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When We Lose the Unthinkable - A Child

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When We Lose the Unthinkable – A Child

Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

What happens when a medical doctor makes a fatal mistake and your five year child dies on the operating table?...What happens when you know the doctor made a mistake and nobody will give you a straight answer as to why your five year old child is not breathing?...What happens during the first year of grief when you have a hard time attending children’s birthdays or baptisms and you have to leave early because you can't stop crying? What happens when your wife and the child’s mother has to be institutionalized with an eating disorder after your child’s death? Finally what happens when your lawsuit exceeds the compensation you expected?  After your child’s death, is money really that important?

                                                    - E-mail Respondent

Christ is in our midst.

Based upon what you've written, I have decided to offer a few observations and suggestions that you may have already read or heard. Then again, perhaps something in the following suggestions may provide a little direction and a small amount of consolation to you, and perhaps others. Thank you for granting me permission to use excerpts from your e-mail. You shall remain in my humble prayers.  

There is no greater loss that parents must adjust to than the one you've described. As your message suggests, such a loss has far-reaching effects on individual, marital and family well-being. I have counseled a number of families who have lost a child and during the grieving process, the foundation of their family life was seriously shaken. One such family comes to mind that lost a son to a drunk driver. It took this family many years to find some stability. They suffered interminable pain and anguish that seriously compromised individual, marital and family well-being. Through their efforts to find stability, their marriage nearly failed, one parent was hospitalized and one of their three remaining children began to abuse drugs and alcohol that led to a six-month incarceration. So, your questions are not unfamiliar to those who have lost a child. Sadly, the answers to such questions are very difficult to find.   

All the literature on familial loss that I have found indicates that adapting to the loss of a child requires family members to actively cope with their loss. Learning to struggle well and forging strengths to meet the many challenges that parents and other family members encounter is essential. Often it takes time to learn how to struggle well. One parent stated that he railed against God and fell into a deep depression and isolated himself for months before he began to adapt to the loss of his seven year old daughter. He stated, “This is something I will never forget. I suspect it will follow me to the grave. But thanks be to God and my family, I have turned a corner and, begun to adapt and ‘struggle well.’ At one of my lowest points when I thought about taking my life, the thought occurred to me that I didn’t want my other children and spouse to suffer yet another loss. So, I decided to somehow continue.” As this father discovered, when parents sustain the unthinkable loss of a child, their world is seriously shaken. Intense feelings overwhelm and retard their efforts to adapt and struggle well. Feelings like anger, resentment, guilt and shame precipitate prolonged bouts of depression, hopelessness and helplessness. In your case, I suspect you felt deep anger at the doctor, frustration with unanswered questions, regret and jealousy at other children’s birthday parties, helplessness at your wife’s eating disorder, and ambivalence at the financial settlement.

As you know, mourning and adaptation also have no timetable. Some parents may mourn for years while others require less time. You or your spouse may need a different amount of time to grieve the loss of your child. Unfortunately, those who need more time often are exhorted by well meaning family members and friends to “get busy and get your life back together. You owe it to yourself, your family and the memory of the child you lost.” Rediscovering purpose and meaning takes more time for some parents than others. Pushing yourself to get past the grief prematurely can lead to forms of pathology like your wife’s eating disorder, mood or anxiety disorder. Others suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly known as PTSD. So, please remember that there is nothing inherently wrong with you if you need more time. One suffering parent put it this way. “People kept telling me to snap out of it and fight to reclaim my life. I wasn’t ready, and no amount of this type of encouragement really helped. I needed the time to grieve. Thankfully my husband – and eventually my faith in God - was there for me. I don’t know what I would have done without God and my husband’s support and understanding.”

Some grieving parents have suggested that their relationship with their deceased child changed from a physical presence to one where spiritual connections, memories and stories permitted a continuing bond. One parent’s statements illustrate this. “After my fifteen year old was senselessly killed by a drunk driver, I visited her grave site daily. She also appeared in my dreams for weeks. Eventually, home videos and family gatherings that included stories kept her memory alive and helped me cultivate a continuing spiritual bond with her. If these strategies help, I would certainly encourage grieving parents to use them.”  

