Posted by: Jody Glynn Patrick | 08/20/2009

Six more hurdles to jump after a child dies.

In addition to the “Hardest Things After A Child’s Death” blogs already posted (https://jodyglynnpatrick.wordpress.com), are these six bottomless pits that many parents fall into after the death of their children.

1.       The question (and intense pain and distress) of deciding what to do with your child’s room, clothing, and possessions.

This is especially hard for married couples or extended families in which there is disagreement about “how to live” after – some want all physical possessions and the room left the same, others want to make subtle changes, and some others will want to purge or rid themselves of any and all painful reminders. 

Personally, for months after my son Daniel died (age 16/car accident), I slept clutching his pillow. I wanted to hang on to the faint smell of him left on his pillowcase… until even that scent was gone.

I set aside items that preserved or evoked the strongest memories – a few rocks he had picked up on our last walk; his favorite drumming sticks; his Ronald McDonald doll (given to him by the ‘real’ Ronald at the Chicago Ronald McDonald House); a football signed and given to him by the Philadelphia Eagles Football team.

I kept these items until my other children were old enough to receive them. I kept the football. It took a few months before I was able to begin removing things from his room, and slowly, so as not to “jar” my other children, I replaced this and that. When that didn’t ease the pain, we moved.

Moving is a common phenomenon. People say “don’t make a drastic change” for a year after a crisis. I say “do whatever feels best and right to you.” There is no “right way” or “wrong way” to grieve, and I know this as an experienced crisis interventionist and professional grief counselor — as well as a bereaved parent.

If images of your child in those rooms ambush you with pain to the point of driving you crazy, move. Martydom is not required by your child as a testamony of how much you loved them. If remembering him or her in those places brings you comfort, stay. No one else can or should tell you when “enough is enough.” It’s enough when your heart says “it’s enough” and that may be “now” or “never” for you.

2.       The dread of the coming year’s “firsts” — first missed birthdays, holidays, or the first anniversary of your child’s death. 

Daniel died in July. I put up our Christmas tree for Halloween and decorated it with bats. I put Thanksgiving decorations on the tree next. That way, when Christmas came and he wasn’t there to help put up the tree, it wasn’t quite the drawn-out affair of crying while pulling the tree out of the garage. It saved a few minutes grief.

Today, we still name him and include him in our opening prayers for every special event. His birthday and death anniversary, and Mother’s Day were hardest for me. I found a church for those days, and prayed and cried with a pastor. For the first ten years or so, I took his birthday off as a vacation from work, knowing that I could be ambushed by grief. Now I can handle the grief, and prefer to be at work. There is no “right” way to do any of this, or even preferred way.

Make new traditions or keep the old. Do what feels right to you and your family.

3.        “How many children do you have?”

It’s an innocent question, right? And if you ever make any reference to a living child of yours to a new acquaintance, the question of How many children do you have? is sure to follow. This makes some parents hypersensitive of ever mentioning any of their children — further isolating them from the natural joys of parenting (bragging about your kids or sharing their cute remarks or antics or irritating habits, depending on the audience).

On the other hand, if you don’t mention the dead child when answering that question, you may feel guilty, as if you have already erased their importance in your life.

But… If you do tell the person that you lost a child, it brings sorrow to your listener (and likely to you), and causes, at the very least, an awkward moment or situation.

My answer always depends on the listener. If it is someone I am meeting casually, and likely will not see again, I have decided that I don’t owe them an explanation, and it isn’t a betrayal of my son. I answer that I have three children, and say whatever else about those (now adult) children that seems relevant to the conversation.

If the person is someone I’d like to know better, or I think I’d like them to know me better, I may say, “My oldest son, Daniel, was killed in a car accident when he was a teenager, but I have three other children children that I’m happy to talk about – Summer, Brook, and Philip” and then tell more about them, highlighting the positives about their lives.

Notice that I gave the details and age of his death in the introduction so that the questioner doesn’t have to ask those natural questions to seem interested — or to prove they aren’t shocked by what I’ve just said (they are). And by continuing with the details of the other children, they can move ahead with me, or, if they are truly interested/comfortable knowing more about Daniel, they can direct the conversation back.

If you’ve recently lost a child, you may want to consider what you’re going to say, so you won’t be taken off-guard so easily. I never ceased to be amazed — as likely are infertile couples, or those choosing not to have children — at how often it comes up.

