Even in these modern times of improved life expectancy, some families still have to cope with the death of a child.
Losing a child is every parent’s nightmare. We wonder how anyone can cope with such adversity. But parents do get through it.
Knowing that such an awful loss can be lived through is reassuring. We realise that most of us have the innate strength and courage to deal with the difficulties life throws at us.
Understanding what bereaved parents go through is useful. We know how to help if someone close to us is placed in this sad situation.
How do parents cope with the death of a child?
The first reaction is shock and disbelief. It is impossible to get ones head around the loss. It is too awful. Denial of the death is actually a blessing. The bereaved have time to gradually get used to the loss.
During this period, friends may be surprised if the bereaved makes jokes and laughs. Light moments are natural. No one can be down in the depths all the time. Follow the lead of the bereaved. Don’t try to cheer them up if they are down, or be critical if they are up.
The most constant emotion of a parent who loses a child is guilt. Parents believe they have a duty to always protect their children, even though this belief is obviously unrealistic. When a child dies, the parents feel they have failed in their most fundamental responsibility.
The parent will go over and over the “if onlys.” “If only I realised what was happening” or “if only I had taken her to the hospital sooner,” or “if only I hadn’t gotten upset with her.”
Telling the parent they did all they could only helps a little. Each parent has to come to terms with the limits of their power. Nothing brings this home as vividly as death does. Gradually, most parents accept that sometimes they cannot save their children.
Sooner or later the bereaved goes into a place of deep sorrow. At this time, they tend to withdraw from most people. Hopefully they are crying and feeling sorry for themselves because this is an important part of the grieving process. The more they allow themselves this sorrow, the sooner they will move on. However, the sadness can come and go over a long period.
The best way to help someone in this stage of grief is to allow him or her to talk and cry. If you cannot cope with this sorrow, the bereaved will know. Apologize and tell them you feel unable to endure their pain. At least they will respect your honesty.
Another emotion that friends might find difficult to cope with is anger. People who have lost a precious loved one will eventually feel very angry. The problem with anger is that it may be misdirected. The bereaved may feel angry with you because you have healthy, living children. Or the anger may be directed at doctors, the health department, God, or anyone who gets in the way.
Don’t take this anger personally. Understand that anger is a natural reaction to such a loss. As there is usually no one specifically to blame, the anger looks for a target.
Counseling can help people who are bereaved but it is not magic. The stages of grief cannot be avoided. The counselor reassures the bereaved that what they are going through is normal, and ensures that they don’t get stuck at any stage.
Although the parents of the child feel the greatest grief, they are not the only ones affected. Grandparents, siblings, other relatives and friends also suffer when the life of a child is lost. To some extent, each will go through similar feelings to those of the parents.
When your loved one dies
* Realize you will experience a roller coaster of emotions including shock, sadness, guilt, sorrow, anger and helplessness.
* Fully feel the emotions. Don’t cover them up or lock them away.
* Find a compassionate friend to talk to. One who can cope with your sorrow.
* Create a safe space where you can cry and grieve.
* Wallow in sorrow from time to time. Look at their photo album and other mementos that trigger your grief.
* When you are ready, make a “Gratitude Book.” This is a book of photos, thoughts, memories and prayers that celebrates the life of your loved one.
Deanna, 29, lived with her two-year-old son, Jay, after separating from her husband.
One night, Jay became ill. When he worsened the next day, Deanna took him to the hospital.
Within hours, she knew he was dying from a pneumococcal infection. As a registered nurse, she had never felt so helpless. There was nothing she could do except find some way to say good-bye.
Deanna had watched many children die. She had worked in the children’s cancer ward. But this was different. This was her child.
She couldn’t believe it. She wondered if the dampness of her tears would wake him up, even though she also knew he was gone.
After he died, she took his handprints, footprints, a lock of hair and many photos.
Then Deanna and her estranged husband wrapped his little body in his rug and took him home. For the last time, they put him in the middle of the bed and slept beside him. It was their way of saying goodbye.
In the morning the funeral directors came and took him away. But twice, Deanna went to the funeral home to see him.
Each time she saw him she faced the reality of his death. This helped her move into the next stage of grief.
Deanna immersed herself in her loss. She cried when she felt sad and didn’t fight her anger when it came. She didn’t worry about how other people expected her to behave; she just honoured whatever she felt.
She was able to go back to work a few months after Jay’s death.
Although she knows her life will never be the same, Deanna is coming to terms with her loss. She is grateful for the precious two years she had with her son.