Living with the Death of a Child
How do we respond to the death of a child? How do we cope with a parent’s worst nightmare?
The telephone’s rasping jangle roused us from deep sleep in our home in Kediri, East Java, Indonesia, where we were serving as missionaries. Reaching the telephone, I heard our oldest son, Randy, saying, “Dad, come to the hospital quickly; we’ve had an accident on the highway.” Referring to his fifteen-year-old brother, he continued, “I don’t think Roger is going to make it.” Upon arriving at the emergency room, we realized that Randy’s prediction had come to pass. His brother and our son had been killed as his motorcycle was struck by a bus.
Soon missionary and Indonesian friends began to arrive at the emergency room bringing comfort and strength. I returned to our house to secure burial clothing for Roger. When I told our helpers, Wari and Painem, who had been with us over eleven years, that Roger was dead, Painem sounded the words that I had been pondering, “How can we live without Roger?” How do we respond to the death of a child? How do we cope with a parent’s worst nightmare?
Shock and Denial
Initial responses include shock, numbness and some degree of denial. The circumstances of the child’s death influence the severity and commingling of these feelings. The sudden death and/or disappearance of a child elicits a different mix of feelings than those accompanying a protracted illness. These initial feelings in a sense protect us from the intense pain of loss. Experiences subsequent to the child’s death which vividly remind us of our loss cause these shock feelings to resurface until eventually we come to grips with the enormity of our loss. When we fully realize our child is not coming back, we can begin to be healed.
Shock and denial give way to other emotions: sadness and depression, anger, guilt, fear. Accepting and working through these emotions is an important part of the grief process. To experience these feelings is not a sign of weakness or faithlessness. Some may need to see a therapist during this period. Others may be adequately supported by loved ones.
Central to grief is sadness and depression. Grief casts a dark shadow over our lives, sapping our strength, robbing us of joy, blunting our reason for living, dulling our creativity. Life seems empty, gray and cheerless.
Sadness is mixed with other feelings. We may feel guilty because we imagine that we might prevented our child’s death, that we could have been a better parent, that God is punishing us for our sins. We may fear the loss of other loved ones–especially other children–and become paranoid for their safety. We may feel anger toward persons whom we associate with the death of our child. We may blame doctors or loved ones whom we accuse of not doing enough to save our child.
We may be angry at God. Aloud or silently, we ask, “Why did God allow this precious child to suffer this disease or injury?” “Why did God not protect this child from danger?” While the Bible ultimately teaches that God does not cause tragedy in our lives, scripture is replete with examples of complaints and accusations against God. While this anger is misplaced, God seems to exercise patience with its expression. It is almost as if God embraces our anger and returns it with love. Working through anger to love is part of healing.
So it is with every intense feeling associated with grief. We acknowledge, share and work through the feelings to healing. Denying and stifling these feelings retards healing. Instead of working through, we get stuck. Anger turns into bitterness. Sadness and temporary depression turns into full-blown, protracted depression. Fear and guilt become crippling. Sharing with others, especially with those who are the Body of Christ to us, is critical to working through the intense feelings that naturally accompany the death of a child to healing.
Receiving ministry and help from others is an expression of love. We express love to others in receiving comfort and ministry from them. Roger’s death was the first experience for us of utter helplessness and powerlessness. When property had been stolen or destroyed, it could be replaced. When plans had been thwarted, other opportunities were forthcoming. But Roger could not be replaced. We could not fix our broken hearts. We could not mend the hurt in our surviving children. We were halfway around the world from our parents and other family members. Whom could we turn to?
We found part of the answer in turning to our friends. Missionary friends lifted us. Indonesian friends comforted us. Shared burdens become lighter. Indonesian custom calls for the bereaved to not be left alone for a week after a death. Our boys had Indonesian friends by their sides night and day.
Reach out for and rely on the ministry of others. God is at work through them meeting your deepest needs.
Caring for Surviving Children
Siblings, as well as parents must deal with the death of a family member. Surviving the death of a child involves helping the other children in the family deal with the event.
Children appear to go through several stages in their understanding of death. The very young child (under age five or six) sees death as a reversible condition, similar to sleep. In this early awareness, children may believe that the dead–though limited by location–continue to eat, drink, breathe, grow and feel. Later on, children may personify death as something outside the self, like as ghost or skeleton, which can be escaped or avoided. The stage of mature understanding often begins around age nine and recognizes death as final, inevitable, universal and the end of ordinary physical existence.
Children who endure the death of a sibling usually experience the same emotions as their parents: shock, numbness and denial. Anger toward both the deceased and surviving family members may be followed by guilt feelings brought on by the anger. Younger children may feel responsible for the death of their sibling, particularly if the admonition to “be good or something bad will happen” has been successfully internalized. Because young children have not clearly conceptualized cause and effect, they may believe that by being noisy after having been told to be quiet or by wishing the other’s death during a time of anger, they are responsible for their sibling’s death. Sometimes the child may feel guilt as he or she realizes that the memory of the deceased sibling is beginning to fade. Fear of losing another loved one may follow. “If I get angry at Mommy, will she die too?”
As with adults, time brings about changes. The pattern of behavior exhibited a day or two after the death should not be expected to be the same as that occurring two years after the funeral. In the usual pattern, where grief is openly and deeply expressed, the first six months constitute the most stressful period with full recovery occurring during the first year and by the end of the second. But time alone is not enough! This is one instance where ignoring an issue does not cause it to go away. Grief can be submerged in childhood to reemerge later in a more severe form. Research has indicated a relationship between antisocial behavior in adolescents and unresolved grief over the death of a loved one.
