
My son Ronan died last week before his third birthday. He’d been sick with a terminal illness for his entire life, but as a friend of mine wisely noted, ‘Death and dying are very different.’ Now he is dead, which has marked the beginning of a new stage of grief, one that is characterized by deep sadness and longing, but cleaned of the mania of panic that is part of anticipatory grief.
Ronan is released from a body that could not live in this world; as his mother, I am released from watching him suffer. But we are still divided, forever and for good. I mourn him, I miss him, I’m sad. I’m angry, I’m confused, I’m scattered. I’m elated that he is free; I am ready to be happy. I’m human.
Nothing you say can make the pain go away. A caring comment cannot make it worse.
Helping to deal with the loss of a child may be a permanent part of your relationship with the bereaved parent. You can do things like sending ‘thinking of you’ cards on special occasions such as Mother’s Day and the child’s birthday. Offering to talk about the surge of feelings that can come over a grieving parent may bring tears, but remember those tears are not from hurt you created. The tears are part of the release process.
Parents feel responsible for the welfare of their children. Parents believe they are to protect their kids from harm and even failure. In addition to the “normal” attributes of the grieving process, we need to understand the complications possible with the loss of a child. At some point, some parents need to work through guilt. The feeling that there was something they should or could have done — or not done — to prevent the death commonly emerges. This is not abnormal. Here, again, concepts from logic statements may not help the loss of the heart.
I saw this truth first-hand one evening. At the end of a concert I noticed that the mature gentleman sitting beside me wore a sweatshirt indicating he hailed from the same state I grew up in. So I asked him what part of Iowa he was from. As it turned out, he lived not more than 30 minutes from where I grew up.
Early in the conversation he made it known that his daughter had died. He and his wife subsequently moved to their present home to be near her grave. I later learned that this all happened over five years earlier. As I listened, he unfolded his pain. A week before his daughter’s fatal car wreck she had been date-raped and the dad felt he could have done something to prevent it. It became obvious to me that his ongoing guilt had suspended his grieving process in time, keeping it very much alive. I encouraged him to find someone he could talk it through with. He assured me a local pastor was available to him. As we parted, I felt sad that his guilt (whether imagined or real) prevented his soul from healing.
A DIFFERENT LOSS
The loss of a child carries very different connotations from the loss of a parent, sibling, or friend. Parents may even tell you that they wish it could have been them instead of their child that died. This feeling can haunt them for years. The pain after the loss of a child differs from any other loss of a person you may know and love. Accept this and acknowledge it where needed. Be very careful not to try to compare your loss of a job, marriage or pet with it.
Also, telling a grieving parent that their child “is in a better place” may be more of an insult than a comfort. Showing concern for the parent’s pain is more helpful. A simple, “I have no idea of how bad you hurt but I am here for you” is much more supportive. You may even be able to offer to help them do something physical such as house work or cleaning the garage during difficult days. Inviting them to talk about their current thoughts about their child can be of help no matter how long it has been since the child’s death.
Anger can often be a part of the grieving process. In many cases it is even directed towards the deceased for leaving. Judith told me she felt a bit of anger towards her first husband for leaving her in death.
With the death of a child, anger isn’t usually directed towards the child, but can be pointed to a third party.
Joy Swift, who lost three children through murder, explained anger expression in an article entitled “How to Survive the Death of a Child:”
You will probably experience strong feelings of anger, especially if your child’s death is caused by a particular person. In that case, you have someone to lash out at, if only in your mind.
But when the death is caused by accident or disease, your anger may become confused. You may pour it out on someone who is completely undeserving of it — a doctor, a police officer, a rescue worker, a friend, or even your spouse. I expressed my anger quite freely, but George, a passive man, kept his inside and talked to very few people about how he really felt. (Signs of the Times – December 1987)
Realizing the core emotional needs of one who has lost a child can be helpful in your ability to help them and understand what they are working through. These complications can add time to the normal grieving process; many parents actually grieve the loss of a child for years instead of months. This does not necessarily mean they are in need of professional counsel. An understanding, empathetic ear goes a long way in knowing what to say.
In the English language there is no word for a parent who has lost a child. There’s a word for someone who lost a spouse — widow. There is a word for someone who has lost their parents — orphan. This lack of definition seems to be a reflection of the ambiguity of how parents who lose a child feel. Try to understand that and be careful not to try to explain it away. It’s doubtful you will ever totally understand their feelings, unless you have indeed lost a child the same way as the one you are helping.
