Inside: The death of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare and according to experts, the most traumatic experience that can happen to a parent. It’s gut-wrenching and heart-breaking and something many mothers and fathers never completely recover from. Having lost a child myself, here are 10 ways I used to cope, heal, and eventually find closure and peace.
On March 30, 1985, our fourth son, Jarom died of a neural tube disorder (brain disorder). He was a newborn…four weeks short of being full-term. He lived for 30 minutes.
This week he would have turned 33 years old. The first 10 years, I thought about him constantly, but time has a way of healing wounds and now when I think of him, I feel at peace.
I was torn about writing this blog. It’s difficult and uncomfortable to share personal or private emotions. But over the last 33 years, I’ve met a number of parents who have lost children and their experiences and words have helped me. Maybe something I say might help you.
Death of a Child: The Worst Loss
Experts say that losing a child is the worst thing a parent can experience. I have to agree. Everything about it is painful.
However, over time, the death of someone you dearly love and cherish (like a child) teaches you lessons that you can’t learn in any other way. Unfortunately, you have to actually experience it to fully understand it. Forget about reading books on death and dying. It’s not the same learning curve.
The latter means you are in the bleachers observing the action taking place in the arena. The former is actually being in the arena and experiencing the blood, sweat, and tears associated with the pain.
But while you’re in the arena feeling the pain, learning kicks into high gear.
Here are 10 things I learned from my son’s death. If you’ve lost a child, you will probably relate. However, when it comes to death and dying there is no “one-size-fits-all” learning curve.
10 Things I Learned About Death and Dying
#1: Grieving is a Must
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD wrote many books about death. In her book, Death and Dying, she lists the five stages of grief that people experience: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
For decades, these five stages have been the model for people dealing with their own impending death or the death of loved ones. Her steps have helped thousands.
However, my experience did not fit into the Kübler-Ross model. It didn’t resonate with me.
Many of the stages she discussed, I never experienced such as denial, anger or bargaining. Nor were my feelings compartmentalized into steps or phases. Mine took a different path.
The main emotion I felt was numbness.
Debilitating numbness. Numbness where you wake up each day feeling detached from life and people. A numbness that allows you to go through the routine of living but never feeling, thinking or being in the moment. It’s going outdoors and not noticing that the sun is shining. It’s living life in shades of black. It’s failing to notice your kids fighting or crying or needing help.
It’s survival mode.
In this mode, I made a BIG mistake…I never cried. I never mourned. I kept everything inside. It was the wrong thing to do. I brought my own healing process to a halt by not allowing myself to cry or mourn.
Tears are healing.
Many years ago, scientists discovered that human tears have a healing component to them and that our breathing and heart rate decreases after having a “good cry.”
Judith Orloff, MD has written about tears and the three different kinds of tears we shed: reflex, continuous and emotional. Each kind has a different way of healing.
Emotional tears have special health benefits. Biochemist and “tear expert” Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis discovered that emotional tears contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying. Dr. Frey found that emotional tears shed these hormones and other toxins which accumulate during stress. Additional studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural painkiller and “feel-good” hormones.”
Crying makes us feel better, even when a problem persists. In addition to physical detoxification, emotional tears heal the heart.” (The Health Benefits of Tears, Judith Orloff)
Because I did not grieve, it took three years after my son’s death for me to “wake” up. I was pregnant with son #5 and because of Jarom’s issues, we sought genetic counseling at Harbor UCLA. Based on their findings, I decided to have an amniocentesis.
After the procedure, I went into the bathroom to change. No one was there. I went into one of the stalls, sat down on the floor and began sobbing. I sobbed for over an hour and when I finished, I felt different.
My healing was finally beginning.
When experiencing the death of a child or any loved one, give yourself permission to mourn and to cry. Crying is not a sign of weakness or lack of character or self-centeredness. It’s a sign you are human and are experiencing something difficult. It means your inner-child is trying to find a way to heal. Have a good cry. A healing cry.
