When a Child Dies #3
A friend of mine saw an 84-year-old patient and asked her how she was doing. “I’m a bit sad today,” she said. “It’s the anniversary of my daughter’s death.” He immediately imagined what it must be have been like for her to lose her adult daughter. He wondered if this daughter had her own children and perhaps grandchildren.
“I’m so sorry. How long ago did she pass away?”
“Sixty-two years ago,” the woman replied.
Yes, grief is like that. She’d never forgotten that precious three year old who’d been struck by a disease that today could have been treated routinely.
As I’ve spoken about grief and loss in many places, I’ve heard amazing stories of people who are now a decade, two decades—even many decades—down the road from their grief.
The pain is different. It isn’t as intense usually, thankfully. But it isn’t entirely gone, either. There is still a nagging sense that something is wrong, that something is missing.
David Wolpe describes well the process of healing:
“When we experience loss, a hole opens up inside of us. It is almost as if the loss itself plows right through us, leaving us gasping for air. We bleed through that opening, and sometimes old wounds are reopened. Things we thought were safely inside, patched over, healed, prove painful again in the wake of the new pain.
“Very slowly, the immediate agony subsides. Around the edges of that opening, things begin to heal. Scar tissue forms. The hole remains, but instead of allowing only a constant stream of emptying, it begins to permit things to enter. We receive some of the love and wisdom that loss has to give us. Now is when loss can have content beyond the ache. This is the time to create meaning. Pay attention to what comes in that open space. Nothing can make the pain go away. Making loss meaningful is not making loss disappear. The loss endures, and time will not change that truth.”
Slowly, slowly we begin to see ways in which our losses can be formative. If we don’t allow ourselves to become withdrawn and bitter (all too common), we can find ourselves becoming more compassionate and more centered. We realize that much of what occupies our time and worry just doesn’t matter all that much. We reach out to others. We learn the skills of friendship. We become more dependent on faith and our faith community.
But trust me on this: no parent who’s lost a child forgets. If you mention the child (a story, their birthday, the anniversary of the death), you will be a cherished friend. And if you have a new friend whose child you never knew, ask them to tell you everything about him or her. Ask to see pictures. Your friend will need you to know that child (in most cases) in order to let you into the deep places of their heart.
And trust me on this, if you’re a parent who’s recently lost a child: life and joy will re-emerge. One day you’ll realize, without warning, that you just laughed at something funny . . . that you were whistling a joyful tune . . . that you are looking forward to the day. You may be surprised and even feel guilty about it. “Does this mean I’m forgetting my child?” Oh, no. You won’t forget. And there will be plenty more sorrow-filled days ahead. (Grief has a way of looping back around for repeat visits.)
But time does help. You will, with the help of God and friends, survive!