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
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.
Causes of Death
When the death of a child is caused by a traumatic accident, or even a careless or premeditated homicide,
feelings of anger and frustration may flare out in explosive quantities. This is because many people in our society place
a very high value on being able to control their own lives and even the lives of those family members and friends that they
care for and love the most. In these situations the control factor is completely taken from them, generally without any notice.
It is generally done by someone, something or a process they were not adequately acquainted with or could not preview the
arrival of. It leaves them in a very similar state of mind as someone who has been robbed or raped. This is because they have
been placed in a position of complete vulnerability, and obviously against their will. Parents in such a situation are also
confronted with the fact that death is permanent and irreversible in every aspect. The control as a parent that they may have
been previously able to exercise over their child has now been taken from them. In some situations, the loss of that control
is as great of a loss to that parent as the actual death itself.
A child committing suicide creates an even more complex web of psychological trauma and grief for those
parents and survivors left in its wake. Even when the act is threatened or implied to those around them in advance, the positive
nature of loving parents, family members and caring friends tends to naturally dismiss or diminish the ultimate possibility
of the act actually taking place.
Counselors often hear post suicidal statements from parents like “I didn’t realize that
things were really that bad” or “I just thought it would get better in time”. These are generally statements
made from feelings of personal guilt, because the surviving parent regrets their perceived inadequate responses to the child’s
suicidal threats and cries for help.
When this type of uncontrolled death of a child occurs, those who are left in its mysterious shadow
are never properly prepared to deal with it for two primary reasons. The first reason is because as we have previously discussed,
it is so out of order to the normal sequence of life and death. The other is because of their previously misplaced optimism
against the threat of such an act occurring .
In many religions, suicide is considered to be psychologically dark, spiritually uncertain, and maybe
even ultimately sinful in nature. When we describe such an act as “psychologically dark”, it means that most people
do not venture into the thought patterns that would produce such results. Most people strive to extend their lives by seeking
medical attention when needed, eating healthy and nutritional based meals, exercising regularly, and maybe just simply behaving
in ways that naturally keep them out of harm’s way. Humanity is born into the urgent light of survivorship and procreativity.
It is natural to want to survive, to reproduce or perpetuate our lives in some way or another, hoping to postpone or at least
soften the affect of that dreaded inevitable event, our own mortal death.
When someone reaches out to embrace the conclusive event of their own death in an unnatural way, they
are generally perceived as dark or somewhat mysterious people. Because of its ultimately unknown final results, there is a
dark and uncertain mystery cloaking death that appears to be an unnatural object to embrace.
This is why many religious groups and organizations have a negative concept and perception of suicide.
To devout practitioners of such religious groups, this simply adds to the complexity of the situation and the out-of-sequence
pattern a child has created in consummating their own mortal death in this manner. Depending on the personal loyalty to the
relationship to that child, the parent’s own religious and spiritual values may be threatened, or even subject to change.
Many parents use their religious doctrines to justify the circumstances surrounding why the suicide actually happened. This
is especially true in the case of the elderly, and specifically older women (particularly mothers) in North
America. Religious beliefs may also strongly influence the parent’s perspective about the eternal destiny
of the child who has committed suicide.
The natural response to the suicide of a child by most parents is generally to try to define it rationally.
Many times the attempt to understand the circumstances may be attributed to the unbearable stress and pressure placed on the
child from the society’s pace and the culture’s excessive demands on them. Other parents will place blame a non
reconciled or a broken relationship the child experienced. Some parents may even perceive that another form of loss was not
properly grieved through by their child and thus contributed to their ultimate demise. Parents may also place blame on their
child’s medical and/or mental background as the contributing factors for the suicide.
The psychology and even the psychiatric conditions and care of the deceased child are often heavily
scrutinized from within family boundaries. The professional analysis and the care the deceased received may be reviewed to
see what might have been more needed in their treatment plan. Many times these intense inquiries and discussions can cause
more family relational issues than they resolve in determining any reason for the suicide. In some cases the discovery of
physical abuse or other unknown sexual activities is exposed to the survivors. The reconciliation and/or acceptance of these
circumstances may often become an even more difficult task to manage or cope with in the grieving process.
Less than 20% of successful suicides leave a note. It is very common for parents and family members
to try and “read between the lines” of a suicide note that is left by the child. But more times than not, the
note is written to try to console the ones left to read it, rather than to give an accurate account of the genuine reasons
for why they chose to conclude their own life. Many times these notes are directed at the closest family members such as a
spouse, children or life partner. When the parents are not included in part of the discourse, they may feel rejected or unimportant.
In some cases the parent or parents will take offense to their exclusion and react in anger and rejection of the child. Many
parents perceive their lifetime investments of effort, time and even monetary support as being rejected or unappreciated by
the child because they were not addressed or mentioned in such a note. These reactionary emotions can often complicate their
ability to rationalize and eventually make sense of the circumstances even more than if a note had not been left.
Suicide is a form of psychological and spiritual devastation and destruction that any parent struggles
with intensely, whether it is externally noticeable to others or not. The younger a victim of suicide is, the more difficult
the loss is to comprehend and work through by the surviving parents. It generally has negative affects on their inner family
relationships with their other children and close family members. Parents who do not seek help from their religious and/or
faith based leaders, or other qualified caregivers and trained professionals, generally live out the remainder of their lives
at a high level of frustration, anger, bitterness and in a constant posture of
questioning life and the normal authoritative counsels that they previously accepted prior to the loss. When a child’s
suicide is the source of parental grief, the journey will not be brief.
It is good to know, and encourage such victim’s that they are not alone and that there is support
and help if they are willing to receive it. Though this uncontrollable event has radically changed their lives and their perception
of the world they live in, they can regain control of their own life and circumstances and learn creative and helpful ways
to help others from the pain of their own personal grief.