#2: Be Sensitive to the Needs of Children at Home
I found out about Jarom’s health issues four days before he was born. During those four days, I had to shop for burial clothes, make arrangements with a mortuary, purchase a burial plot, organize a small graveside service AND, talk to our children.
It was a stressful time trying to squeeze in everything surrounding our child’s impending death and burial while taking care of the needs of our young sons at home.
I’m a reader, but I didn’t have time to go to the library and check out books that would tell me the right things to say to my children about death.
I had to rely on my instincts. They didn’t serve me well.
We gathered our sons together and explained the situation. Our oldest son was eight. He had a lot of questions.
I found that talking to your kids about death is similar to talking to your kids about sex…they can only understand so much and repetition is necessary. It takes time for children to grasp something as big as death.
And the situation that developed with our oldest son made me realize that kids feel grief and hold on to grief just like adults.
Three years later, Jason came to me very upset. He was crying and screaming and wanting to know why I didn’t do more for his brother…why I didn’t save him.
In a desperate attempt, I grabbed what I felt could help…a children’s book…Love you Forever.
I sat with him on the floor, and holding him close with both my arms wrapped around him, I read,
“I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always,
As long as I’m living
My baby you’ll be.”
Every hurt and misunderstanding about his brother that he had bottled up for 3+ years was washed away in a sea of healing tears. Whatever was in that book, spoke to his young soul.
Jason was 8 when his brother died. At this age, children understand that death is irreversible and that everyone dies, but they think just old people die. Having his baby brother die was more traumatic. At the time, I did not understand this. Looking back, would I have done something differently? Yes, coupled with talking to our son, I would have sought professional help for him. It was my mistake.
Using baby steps, talk to your kids about death. Explain as much as they are able to grasp given their age(s). According to your beliefs, your questions and explanations will vary. Asking basic questions will help you to see what they are understanding such as:
- “I want to explain some things about death to you. We’ll take it slow and you can ask any questions you want.”
- “Do you understand why people die? Please share your thoughts with me.”
- “What are your feelings about death? It can be scary. What do you think?”
I also found that children’s books speak volumes to kids of all ages. Sometimes reading a children’s book to a child will answer questions and give comfort more than anything else you can do.
Here are a couple of suggestions:
And, if you feel it is necessary, seek professional help for your children…sooner rather than later.
#3: Make a Memory, Take a Picture
Knowing that our son would die, I wanted pictures of him for memories. I later read an article in the Los Angeles Times about things parents should do when faced with a terminally ill child. One was to take lots of pictures.
The pictures of our son have helped to keep the memory of him alive. He’s a real person who once lived on this earth.
This is a no-brainer; especially in this age where it’s so easy to take pictures on your phone. Keep the memory of your child close to your heart—take pictures. As the years go by, those pictures will become priceless.
#4: A Loss is a Loss
One day I went to visit my son’s grave. A woman came by and we started talking.
She shared with me that her daughter died at 18 months old. When I told her my son died as a newborn she said, “Well, you never really suffered then. Mine was a true loss—I had my daughter for 18 months. You didn’t even bring your son home from the hospital. I suffered more.”
I had to agree with her. She suffered terribly. But, it’s horrible to have a child for any length of time and then to lose him/her.
What made her loss even more poignant was she didn’t have any other children to ease the pain. I did. I did not come home to a childless home. I had three sons waiting for me.
I’ve since met other women who lost their first baby and came home to an empty home…my sister-in-law being one. It’s painful to pack up your hopes and dreams to await another pregnancy and child.
I have a friend who lost her daughter at age seven to brain cancer.
I read about a mother who lost all three of her children by the age of 18 to a genetic disorder.
These women suffered horribly…perhaps more so than I did.
However, is that what death is all about…comparing and contrasting degrees of suffering?
Isn’t a loss still a loss?