The lack of opportunity or ability to experience the grief process is often the result of circumstances, of inhibited personality or of the social expectation to “keep a stiff upper lip.” In many instances, the unresolved grief is released years later when triggered by some incident or memory.
Honesty should guide us in speaking with children about death. Telling children some fiction which must be retracted later benefits no one. Do not say, “Mother has gone on a long journey. Children are accustomed to reunions after an absence, so they will continue to expect their sibling’s return. When he or she does not return, the child may feel abandoned and unloved by the sibling. Also, if the deceased sibling is only on a long journey, why is everyone crying?
Never tell young children, “God took brother or sister away because God loves brother or sister." The child may begin to believe that loving God or being loved by God is not such a good idea. The child may react with the thought, “God loves me; I may be the next one He takes. I’ll have to stop being good!” Even worse, the child may develop a resentment toward God for taking the sibling.
The simple statement, “Sister died because she was sick,” can also be problematic. Without further information the child may easily conclude that death will follow the next case of flu or measles. A similar problem arises from alluding to death as sleep. Care must be taken to explain the difference in order to avoid the risk of causing a pathological dread of bedtime.
The following positive strategies can help children work through the grief of losing a sibling:
- Be empathetic, understanding and loving. Explain what has happened, how you and others feel, and that it is all right for the child to exhibit emotions. After you have explained as best you can, it is legitimate to say that the child will understand better when he or she is older. However, never use, “You’re too young,” as an excuse to avoid confronting the issue.
- The child needs to talk, not just to be talked to. Assist the child to unburden his or her feelings by giving every opportunity to discuss the person who has died. The child should feel free to express all feelings–both anger and affection. A sympathetic, never–shaming attitude toward the youngster’s age–appropriate responses is important. Do not berate the child for not grieving enough or for grieving too much. Never reprimand for the sake of conventional propriety. Children often express grief in what is for adults an “improper” manner.
- Grief and tears should not be discouraged. Tears are a natural tribute to the lost one. To say, “Be brave!” places an impossible burden upon the child. Tears are like a safety valve, so do not be afraid of causing them. Parents and friends redirect the conversation when it looks as if tears may begin to flow because it hurts them to see the child grieve so deeply. But the choice consists of letting the child suffer openly and deeply now or inside for the rest of his or her life. The worst thing possible is to pressure the child to repress grief stoically so that it erupts in a maladaptive way at a later time. Do not; however, urge the child to display unfelt sorrow. Honesty is the key to working through the loss.
- Allow the child to attend the funeral. Children cannot be spared knowledge about death. Parents often attempt to protect children from death by sending them away with a friend or relative to return after the funeral. Not only should children be permitted to attend the funeral, but after age seven, they should be actively encouraged (but never forced) to attend. A funeral is a crucial occasion in the life of the family, and the child should be permitted to participate and pay his respects. When children do attend the funeral, prepare them for the service by telling them in advance what to expect.
- Provide therapy for the child if abnormal grief symptoms persist. If any of the normal grief reactions appear in an extreme form and continue for several weeks or even months, referral may be necessary.
Caring for Marriages
The loss of a child presents an enormous challenge for surviving married parents. Working through grief can lead to isolation and alienation. Instead of supporting each other’s grief work, partners can sometimes act as saboteurs, blaming and directing anger at the other. The spouse becomes a foil for all of the intense emotions of grief instead of serving as confidant for working through them. If distance and alienation creeps into the relationship, reach out for help. A qualified marriage and family therapist can help to redirect the dynamics of grief toward constructive rather than destructive ends.
Refuse to Play the “What if’ Game
Too often when tragedy comes, we are tempted to engage in the age-old game of “what if.” What if we had never brought our child to this place? What if we had made other decisions so that our child’s death could have been averted? These questions are inevitable and endless. Getting caught up in “what ifs” is not only futile, it keeps us from working through our grief. No amount of rethinking the events surrounding our child’s death can change our loss. We can learn from the past, but we cannot change its outcome.
Nurture the practice, inside and outside the family, of talking about the deceased child. Remember the uniqueness, the idiosyncrasies, the special accomplishments, the delightful qualities of the child who died. Never stifle the free expression of these memories. When they are shared, listen. Participate in the sharing. Memories may bring tears and the onset of grief feelings, but in the Iong run they heal. As we move through the grief process, the sharing of memories will eventually bring more joy and comfort than pain.
The Process of Grief
Grief is a like a long, winding tunnel. It takes time to make the journey from one end to the other. While we are passing through, we see only shades of darkness. Only by going all the way through the tunnel can we reach the light at the other end. Experiencing the emotions, the loss, the pain and the depths is the rite of passage. Grief work requires time. There are no healthy short cuts. The hurt of loss will never fully go away, but if we take the time, God’s gracious presence will bring us to the light.
The process of working through grief varies from person to person. Needing more time to recover from a loss does not mean one has less faith or weaker spiritual resources. Be patient with yourself and expect some setbacks. Surviving the death of a child requires our submitting to the passage through the tunnel and our depending on God to see us through. The fullest victory over the trauma of losing a child cannot be secured by human action or effort. Only the One who entrusted the child to us in the beginning can heal our brokenness in the end. We hear the benediction of the prophet:
Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
“Living with the Death of a Child” is one of fourteen articles in the Getting Well: Christian Perspectives on Health, Sickness, and Ministry series. Getting Well deals with major health and biomedical issues.
Christian Life Commission