When a Child Dies

Surviving the death of dreams.

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.

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