Lost: helping parents cope with the death of a child

by Donna Lamb, LCSW on April 13, 2010 · 15 comments

in grief

Knock knock.

Alyssa L. Miller photograph, courtesy of Flickr

Who’s there?

A bereaved parent.


Knock knock?

Knock knock?

Knock knock?

Unfortunately, silence is often the response to a parent who has had a child die…silence or avoidance. The death of a child is something that hits too close to home; we don’t want to think that something beyond our control can happen that would destroy our world as we know it. For many people, the pain of a grieving parent feels too intense to even witness. “What could I possibly say?” we wonder. For our own peace of mind, we need to see bereaved parents doing well; we need to imagine that their world returns to normal fairly quickly. So we don’t ask, and we don’t see.

I’ve vacillated between writing this post for those who haven’t had a child die or for those who have: One side of me wants to write it for the former because it is a topic that needs a lot more understanding and awareness. There are a lot of grieving parents out there…every person who dies is someone’s child. Think about it like this: For every one death, there are probably two grieving parents, even though they may be as old as 80. We don’t stop being a parent just because our child becomes an adult.

But the other side of me wants to write it for the latter, in hopes that someone in this no-one-wants-to-be-here category will read it and be able to feel a small measure of comfort in knowing that what they are going through does not mean they are crazy, and that the pain can move from all-encompassing and suffocating to the kind that can turn us into a Velveteen Rabbit of sorts…our sharp edges softened by the buffeting and crashing and thrashing they take.

I’m aware that talking about pain so intense that it can ultimately soften us may lead many who have not “lost” a child (more on this later) to become even more fearful of reading on. I encourage you to stay with me, much as I have encouraged those whom I have worked with to stay with me…to not give up but to trust that we—because I want them to know they do not have to go through this alone—will walk through this together. That anything they have to go through, I will go through with them. When they can’t see the future, we’ll look through my eyes. That’s the message I want to give grieving parents. The message I’d like to give to everyone else:   It’s not a matter of doing, it’s a matter of being.

Words to live by

If you live, work or play with someone who has had a child die…no matter how long ago that child died…say the child’s name and invite the parent to talk about the child. I can assure you that in that parent’s heart, their child still lives. Many years after the death of a child, if you ask a parent about their child, one of the first things you’ll hear is “She’d be ____ years old right now.” They don’t have to stop to calculate the age: They have brought that child with them through the years.

Let me go back now to the word commonly used when a child dies: lost, as in “She lost her child.” Please take this word out of your vocabulary when you’re thinking about the death of someone’s child. The parent did not lose their child; she or he was not misplaced.

And don’t say anything like “He’s better off” or “It was God’s will.” As they used to say in the old West, or at least in my East Texas hometown, “Them thar are fightin’ words.”

Sew your lips shut if you think these words might slip out in your discomfort; if they slip out anyway, acknowledge your mistake. Let them talk, let them talk, let them talk.

Lost, but not alone

Any idea who does get lost? Very often, it’s the parent; sometimes it’s the couple’s relationship that gets lost. “I don’t know who I am anymore,” is often said. So I tell grieving parents, “What’s important to remember is that you can find yourself again only through grieving; your relationship can be recovered and strengthened through the grief.” And “grieving” means that they have to allow themselves to feel the anger and the guilt and the sadness and the fear. So the question becomes, do we let them go through this on their own, all by themselves? If I can’t take their pain, why would they even dare to hope that they can take their pain? If they can look in my eyes (or in your eyes), and see that I (or you) are not afraid of their pain, perhaps they will allow themselves to grieve. This means that ultimately they will heal.

As I’m writing this, I think back to the grieving parents I have worked with: I remember every single one of them. And if I remember the parent, that also means I remember their child. Parents fear their child will be forgotten; not so. Their child continues in every laugh and every tear and every good thing that happens. Grief is not to be feared; it is not ugly. The pain that I have seen makes every one of these moms and dads beautiful and real and made of velveteen.

So if a grieving parent is knocking at your door, please answer it. If they’re not, go knock on theirs.

Donna Lamb is a senior psychiatric social worker with the Hope Program for adults at The Menninger Clinic.

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Recovering from depression can be a catch-22
May 21, 2010 at 3:38 pm

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Syl Saldana October 10, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Hello Donna,
I wanted to extend my thanks for all the training you provided me with during my brief hospice stint. I was going through a lot during this time not only with myself, but with my daughter. My daughter as a result had four beautiful children, she’s still estranged and we have no relationship, and she lost her fourth child who was two years old at the time to a drowning accident. My husband and I ultimately got divorced and the roller coaster ride of all this pain and grief has finally subsided. I am in school for the past two years to become an LCDC. I just wanted to tell you how much of an influence you were in leading me into this academic journey. Thank you and I will always honor and appreciate what you taught me. Godspeed

Sandra Aponte Salazar March 4, 2013 at 6:16 pm

Thank you for this post. Thank you for your take on the word “loss.” In my dreams, I always go to a place where I find my 3-year-old girl, Brianna, and then feel betrayed by the folks who were “hiding her from me all this time.” Every time, in those recurring dreams I convince my self there is no point in feeling betrayed when I am so overcome with the joy of finding her.