4.       A friend or acquaintance (out of the loop, obviously) inquires about your child, not knowing….

This is a no-win situation. It requires that you deliver a death notice yourself and it can bring you emotionally back to those harder telephone calls you made that first day or night.

I’ve had this happen numerous times. The last time it occurred, I was anxious to hook up with a high school friend at a recent high school reunion. Nita and I had been best-best friends, double dating, in attendance at each other’s weddings — we even threw baby showers for one another. We had our first-born children (both boys) within a year of each other. But then she moved to a farm and I moved out of state, and then, well, you know the story. It was “back in the day” before email. Who had time to handwrite snail mail letters while working and  raising children?

I knew the hardest point of the reunion evening would be telling Nita about Daniel’s death. But although she was on the list of people coming, I personally didn’t know any of her contact information, and it really didn’t occur to me to contact the organizers and ask. I thought, well, we’d surely have some time alone and I’d tell her then. At least, I’d be expecting the question that night, so surely I could handle it.

As soon as Nita and I saw each other (and sneaked a peak at name tags to be CERTAIN it was our old best-best friend), we flew into each other’s arms. She then introduced me to her (second) husband and I introduced her to my husband, and in the same next breath, she said “How’s Daniel?” and I said “How’s Peter?”

Her son Peter had been killed a couple weeks earlier in Iraq. He was a career Army ranger.

Soon we had a group of old high school friends around us – people we barely even recognized anymore – asking what happened, why we were crying what obviously were mournful tears instead of “happy-to-see-you” tears, and holding each other, sobbing. And we had two husbands standing by our sides, not sure what to do or say to make us feel better.

The message is that this is a no-win situation. And it may not get easier over the years. It may always be a flashpoint for emotions you thought were finally in check. If so, you’re in good company and no, you aren’t mentally unstable or weak.

5.   The “my grief trumps your grief” game. 

Everyone is usually devastated following the death of a child, though they may express it differently. Fathers often get overlooked because sometimes they express grief in a more “manly way”. Or they are expected to “get over it” more quickly by society. We all, being human, judge the quality or depth of others’ grief based on what we see on the surface — and how we’ve been taught to interpret that.

Society also (unspoken, unwittingly, but truly) has an standard for when parents should “recover.” When grandparents should stop talking about a deceased grandchild, or an adult brother should be over a sibling’s death that occurred during his childhood.

I am never going to be “over” my son’s death. I am never going to move beyond it. Daniel-Paul will always be my son, always in my heart and in my life. That doesn’t mean I stop loving or laughing with the ones left in my life who deserve to have me present and authentically in their lives.

6. This is a landmine you really might not expect: helping others to help your surviving children cope.

You may need to help others to understand it from your perspective — teachers, school counselors, and (as would be age-appropriate) your child’s peers. Well-intentioned people (including family members) may want to help you “fix” your surviving children. If you are Jewish, for example, be prepared for well-meaning Christian adults to tell your children that their brother or sister is now “with Jesus”. A babysitter may try to assure them that their sibling “is sleeping in heaven.”

Many people are uncomfortable with the language of death. So they often describe death as “sleeping”, which can have traumatic effects on children who lack the age or maturity to understand that the sibling they saw with eyes closed in a coffin was not buried or separated from family because they fell asleep the wrong way. This is a common misunderstanding that can cause serious anxiety or even a continuing sleep phobia.

You may need to be very precise in your expectations of others (including your own parents or loved ones) as to how they approach your children. And if they do it “wrong”, you’ll want to be compassionate and not make your disappointment (or anger) an issue obvious to your child. Seeing you angry may make them fearful of bringing up the subject of their sibling’s death with others. It cannot be a “secret” they are expected to keep.

Tell support people what you want privately but clearly.  Be as compassionate as you can, given the circumstances, but say what you want and how you feel. And don’t hesitate to explore professional help if this becomes overwhelming for you – choose one who specializes on informing and supporting children with griefwork and mourning, and make sure their own approach is also consistent with yours, or at leat something you can support when you get back home.

