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Parental Grief

Part One

This is the first part of the required reading text for this course. When you have read this part read Part Two before taking the examination.  

The Natural Sequence


There is a natural sequence to human life and death. We all know it. It is something that we naturally know as soon as we are old enough to know ourselves. The youngest child who knows their own name can recite the sequence to you in very identifiable words.

The human life experience has many sequences. Learning how to count (1,2,3,4 etc.) is a primary sequence just like progressing through the various stages involved in learning how to read. First a child learns how to associate certain sounds with the formations of certain letters to form basic words. Those words are then placed in a sequence to make simple sentences. Eventually those sentences sequence in a paragraph. Nearly two decades later those paragraphs may help formulate a master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation.

The educational system is also another life experience with sequence. It starts with pre-school, goes on to kindergarten, elementary school, junior high school, high school, college or university and then on to graduate school.        

 The natural sequence to human life and death goes like this. We are all born. Everyone has a birthday that determines their age throughout their lives. Birth is the initiation of the human experience. It is the point of origin that philosophically requires us to determine our world view mentality about where we came from.

Then we grow through childhood and adolescence. It is a time of maturation and adjustment to the various complexities of life. Some people struggle with the various sub-stages of this time of life. Others ignore these potential stages. And still others refuse to allow their mentality and their personality to make the transaction on to the next stage of adulthood, and eventually find themselves thinking and acting like a typical teenager at age 42. In most societies this stage is typically thought to end with the completion of some educational achievement such as high school and/or college. Some societies will see this transaction as a point when the person enters into marriage.

Then after childhood and adolescence, we typically find a mate and perpetuate the human race by having children. For most this process is a very literal occurrence. However, for others it maybe more of a surrogate experience of adoption or even parental assistance. In the nature of almost every person there is a parental urge or a desire to nurture the young at some level of intensity. How this is fulfilled may actually be a very creative and unusual experience. For some, it is never fulfilled because of emotional issues or circumstances that have occurred in their life. When this is the case it can be very frustrating to the person experiencing it. It may lead to anti social or even destructive behavioral patterns.   

Finally, we grow older and eventually experience mortal death. It is that one appointment we all have but cannot be exactly certain as to what day or time of the day it will occur. Our potential mortal death holds out before us the perpetual mystery of what, if anything lies beyond that. Some look eagerly towards the event of mortal death, while others attempt to avoid it with every available effort within them. Some people are very willing to accept the fact that they cannot control when the event will occur, and others control it completely by causing the event to take place according to their own will.

Our children are naturally left behind us on the journey to raise their children and eventually experience mortal death themselves. This is the precise progressive journey that the vast majority of the earth’s human population experiences and has experienced for several millenniums. We know this cycle and many times we often blindly and sub consciously trust that this cycle of life and death will not fail us. For the most part we don’t wake up in the middle of the night worrying about it. It is extremely rare that our normal conscious thought patterns would even turn to such thoughts or anxieties.

Subconsciously, parents teach our children how to look both ways before crossing the street. When parents (or the society they exist in) sense their children are mature enough, they educate them on how to operate specific motor vehicles within the comfortable zones of known safety. Some parents with strong protective instincts will even try to help their children select “good friends” so as to feel better about their safety when they are not within the range of their direct control. These examples and many more are often understood as ways by which parents are almost unconsciously and unknowingly attempting to prevent the natural sequence of human life from being broken or interrupted.      

But occasionally the natural progression of life and death does fail us, and death occurs “out of order”. It is never anymore welcomed than when the car breaks down in the middle of a heavy traffic jam during the rush hour. It is no easier to comprehend than a violent storm or an unexpected natural catastrophe that causes millions of dollars of damage to our community. Experiencing the death of a child of any age is not part of the natural process and progression of the human life and death cycle. We are supposed to die before our children do. That’s the way it normally works. No parent can truly prepare themselves for it or completely accept such a death at the time of its occurrence. 