My grieving turns to joy when I help other parents avoid this feeling altogether. Every time I help save a child’s life (through a charity program) I get the double joy of seeing a child survive and the parent’s relief and happiness. They always extend a hug and in every parent arms, and in every child arms, I feel my little girl again.

Miriam October 18, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Thank u for the article and all the responses. My 27yr-old Son died in a car accident. My world came to a full stop, my only daughter died several years prior. I have my days, but believe me when I say that there is no pain like the death of a child. His death left a void that nothing on earth will ever fill. Some days I wish I could speak to a Medium. Please tell me I am not CRAZY.

Miriam October 18, 2012 at 9:12 pm

Thank u for the article and all the responses. My 27yr-old Son died in a car accident. My world came to a full stop, my only daughter died several years prior. I have my days, but believe me when I say that there is no pain like the death of a child. His death left a void that nothing on earth will ever fill. Some days I wish I could speak to a Medium

David MCGovern October 7, 2012 at 7:33 am

Thanks so much for this post. On this day, two years ago, we held the funeral for our 5-year-old son, Brodie. He died, in his bed, at home, after a prolonged illness (a genetic condition he inherited). This coming Wednesday (Oct 12, 2012), we will mark the 12th anniversary of our first child, Amber Rose, ‘going home’. I am struggling to come to terms with the fact we have lost both our children and what this means for my wife and I. Your blog posting was invaluable in helping me realise that whatever I am feeling, thinking or doing is a natural part of an awful journey. Thanks.

linda fredlund April 9, 2012 at 2:54 pm

I lost my only child 11/12/08 – Life still is sometimes unbearable. Thank you for this post.

linda fredlund April 9, 2012 at 2:53 pm

I lost my only child 11/12/08 – My life was and is still shattered. He was in his forties, no matter he was my baby boy. Thanks for this website.

ELLORA MALHOTRA January 27, 2012 at 8:10 am

your feelings are very moving.i have lost my only son aged 21yrs7mnths on 15.12.11.i am under medication. but i cannot cope with life any more.i just want to be able to go to him.my son left me in his sleep.But he did not have any health problems as such but doctors say it was heart fail,waiting for the final report.He was in final year of college.A good student,a musician and composer and afootball player.Two days previous to his passing he played football match. My present husband and i both have second marriage,my son was from my first marriage and my husband has a son and daughter from his previous marriage They are both married and live in other cities.But they are very close to him.My husband expect me to behave normally,which i cannot and sometimes even with medication i am becoming hysteric.Please help me and guide me. i have lost faith in GOD ,i used to pray regularly before.

Sheri Perl December 25, 2010 at 2:06 pm

I lost my son Danny on July 1, 2008 to an overdose. He was 22. In dedication to him I formed The Prayer Registry for parents who have lost children.

Please see my website http://www.sheriperl.com and read about The Prayer Registry. This free website service is dedicated to all of the families who have lost children, whatever age that child was when they passed. This site registers the anniversary day of our children’s crossing. The members of this online community,the Prayer Team, have the opportunity to honor their child’s legacy, connect with other bereaved parents, and participate in world-wide group prayer for every registered loved one on the anniversary day of their passing.

Please email Sheri at theprayerregistry@gmail.com to register your loved one on The Prayer Registry. I need only your child’s full name along with the date that he or she passed to insure that your child receives prayer every year going forward on the anniversary day of his or her passing.

Gavi May 7, 2010 at 10:37 pm

I appreciate your advivce,but when a child is ripped from you by suicide,a new set of rules apply.The stigma,keeps others away,and you truly suffer alone.It tears a pain apart caught up in much pain and confusion.The AFSP.com has support groups few and far away,for many and in not all cities.The Grief Digest is also wonderful at times as is their booklist,but anyway you put it,it is a lonely and very alone battle.Thank you.Gavi Stevenson

cathie mcnabb April 18, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Good words, not only for loss of child, but husband and dear freind. Thank you.

Janice Little April 16, 2010 at 8:49 am

What a good article and so true. I have a friend whose daughter died from ovarian cancer. We will always laugh, cry, and talk about Leslie.
Thank you

Debbie Jackson April 14, 2010 at 6:08 pm

What a wonderful service you are doing for all. Not only grieving parents need support but also their extended famiy as well as those who have not lost a child. We all need to be grateful for what we have and what we have been given. God bless you, Donna.

Jan Wheeler, Ed. D. April 14, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Thank you for helping me walk through the pain and discover a new normal. Your insights and compassion are an ongoing source of strength and healing for so many. I appreciate your sharing the real isolation that grieving parents feel.

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