 The night Daniel died, our pastor arrived with what she thought was a great book – it was a children’s book that addressed the death of a pet. She wanted to read it to my children. I forbid it. I did not want Daniel’s death likened to the death of a dog. But I asked her to join me in the other room and gently but firmly told her there that I appreciated the gesture, but I would handle the children’s grieving that evening. I needed her there to support me by being present and silent. 

  I hope these references are helpful, and please feel free to add your comments and experiences as well. Please forward it to others if it helps express your perspective, or to start a conversation with your support system as to how to best help you.

Jody.

Contact the author for permission to link or post; copyright 2009: Jody Glynn Patrick


Responses

  1. My precious son past away one month ago. Our second son was one of the officers that showed up at my door. Not as an officer but as a son come home to help his mom hear the news. For this I feel great pain. This is the first time I have had the courage to read anything. Thank you for telling it like it is. Thank you for the encouragement. Please keep writing, I need it so badly.

    • Your son died 2 days after my daughter died. Where are you in the grieving process. I was a little better. But now with the date fast upon us…I feel like it was yesterday and i’m coming unglued. I want her back so much it’s ripping my heart out. My daughter turned 29 in the hospital before she died.

      • My son died eighteen months ago. I can’t handle it and I don’t know how to get through it. When my son died, everybody left me. My church to my pastor. I could not be believe what my pastor told me. No one would let me grief and told me to move on and be strong. I wanted to die. Sometimes, I still do. Daniel, was 25 and I want him back, I can’t do this. I talked too much and regret it. Now, I only tell certain people or keep my mouth shut. I don’t trust people and I find it easier to stay to myself. People can be mean and I know they mean well. I hate it when they say they know how I feel. Unless they lost a child they don’t know. I feel hopeless and lost. I just want to disappear. People tell me I have to give him up to move on. Is that true?

  2. My beautiful son Ethan died of Alagille syndrome (with severe heart and liver problems) aged almost 9 months in July 2011, coming up for 2 years ago now. My husband walked out on me 3 days later and never returned, emptying the joint bank account, refused to help pay our mortgage and was just pretending that Ethan and our marriage did not exist. (We are now divorced) and his friends and family refused to talk to me. My own mum and dad didn’t want to know Ethan because he was born with problems. My older adult children (different dad to Ethan’s) refused to talk to me or visit the house, and all but one of my large amount of friends deserted me. I even saw people actively turn their backs and walk away from me in shops. Even though it is almost 2 years ago, I am still trying to cope and failing quite a lot of the time, even though I am trying to become positive. I too spoke to strangers a lot, in detail, in the months that followed Ethan’s death. I don’t so much now: instead I am more discerning in whom I speak about it to, but I do find it hard to trust, and still feel so alone in my grief. Whenever another Alagille child dies (I am in contact with other parents of ALGS kids online) it breaks my heart and takes me right back to Ethan’s death. I just heard today that the cardiologist who treated Ethan (and who I think failed him) has just had her first baby, and I am so jealous of her, and full of anger that she should have a child that is ok…..Arghh, so angry and upset, still. I have 3 lodgers, in order to try to make the mortgage and bill payments, but need to now get a 4th lodger as I’m not managing and that means letting Ethan’s room out. I’m not ready to touch anything in his room – even his dirty nappies are still in the nappy bin – but I am going to have to, and it’s tearing me apart. If I don’t, I will end up losing the house altogether (and also his room and all his things). Anyway, it was good to read your reflections, as it is always good to realise you are not alone……

  3. Thank you for creating this blog. My sincere condolences on the death of your precious son, Daniel. My heart goes out to every parent who is grieving their child’s death. My son, Michael died 8 years ago at age 20 due to being cut off on his motorcycle. My world was turned inside out and upside down, I could hardly breath. For years the pain was so intense. I joined a support group Of parents who had lost a child. One parent told me that I wouldn’t always feel this way, that the pain would lessen. I didn’t believe them. The pain was so intense; the mourning, crying and wailing continued for years. And now 8 years later I carry my boy in my heart but it is not so heavy. I feel thankful for the 20 years. Thanks, Michael, for the little while.