Try not to compare your loss to someone else’s loss. People always compare their weaknesses against someone else’s strengths. And when death is the topic, comparing your suffering against someone else’s suffering is a lose/lose situation. Everyone aches when a child dies. There are no so-called “winners” whose measure of suffering surmounts everyone else’s.
#5: Ignore Insensitive People
One important thing I learned from Jarom’s death is the old adage: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, keep your mouth shut.” (or something like that)
Friends and relatives mean well. But death can be awkward for many people and most do not know what to say. Well-meaning people can end up making thoughtless remarks.
Here are some things people said to me:
- “Surely you are not going to cry over this baby…you have 3 other children at home! Plus, you don’t want your children to see you crying over this baby, do you?” (a friend)
- “This baby means nothing to your family. Don’t bring him home to bury. Let the hospital have him. He’s nothing.” (a doctor friend)
- “Hey, I found a coffin for this kid for 24 bucks!” (our ecclesiastical leader)
- “He’s in a better place. Think of what it would cost to take care of a child like this!” (a friend)
- “God knows best. We must accept His plan.” (a friend)
If you have a friend who loses a child, try saying something like these statements made to me by my caring friends:
- I’m so sorry.
- I’m coming over so that we can mourn together
- I’m bringing dinner over to your family
- I want to help. I’m taking your kids for the day
- I’m coming over just to sit with you. If you need anything I’ll be there.
- I know you feel you need to be brave, but please allow yourself to cry
#6: Surround Yourself with Supportive Friends
Everyone needs friends, especially when tragedy strikes. Good friends, supportive friends, and caring friends become more precious than gold.
Be that friend:
- Who mourns with those who are mourning
- Who helps without being asked
- Who doesn’t give advice during tragic times
- Who simply listens with a non-judgmental heart
- Who doesn’t talk about someone else with a similar problem
- Who is loving, kind and compassionate
I was very fortunate. I had four friends like these. We’ve been there for each other in difficult times and will continue to be there for each other.
Be that friend who reaches out in love to comfort a friend in need. Wrap loving arms around the person in pain and envelop them in a cocoon of compassion and protection. They will always remember the kindness you extended to them.
#7: Pen to Paper
I’m a fan of Julia Cameron, the author of, The Artist’s Way. She talks about the need for what she affectionately calls, “Morning Pages.” It involves taking time each morning to write in long-hand (no computer) three pages of whatever pops into your head. Many people report having amazing bursts of creativity, solving perplexing problems and getting pent-up emotions poured out on paper. During this exercise, you’re not editing, or worrying about grammar or spelling–it’s free-form writing.
The goal of Morning Pages? In Cameron’s words, “to get to the other side of our fears, our negativity, and our moods.” Practicing Morning Pages gives you permission to feel and say anything you want without censorship.
Writing can be an important part of the grieving process. It can be a time to verbalize pain and debilitating emotions through flowing penmanship. Therapists have found that writing one’s feelings gradually eases feelings of emotional trauma.
For me? It cleared my head and became another avenue of healing.
Take time each day and write in a journal. If you want to try Morning Pages, commit to writing three pages daily of anything that comes into your mind. Put your pen to the page and begin. This simple exercise will help you release unresolved emotions and find closure. Writing is a powerful therapeutic way to heal. So is meditation. I find both to have similar results. Try it..test it out…see what happens.
#8: Donating Organs
For some parents, donating organs of a child is a difficult and painful topic. They want their child’s body to remain intact or they believe the body is sacred and should not be desecrated in any way. This is a personal and private decision but understanding some facts may help.
What can be donated:
- Eight vital organs can be donated: heart, kidneys, pancreas, lungs, liver, and intestines. Hands and faces can also be donated
- Tissue can be donated: cornea, skin, heart valves, bone, blood vessels and connective tissue
- Bone marrow and stem cells, umbilical cord blood, peripheral blood stem cells can also be donated
Here are answers to other questions:
Question: Is the body maimed or disfigured during the retrieval process?
