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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