    • i hope you are right, my son died 3 years and 8 months ago and its no better, friends are gone, family hardly ever come around any more nothing is getting better, if it wasn’t for my other son i don’t know what i would do. Just typing this helped i think

      • Hi all, I unfortunately, understand. I have lost 2 sons. My oldest, 15 years ago at age 12 and my second, 5 years ago at age 20. What can I say? This life is not what I would have chosen. I struggle daily. I have 2 surviving sons. I live for them. There’s no easy way. You get through each day. One of the hardest things is the loneliness. …no one understands, nor cares to, it’s too difficult. Finding and bonding with other bereaved parents is the best way to survive. You need support and you need to know that you’re not crazy, you’re grieving. Unfortunately, this grieving is for a lifetime. Grieve on YOUR timeline, no one else’s. You have every right to grieve, as long, as hard, and as much as you need. This is your child. Anyone who loves his child, should have, at the very least, a clue. No matter, survive.

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  5. Hi, thanks for creating this blog. Our 13 year old son Cameron died in his sleep July 17th. No cause of death has been determined, he was a completely healthy and very active child. We adopted Cameron from Korea at 4 months old and he was a beacon of happiness, love and laughter right from the start. Our other child Emma is our biological daughter aged 16. Prior to this loss, the depth of pain I am now experiencing was unfathomable to me. I am struggling and wondering how I can possibly get through this.

    I have not gotten satisfaction/fulfillment from my job for many years but stuck with it (because it pays very well) as a means to an end. Family has been where I got meaning and fulfillment. Now work seems impossible.

    In addition to being my beloved son, Cameron was my best friend and soul mate. We skied, biked, fished and explored together. I was already struggling with how quickly my relationship with my daughter had changed in the last few years. She was still Daddy’s little girl at 14, now at 16 friends are naturally the center of her life. I was anticipating this “letting go” with Cameron, instead- overnight he is gone completely.

    We were anticipating 5 more years of our son at home before College. Now in only two years Emma will leave for school. (this is particularly hard on my wife, Cameron was a big part her full time job as homemaker)

    My wife and I are grieving VERY differently. She is an introvert, much more stoic, rarely wants to talk about her feelings. I am an extrovert, more outwardly emotional. My anger and grief over this loss have put strains on our marriage.

    We are older parents (mid fifties). Suddenly Cameron’s death has dramatically shifted our time line. Decisions around early retirement, moving to a smaller home, adjusting to an empty nest are now upon us- all in the midst of a long and ongoing grief. Sleep is difficult, tears are just below the surface and an everyday occurrence. I am going to counseling but have not been to a support group yet.

    • Oh dear. I’m an introvert as well so I understand the way your wife is dealing with her grief. Although my husband is also an introvert, we definately do not deal with it in the same way.
      The best advice I got at the very beginning, was to be patient with your spouse. The death of a child can honestly rock the marital boat very hard and it takes a big leap of faith to keep it together. Walking away was very big possibility, especially some time around the second anniversary.
      If you feel the need to go to counseling or a support group, but your wife doesn’t, it’s OK. Give her the space to deal with her emotions in a way that is comfortable for her. I still don’t like to talk about the death of our child and we are approaching the three-year anniversary. Especially the circumstances are difficult to express, so I tend to avoid people who are not sensitive to my feelings.
      And put any big decisions on hold for at least another year.

  6. My son, my handsome Benjamin died 102 days ago. 4 year old, healthy, happy little pirate. He drowned in the pool, in Mexico on our first day of vacation. Only few minutes and he was gone. 5 hours in hospital and… I close my eyes and I see his little body on that hospital table, everyone crying, the drs, nurses… he was very- very handsome. a baby from commercial, big blue eyes, blond, smart, well spoken, could write, read and do little math. I can’t say that I love him, no it was more than that, he was my light, my life, my pride… I relive that day over and over. It’s horrible to live, it’s unbearable to wake up every morning . all I want to hug my little son, to hear his voice.. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to live. I read a lot about how others handle this, I seek professional help, I have a loving family by my side…but somehow nothing helps.. there is no light. It’s all darkness. the thought of my son in the grave yard drives me crazy, when I saw him in coffin … I don’t know how I survived.. I don’t know why I am still alive…

  7. I lost my lovely damsel,IFEOLUWA TEMILOLUWA DARAMOLA,aged 19 at death,she developed severe pains on her left neck which was swollen .I took her to hospitals she became very lean,lost d sight,hearing,.All this occurred after she was mysteriously given cockroach in her dream while sleeping.Her death has weighed me down so much,I cry on daily basis,it’s like d world should end.she was a beauty,highly brilliant,promising,I can’t help weeping,ave bn praying to God to uphold me,.i feel like seeing her appear to me,and telling me the mystery behind her death.A shocking death.god keep my other kids