Answer: No. Surgical techniques are used to retrieve organs and tissues and all incisions are closed.
Question: Are there any costs to the family?
Answer: There are NO costs to the family
Organ donation did not come up prior to my son’s death. I wish it had. I would have donated at least his tissues. Jarom was born with a very weak heart that affected his other organs so they would not have worked for donation purposes. However, some of his tissues could have been given.
I don’t think about organ donation in a grotesque way. I focus more on all the babies my son’s tissues could have helped. It would have been a way for him to live on by giving to others.
This is a personal and very private decision. Whatever you decide will be the correct decision for your child and your family
#9: The Need to Remember
Did you know that the most oft-repeated word in religious canon is the word, “remember?”
Every parent who loses a child wants to remember and never forget their child.
I know people who create shrines within their homes to always remember family members who have died. Others celebrate particular holidays each year commemorating their dead. Still, others create special days to remember a child who has passed.
Are there certain ages that you consider “rites of passage” in your family? Ages that you want to reflect on when your child would have arrived at that age? Favorite holidays your child will be remembered and missed? What about activities he/she will miss such as graduating from high school and college, choosing a profession, securing a job, getting married and having children?
And what about talents your child would have developed? Jarom had beautiful long fingers…perfect hands and fingers for playing a musical instrument.
It’s natural to think about the things your child will miss. But try and visualize what they may be experiencing.
I believe in a hereafter and I believe that families are of an eternal nature so I like to think Jarom knows and has become friends with more ancestors that I can possibly imagine.
I don’t think heaven is a place to strum your harp, but rather a place of incredible learning and amazing libraries. Yes, he missed many things here—but I do believe he continues to learn, develop talents, celebrate special days, and grow within the sphere he occupies.
Remember your child in ways that bring you comfort. Others may not share your beliefs, and that’s okay. It’s not about getting approval from others of what is right and wrong beliefs. It’s remembering things about your child that will speak peace to your soul.
Here are some ideas:
- Honor your child’s memory: celebrate his/her birthdays
- Celebrate “rites-of-passage” days such as graduations, professions, jobs, marriage, etc.
- Create a Memory Box for your child. Include special mementos of your child. I have a lock of hair, the outfit I put him in at birth and photographs.
- Create a photo album and include pictures, thoughts, poems, etc., about your child
- Name a star after your child. You can do this for free or officially
- Each night as a family share one special remembrance of that child
- On holidays, (Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter, etc.) set a place at the table for that child–he/she is still a part of your family
#10: Moving Forward, Finding Closure
Life is a continuum. Filled with both bitter and sweet moments. In the midst of these opposing forces, there is something called “time” that continually moves forward and waits for no one.
Fortunately for all of us, “time heals all wounds.” The passage of time allows us to group and regroup…ponder…think and rethink.
Time also allows us to view life and pain from different perspectives. It allows us to decide how we will act or react to difficulties.
We can wait at the train station letting life and time pass us by or we can get on the train and experience the greatest ride of our lives. A ride that is filled with danger, gut-wrenching sadness, but contrasted with beautiful scenery and vistas.
The choice is ours.
Losing Jarom was one of the most painful experiences of my life. But, the paradox is that the most difficult experiences in life bring with it the most meaningful moments of learning.
I can now feel empathy and not just sympathy for parents who lose a child. Prior to his death, I was annoyed by women mourning over a miscarriage. I know better now.
I know and understand how truly fragile life is and that every minute of life is a blessing to be cherished.
I also know I will see my son again. This life is not the end. Other opportunities and new beginnings await on the other side.
It’s been an interesting ride…and an educational ride.
I doubt I could have learned what I learned in any other way. Bouncing over the steep bumps and sharp crags have polished some of the rough edges off my flawed character.
And time has given me closure.
Have you lost a child? Would you be willing to share anything about your experience? Please comment in the section below.
You can access the 2-minute video here