“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” Matthew 2:18
The Death of a Child: Every Parent’s Nightmare
All griefs are complicated in one way or another but the death of a child is a nightmarish grief that can be extremely complicated. Losing a child is a disruption in the human understanding of what should be the natural order of life. Children are not supposed to die before their parents do. Parents expect to see their children grow, mature and enjoy all of life’s challenges and opportunities.
Therefore, parental grief is different from other losses in that it is often intensified, exaggerated and lengthened by a continuing series of losses as the parent continues to move on with their life without the physical presence of their dear child(ren). Often attempts by others to support grieving parents may appear to provide no comfort at all and, in many cases, may be met with anger or rejection. The parents who often live with unspeakable pain, sadness, guilt and a myriad of other grief emotions may appear to be inconsolable.
In May 1993 my two year old daughter Katie died along with my thirty-seven year old wife Cindy from injuries they received in a multi-car accident that involved my whole family of five. I certainly have grieved both of my loved ones in the last nineteen years as I became a widowed single parent raising my surviving children twelve year old Christian and nine year old Sarah. Both losses have been complicated in their own ways. But there is something singularly, uniquely complicated in the loss of a child.
For four years I was head facilitator and director of a bereaved parents’ support group. During that time I witnessed the struggles and healing of countless bereaved parents. In observing the struggles of bereaved parents I have also witnessed the unique complications that are a part of dealing with the death of a child at any age or of any cause.
Remember in the death of a child, there are multiple losses of all the hopes and dreams the parent had for that child. Because of these losses, mourning parents can express extreme anger, distress, lethargy, apathy and depression when thinking about their changed lives and futures.
Healing for Mourning Parents
Although bereaved parents often try to avoid the whole painful grieving process, mourning the loss of a child or children cannot be escaped or shortened by willpower or denial. As difficult as dealing with the loss may be, bereaved parents must allow themselves to go through grief and the pain that it brings in order to heal. They need to:
- Accept the reality of the loss
Parents are often compelled to tell and retell their story and the story of their child’s life. This need to express their grief , be heard and understood by others means they need compassionate listeners who will not judge or try to orchestrate their grief. Avoid giving unwanted advice or unsolicited suggestions. No one can take away the pain a bereaved parent will undergo. The best help for bereaved parents you can give is to be present, listen and encourage them as best you can. Be aware that often these bereaved parents will not be able to hear or experience comfort you try to provide because they are overwhelmed by deafening grief emotions and pain.
- Work through the pain of grief
Bereaved parents need to acknowledge their emotions and express them in constructive, healthy ways. They need grief companions who will stay with them when the grief journey becomes difficult and painful. They need friends who will be willing to be there for them any time of the day or night when grief outbursts hit and overwhelm the mourning parent.
- Adjust to a life without their child
Parents need to return to their lives realizing their relationship with their child has not ended but has been changed. The relationship is no longer based on the physical presence of the child(ren) but on the memories, the legacy of that child and all that they shared with their parents. Bereaved parents can continue to be connected to their child spiritually and emotionally. Mourning parents can maintain a healthy relationship with the child by always remembering and cherishing their time with their child(ren). They don’t have to let go, detach or forget their child(ren) leaving them in the past in order to heal. In fact, healing in grief for the bereaved parent is facilitated by the time they spend remembering, memorializing and honoring their child(ren) in healthy mourning.
- Accept the new relationship they have with their child
Parents need to realize that by going on with their lives they are not forgetting their child, but instead they are honoring the child in a special way. By living their lives well, by remembering their child in meaningful rituals, and by hanging on to the memories of their child, they become living memorials to their child.
Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT, author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise” Available on http://grief-works.org/book.php.
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