Beware of the tendency to pull away from people who are hurting emotionally. Watching a friend or relative work through emotions such as anger can be hard. Your presence can give them permission to express their hurt and be freer. Be free to tastefully talk about the lost child with them and invite their response. Trite comments like, “Well, you could always have (adopt) another child,” may only multiply their hurts. Listen to where they are today in their feelings instead of referring to some possible “fix” in the future.
Adoption is usually viewed as a very positive event. Placing a child in the arms of willing, loving parents is a good thing. The loss of a child to the birth parent, in many cases, is overlooked. The mother who offered that child for adoption, if she is alive, can often experience the grieving process either immediately or over the course of her life.
Louise chose adoption for her baby:
It wasn’t fair. I had morning sickness just like the other ladies. I had a large pregnant belly just like the other ladies. I was uncomfortable at night getting kicked in the ribs just like the other ladies. I went through the same pain of labor as the other ladies did. But it wasn’t fair that I left the hospital empty-handed.
Then another lady, that had never felt the pain and joy of pregnancy, walks into the hospital empty-handed and walks out with a little pink bundle of joy.
My grieving was a choice. I knew I had to make a choice on how this child was going to be raised. Was I really ready to be a single parent? Or do I give this baby to a couple who is ready and waiting to be parents?
I struggled with that choice for almost eight months. In my heart, I knew adoption was the best for the baby. So the grieving started. The life growing inside wasn’t for me to raise. I chose not to give into [sic] imaginations of sleeping with a baby on my chest, or playdates, having a child take their first steps to me. I was fortunate enough to have been attending counseling sessions at a crisis pregnancy center. There I was able to talk with other moms who placed their baby for adoption. I knew the most painful days were still yet ahead of me.
The pain of loss was real. It hurt! I cried! I went through pregnancy but my arms were empty!
That was many years ago, and yet there is a lump in my throat as I write this now. The pain of loss will always be felt, but for me, it’s different as the years go by.
Louise’s support for her grieving process only began in the days and weeks following the adoption. Those were critical times, to be sure. Reassurance for her decision was vital. Acknowledgment of her deep pain had to happen. Comments like, “Well, at least you won’t have to potty train the baby,” would be detrimental rather than helpful.
She would find more comfort in companionship, words of understanding, and even thoughtful opportunities to begin diverting her thoughts to her own healing. Like many situations where a child is lost, her pain is not something she will “get over” in a few months. It literally becomes a part of her. In the months, and even years ahead, it can be helpful to still speak of the child and give reassurance that the child is doing great.
The process of a divorce affects the whole family. Symptoms of grief are often not associated with the process, but they are usually there. One of those issues can be the loss of children. This can be either through the physical separation or even through losing a child custody case.
Years after his divorce, Michael’s former wife filed for full custody of their two teenage sons. He lost. Michael described his loss:
My God, I am losing both my kids at once. Gone … across the country. I will never be a part of their day to day lives again. Everything I had is gone. I am now the relatives they visit for a vacation. Every part of their lives that I participated in has now been severed irrevocably. Each time I see them the loss is displayed before my eyes. Changes in growth, physically, mentally, differences in attitudes … each time I see them they are different people, with shades and shadows of the kids I knew before. The kids I knew, the kids I raised, my sons … are gone. God, why not take my arms and legs, my eyes … why my kids? Take it all. Take everything I have. Leave my kids. Every text, every e-mail, every phone call, every Skype session, makes my loss more real. Reopening the wound, salt, alcohol, peroxide … They move on with their lives. Activities, sports, girls, learning to drive, prom, school … the calls get less, Skype sessions cease, texts are rarely returned because they have moved on with their lives leaving me behind. Anger, resentment, bitterness, hatred towards the one who caused this to occur, the one who uprooted them, the one who took them from all they knew and loved and moved them to a place with no friends and family other than the one who took them except on rare occasions. Everything points to the holes in your life. I coached them and their team… That’s gone. The games, the plays, taking them to their friends, running your life around your kid’s activities, everything severed, cut off, burned … lost. Emptiness … pain ….
Supporting a grieving parent who has experienced the loss of a child will feel unending. Your understanding will mean a lot. Be prepared to care for them through many emotional ups and downs and even some false starts in the recovery process. A non-critical ear may be just the thing they need most to make it through a moment or day of grief. Heart comments will often be more helpful than logical statements.
“I’ve never been where you are so I don’t know exactly how you feel, but I would like to hear about your process of loss,” can be a great way to help a hurting parent move towards a place of freedom.
The number of abortions in our society has risen drastically over the last several decades. It’s been documented that emotional stress can be experienced, hence the growing pool of potential hurting men and women. If you are or know someone who has had an abortion either recently, or in the distant past, the grieving process is still very real. Like many losses, grief from an abortion can be “stuffed” down, embraced or spread out over a lifetime. Being aware of these options can help you be of great healing assistance to one experiencing it.