Untimely or Unexpected ?


Because there is a natural and expected sequence to human life as we know it, parents who experience the death of their children at any age, tend to struggle in more difficult and unique ways than do children who experience the natural sequence of life in the death of their parents. It has to do with our normal expectations of life. Many people experience the death of a relative or friend (even after a long illness), and call it an “untimely death”. But in reality, when a parent experiences the death of a child, there is no such thing as an “untimely death”.  There is only the “unexpected” death.

When we say that a death is “untimely” we are really only saying that it didn’t take place at a convenient time, or at the time we would have wanted it to. A friend of mine shared with me the story of her elderly mother who was killed in an automobile accident. At her mother’s age, mortal death would not have been totally unexpected. But it was the unexpected aspect of her death that became a surprise? If she would have been ill and lingering in a state of unconsciousness for a period of days or weeks, to find her dead the next morning would not have been nearly as much of a surprise as the scenario of her actual unexpected death in the automobile accident. This is simply because the event of her death would have been more within the realm of a normal expectation had she died due to an illness or some other medically related issue.   

In the death of a child, the issue of the “unexpected” is blatantly obvious. The reality of the unexpected death cuts deep into the cognitive understanding of the human mind and spirit. This again is because it transcends our normally accepted sequence of life and death itself.  

Most of the major world religions attribute the appointment of mortal death as something left to the discretion of the one sovereign supreme deity that their religion is focused upon. So therefore, if that belief is truly practiced without question or reservation, then the timing of one’s death should not be any problem to any of us at all, and thus it should be freely and graciously accepted whenever death might occur.

Obviously, that is not what typically happens, and frail humanity rarely ever believes wholeheartedly what their idealistic religious teachings would suggest or demand that they should. And so the alternative is to grieve through a process of psychological and spiritual stages or phases that will theoretically conclude at a place of accepting to some degree or another the timing, the process and the ultimate results and consequences of the loved one’s death, even when the death is “unexpected”.

It is these three issues of timing, process and ultimate results that we human beings often become ensnared with during our grieving processes. If we cannot, or even if we consciously refuse see what good may come of the event of a death, or we cannot understand what the processes were that led to the death, we usually tend to blame the pain we are experiencing on our post modern society’s number one enemy – time itself. The death is then initially rationalized as an “untimely” death, instead of an “unexpected” death.

The post modern society that we now experience has traded its former preferred currency of cash (money and finances) in for time. The currency we cannot get enough of is “time”. We gladly spend our money to buy more time. We often find money (cash) is easier to obtain than time. We refer to that as a “line of credit”. Our credit report is more interesting and more needed than our bank account statement. And so, when our chronology of time is interrupted or severed by death, especially one out of the normal order of the sequence we would expect it to occur in, we become paralyzed by it. We would rather get any grieving processes over with as soon as possible, or avoid it all together because we don’t have enough time for it.                      

We buy life insurance, pre arrange funerals and complete all the necessary issues wrapped around estate planning for those who die within the normal sequence of life and death. We generally do not buy life insurance for, or encourage our eleven year old child to write a last will and testament. This is because we don’t expect them to die. Such thoughts and ideas are usually considered to be morbid and maybe even taboo or suspicious. It is because we actually believe they won’t die. They are not supposed to die, and we dare not think that might happen to them. That only happens to other people in other families.       


The Difficult Loss


When a parent loses a child of any age, it always seems to be much more difficult to accept. The first reaction is generally to resist the fact that the death has actually occurred. There are generally other circumstances that may often and repeatedly compound the intensity, the possible resolution, and ultimately the acceptance of their offspring’s death. These may include infant or childhood diseases and deformities, traumatic accidents, homicide and even suicide. Both serious short term and prolonged illnesses are also very complicating issues when the child is very young.