Coming to terms with loss requires that parents find ways to make meaning of the loss, and weave the experience into the fabric of life. A parent I counseled who lost a son as a result of a drive-by shooting decided to set up a foundation to help other parents that might sustain a similar loss. This helped this mother somehow give meaning to her son's senseless loss while also contributing greatly to her efforts to adapt and give meaning to her son’s life. Another parent who lost a nineteen year old daughter to a drunk driver offered the following counsel, “Sharing the lessons I learned from my daughter kept me going. To say that Francine taught me “X” and I teach others that same lesson, that honors her, gives her life purpose and blesses those who knew her. We all have a purpose. I couldn’t find a better way to honor my daughter’s memory than to acknowledge and carry on her message.”

Direct communication between family members often facilitates family adaptation and strengthens the family as a support system. Respectful communication is indispensable to families such as your own who are seeking to live beyond their loss. Since this can be challenging for some families, ongoing spiritual counseling and therapy can prove helpful. Another grieving father’s remarks validate this observation. He stated, “When our two year old was taken from us after a prolonged illness, I introverted and isolated myself. At one point I thought I was losing my mind when we decided to meet with our pastor. He drew me out and allowed me to ventilate. This eventually led to some meaningful discussions with my wife and family. What I learned is that you can’t hold it in. You have to talk to people who love you and understand.”  

Often parents need to deal with the ongoing implications of the loss which often includes the loss of dreams and hopes. One mother whose daughter died after a long bout with cancer lamented this loss for months. “She was so talented. She wanted to study medicine and help kids. Kids warmed up to her naturally. Life is so unfair…there’s no justice in this world, and I’m so angry! I don’t know if life will ever be the same.” Like most of these parents, she lamented the fact that her daughter would never get a chance to fulfill some of her dreams and hopes.  However, in time, as her youngest daughter matured, while honoring her oldest daughter’s memory, her focus slowly shifted and she began to take some satisfaction in watching her youngest daughter follow a path that was similar to her older sister’s dreams and aspirations.

Insurance settlements can never adequately ameliorate a parent’s pain. Still, it is important to pursue a settlement. One parent’s observations whose twelve year old daughter was killed by a hit and run driver who was later caught, prosecuted, and jailed, begin to affirm this. “At first, the insurance settlement we received almost felt like ‘dirty money.’ In time, the compensation somehow felt right because it sort of made me feel like the guy who killed my daughter didn’t get away with it. The jail time he’s doing and the money we received will never, ever be adequate justice, but they somehow helped us move on.” 

Parents who chose to engage their suffering and struggle well have informed me that within the pain and suffering they found a new normal. An excerpt from one parent’s e-mail is apropos here. He stated, “Quick fixes and feel-better strategies that didn’t permit me to deeply experience the pain weren’t helpful….It’s within the crucible of pain that I experienced transformation and healing; it’s within this place where a new relationship with God formed; it was in this place where a new normal began to emerge….The pain compelled me to find parts of myself that I had never known which led to insights that informed the way I think about almost everything.”  

Finally, ongoing spiritual and professional counseling can prove helpful to parents in their efforts to deal with the residual, lingering painfully crippling regrets, anger, resentment, shame and guilt that are associated with the process of struggling well. A renewed prayer life, regular reception of the sacraments, community and church involvement are all powerful resources that will help assuage your loss and transform the potentially destructive dynamics you described into opportunities for transformation, healing and growth.  

You shall remain in my prayers. May your child's memory be eternal.

Fr. Charles

P.S.  “O Lord, You watch over infants in this present life, while in the life to come, given their purity and innocence, You fill Abraham’s bosom, sheltering them in regions of light where righteous spirits dwell. Receive in peace the soul of Your servant, for You have said:  “To such belongs the kingdom of God.”

                 - From Orthodox Funeral for Infants