“I don’t know how anyone could ever kill their baby,” can be very hurtful or condemning when said in the presence of one who has experienced an abortion. Long-term sensitivity to grieving parents is a must. Helping someone in the depths of grieving an abortion will need to include concepts of forgiveness. Forgiveness may be needed from friends and relatives, from the unborn child, and even themselves. Understanding God’s grace and forgiveness may be a beginning. Your understanding ear can be an important part of their victory.
One loss of a child that is often played down too much is that of a miscarriage. Friends and relatives can be cold or even rude by either ignoring the pain process or demanding one short-change the grieving process. We need to view this as a full-blown loss.
The mother in miscarriage cases does not suffer alone. The father can experience a variety of hurts that need to be processed. In his article “A Father’s Story: Mourning the Baby We Never Had,” Ian Wallach explained some responses he heard about:
A month after the loss, I remembered each hushed backstory or confession of every male I knew who had experienced something similar, and I called them. A colleague whose wife had delivered a stillborn child offered to hang out and have a drink. A friend admitted that he felt embarrassed telling a coworker that he didn’t want to attend a baby shower. Another, who lost his son in the 35th week, told me that they’d moved apartments to escape the baby’s room they had created. He said he took no time off from work — not a single day — yet still didn’t understand why he’d misplace things or get lost in midsentence. After a pause, he asked me to keep a secret and said they were pregnant again but too frightened to tell anyone.
Your help for parents who have experienced a miscarriage needs to be long term. Allowing time alone to grieve helps, but don’t be afraid to talk about it with them in months and even years later. A good suggestion you can make would be for the grieving parents to have a funeral. It will help a bit to bring closure for them. I also suggest you include the lost baby when referring to the number of children they have.
Mother’s Day can be a hard day for some. Older, single people who would like to be married and have children but don’t can view Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as a reminder of their personal disappointment and feelings of failure in the family area. The day that celebrates their missing role can trigger grief that doesn’t seem to go away.
Shawn and Jenn are long-time friends of my family. Their life has been very fulfilled since their marriage many years ago, including a strong relationship with each other and a very productive career together in a religious non-profit organization. One thing is missing for them. They have no children.
Jenn offered some candid comments regarding their journey of hope and disappointment towards having children in their personal blog:
It’s complicated. And there’s no time frame. The broken heart can’t always be defined, but it’s there. And the smallest little thing can stir it all back up. There’s the lie that nobody cares and that people are tired of hearing about it. There’s the lie that we’ll be old and lonely and still aching for those six babies we never got to hold, raise: the legacy that never was. It’s hard and it hurts. It’s grief, loss, doubt, and sometimes guilt, smashed in some weird, oddly shaped box. A big part of the grieving process after IVF [in vitro fertilization] (x3) is knowing that you’ve done ALL you can using the most advanced medical treatments and procedures and surgeries. It’s taking two steps towards closure, accepting that you will be ‘the couple without kids,’ and then falling backwards at the thought of Christmas mornings with just the two of us – forever.
MURDER AND SUICIDE
Violent deaths are always traumatic. In the event of a child’s violent death, whether their life was taken by themselves or others, breadth is added to the sorrow. Horror and deep regret multiply the pain. The scope of this grief swells up as often unexplainable by many parents.
In an interview by Timothy C. Morgan on March 28, 2014, Kay Warren attempts to put her loss into words. She and her husband, Pastor Rick Warren, had lost a son to suicide one year earlier:
Because of our love, we conceived a child together. I birthed him from my body. He was a part of me. A part of me is no longer here. How can I be the same? For us as a couple, as a family, there were five of us; now there are four. Our child murdered himself in the most raw way I can tell you. Suicide is self-murder. Our son, the murderer, was himself. The trauma of knowing what he did to himself, how he destroyed the body of this child that we loved. He did it to end the pain. How could we ever be the same? Trauma changes you. I can’t ever go back to who I was. (Christianity Today)
As you come alongside parents in this form of grief, you will need to accept the fact that their hurt will be long term. In fact, you would be better prepared to help them if you expected their grief to increase for a time instead of subsiding. Beware of verbiage that pushes them to “get over it.” The goal for a bereaved parent is getting through the process, not getting over it. Consolation of having other children, if this is true, is no comfort for the one lost.
Often simple statements of your continued friendship and support will do more good than attempts to make their hurt go away. Keep contact with them through social media and texting if impromptu visits seem out of place. Showing them your support will be more meaningful than saying it.
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