Often during the course of an extended illness the parents and the other family members will experience seasons of renewed hope in the possibility that the child will survive the illness. They will see glimpses of improvement and over react to the potential possibilities. Many times these flickers of hope are merely the lull before the storm. Then when the death finally occurs, their hope is shattered and the emotional hole in their lives is often encompassed with thoughts and feelings of mistrust, despair and depression. This is because we perceive that nature implies that the younger of its species tend to be more vigorous and resistant to disease and metabolic malfunctions. When these illnesses produce mortal death in younger children, it goes against the grain of the natural implicative that good health and vitality are natural expectations parents should have for their offspring. Many times these out-of-sequence deaths leave the survivors scarred psychologically and even spiritually.      

Parents who experience the death of an infant child may incur a multitude of issues on their journey of grief. These may vary in intensity in either parent. These issues may bring parents together in support of one another, and they may also cause extreme reactions against each other. Some of these issues are determined by the parent’s overall view of, and value of life itself.

Religious and faith perspectives may also determine the final results in the acceptance of a child’s death. Depending on the age of the child and the child’s mental and spiritual state during their life, and the parent’s specific religious indoctrinations, the child’s eternal destiny or “condition of the soul” may be a deep concern for the grieving parents. In many cases, the parent’s religion and/or faith experience may turn out be the greatest comfort or the most haunting back drop in their journey through grief.

The parent’s relationship with the grandparents of the infant child may be a determining factor in coping with the various grief stages and phases. This is because each generation in a family lineage tends to develop and hold onto their own concepts of what adequate expressions of grief are and/or should be.

An example of this would be my own parents. They look at the event of a miscarriage or a stillborn infant death much differently than do my wife and I. My parents never had such an experience. My wife and I did experience it personally. Their different perceptions would not only be attributed of their lack of personal experience, but it would also be because of the rate of miscarriage and stillborn death they were exposed to as children, adolescents and young adults. Because of the lack of medical advancement decades ago, they observed a much higher rate of miscarriages and stillborn deaths in family and friends around them than did my generation or even my children’s generation. Their particular school of general life philosophy, grief education and/or other religious indoctrination was somewhat different than my wife and I grew up being exposed to also.

My father once told me about a younger sibling of his who died a few months after birth. There were five other children in his family as he grew up in their rural setting in southwest Ohio. In telling me the story in the form of a very brief snippet, he never referred to the child by name or gender. When my grandmother (his mother) died in the early 1990s, that child was not listed in the obituary. This was not because that small child was not important to anyone. It was because that type of childhood death was more of an expected possibility in the earlier part of the 20th century. Another factor was that nearly eight decades later my father’s family had journeyed through their grief into a healthy acceptance of what had happened many years ago in the death of that infant sibling. That was how they in there generation dealt with those issues.       

Our society and culture is continually imposing new and developing attitudes and values surrounding the initiation (conception), purpose and sanctity of human life. It has an impact on the grief we experience from such traumatic losses like that of a child. How we adapt to or resist these attitudes and values often determines in some manner, how and to what intensity we grieve in these unique situations of the death of a child.

Many times respected professionals, educators or even politicians make statements or write books that can have a major effect on how the general society responds to human life issues. This is because most of the general population are “reactors” and not “initiators”. Thus, most people are either consciously or unconsciously looking for someone to instruct them as to how they should perceive and/or respond to things such as death and loss. Where and from whom they receive their insight and instruction regarding their grieving experience may make the difference between experiencing such grief in a healthy natural way, or being somewhat destroyed by their grief.   

Only in the last two decades has professional counseling for parents of stillborn, infant and early childhood deaths been a highly encouraged mandate in those situations. Prior to that, most people who experienced the intense grief associated with the loss of a child sought help from religious leaders, or simply learned to cope on their own. Looking at these historical facts we can see that the culture and the society have changed in regard to their values concerning both life and death.

The value that our culture and society place on life, death and even the grief we experience  because of death, will determine the future of whether or not our society will be concerned with those who are suffering loss, especially parents experiencing the death of a child. 

Central Institute of Theological Studies
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Dayton, Ohio    45475