Saturday, March 2, 2013

Grieving the Death of a Child

The death of a child is particularly difficult because it’s not supposed to happen.  It is out of the natural order of things.  Young lives are full of promise and possibilities and should never be cut short before they have a chance to be realized.  Every parent I know would gladly exchange his or her own life for the lives of their children. But sometimes that choice is not ours to make.

When Ken and I got married he had three grown sons and I had eight year old twins. I don’t know what possessed him to take on a second family just as his was leaving the nest, but I am forever thankful for the wit and wisdom he provided in the raising of mine.  I have often said that God brought us together for a reason.  It seemed an uncanny coincidence that he should be grieving the loss of his wife of 22 years just as I was experiencing a painful divorce.

I was concerned that his boys would not accept their father entering a new relationship so soon after the death of their mother, but they welcomed me in and made me feel comfortable.  I made no attempt to “mother” these adult children, but I tried to be supportive and I loved playing “grandma” to their children.
Greg was the oldest of the boys at age 27.  He was married and had a three-year old daughter. They were struggling as a couple and having financial difficulty. Less than two years separated Randy from his older brother, Greg and his younger brother, Lowell.   As the middle child,   Randy was a gentle, loving young man with a giving nature. He was enjoying the party life and was living on his own in Denver when Ken and I were married.  Ken’s youngest son, Lowell enjoyed being the clown of the family. He worked nights at a local nightclub and dreamed of becoming a top chef.

As parents we are not responsible for the life decisions our adult children make.  We can only celebrate their successes and stand ready to help pick up the pieces when things go wrong. Randy’s lifestyle led him to contract HIV/AIDS in 1987 shortly after Ken and I moved to California to begin our new life together.  We could only watch helplessly as his health declined and his smile disappeared.  His death two years later at the age of 27 was extremely hard on Ken. I could not begin to imagine the pain of losing a child. But just as he had handled the death of his wife, he picked up the pieces of his life and moved forward.  I’m not sure I could have done the same.  From time to time, a memory or special day will trigger a return of the grieving, but he doesn’t let it consume him.

Last year, after leading a very troubled life, Greg finally found his peace by committing suicide. I feared that the pain of losing two children would be impossible to bear, but once again, Ken grieved and moved on. His greatest remorse was that his children had suffered in their final days on earth and he had not been there to comfort them. His emotional strength in dealing with this loss has consistently amazed me.

My grandmother lost a child at the young age of 5 months and the loss affected her for her entire life. She became paranoid and bitter. She mistrusted everyone and had difficulty expressing her emotions. To us she seemed cold and unfeeling. She seldom laughed or caressed us and seemed overly critical of everything.
I was curious to know whether these two very different responses  to the death of a child were typical of the different grieving processes experienced by men and women.  

Several research articles pointed to the fact that mothers often have more difficulty overcoming the death of a child than fathers do.  This can be traced partly to social norms that place the mother in the more nurturing role in the family.  She tends to take on the responsibility for the care and protection of her young so when something goes wrong, she takes it as a personal failure and the guilt can be unbearable.  Because of the nursing experience, mothers often bond more quickly to their infant child than fathers. Therefore, losing an infant when it is most dependent on the nurturing care of the parent may be particularly difficult for the mother. As today’s fathers take a more active parenting role, this may be truer in my grandmothers’ case that it is today. 

The research also indicates that it is not uncommon for women who experience the death of a child to experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) similar to that experienced by combat veterans. They often suffer from psychological disorders like paranoia and substance dependency which can last throughout their lives. Treatment for PTSD has only recently come under scrutiny with the return of combat veterans from Vietnam. In my grandmother’s time, there was no diagnosis or treatment for the disorder.  Like combat veterans, grieving parents were simply told to get on with their lives and have more children.  What is misunderstood in this pronouncement is that one can never replace a child no matter how many children come afterward.  There is always a void and an empty place at the table.  There is always a life unfulfilled and the dreams of what might have been.

Pretending that the child never existed is not an option for the grieving parent.  There are still memories to be shared and smiles to be remembered. Just because their lives were cut short does not mean that they had never lived or that their lives did not touch others in the short time they were with us. When asked how many children he has, Ken always answers, “I had three sons.”

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