  8. On some days
    I am back in that moment
    Unable to breathe unable to speak unable to move
    Paralyzed
    Yet my brain is desperately trying to undo that moment
    To change it erase it
    To make it as if it never happened
    The moment when I saw my baby motionless as I held her in my arms
    And I could not believe what my eyes were seeing..
    I still don’t want to believe it
    I wish somehow I could go back in time and do something so that it never happened.
    I am stuck in that one moment.. forever. Agonizing. Procrastinating. And then my mind becomes numb.

    • Kianica,
      I understand.
      The numbness is your only comfort.
      Give in to it.
      Let it envelope you.
      It is your friend.

  9. After my grandson died, within the first few weeks I took his room apart. I packed up his clothes, his stuffed animals, action figures, puzzles, pictures off the walls and books keeping a few things for myself. I washed all the sheets and comforters and packed them up. The room was empty – except for a bed, dresser and shelves. I lived with it like that for about 3 days, even with the door closed I still knew it was empty and it made me empty. So after about 3 days I went and got the comforter, the books, the games and put everything back in to his room, just the way it was – and I was happier. It took me another 8 or 9 months before I cleared out the room for good this time. It still hurts to know the room is empty when it used to be so full of life.

  10. My only child, my precious daughter, died 2 years ago of heart failure brought on by an eating disorder. She was 23 years old, beautiful, funny, talented, intelligent and the absolute joy of my life.
    Her father and I were devastated. Although we had been divorced for 15 years, he and I reunited and remarried. He died 6 weeks later.
    Do you want words of condolence to help you through the agony?
    Do you want someone to tell you “GOD” loves you?
    There are no words.
    There is no God.
    There is only pain.
    Every day.
    Every day.

  11. Whocareswhoiam I know your pain i lost my son on September 18 2015 he was one of a kind unic, he was murderd because people were afraid of what and where he would be in a few years. His talent for anything he touched his attitude everything about him was something someone wanted, but he was my precious boy he was my life he was 24 years old just gotten engaged and to be married next year. I am numb I don’t think or function there’s nothing in my life that has meaning even though I have an older son that I love just as much. Nothing can change the fact that our family is destroyed without Marco I relive that night over and over again. I saw my son being murderd in my driveway and when I relive this moment I go insane. I don’t believe in God anymore and I am so afraid that there is nothing but darkness once we go.how can this be are we in hell. What is the purpose of this life,I always thought this happens in movies not in real life. Please answer someone.

    • Hello, I’m sorry for your son being murdered in front of you. I to kiss my son to car accident, he was only 20, it’s been 5 yrs. and I still hurt. I relive the day when I saw him in the morgue, hours after he told me he love me. I want to let you know that God is here for us, talk to him. Try to believe that the Lord have greater things for our sons to do and they were just loaned to us for awhile. Try to remember the live, laughter, conversation, all the things he did or did not do. Remember he was a gift you and your family. Ask the Lord to keep him safe. His spirit is watching over you. Talk to him he will hear you, and always be thankful he was in you life.

  12. I can find no peace I know my mind refuse to accept the fact that it is over. I will never accept this truth, and yet every day it’s the same hell, I just want my son my baby .

    • C46, I am so sorry for the loss of your precious son.
      To see his life taken in front of you, a more agonizing hell I cannot imagine.
      I am sorry for the loss of the loved ones of everyone who has reached out on this blog … no matter how they died.
      But I have very little patience for those who write of God’s love.
      If we are so loved by God, why would he punish us?
      If we are so loved by God, why would he take something so precious to us and expect us to live! love! laugh and be happy!
      Yes, I know …
      God did not “do” anything.
      Oh no, don’t blame God for anything bad, ever.
      And yet, when something wonderful happens, we are expected to thank God.
      I am sorry, you can’t have it both ways.
      With or without God, I have the strength to accept the fact that my daughter is gone.
      You have the strength to accept the fact that your son is gone.
      Time.
      Time.
      Time.
      It is our only friend.
      Please take some comfort in the fact that I am thinking of you, and sending you good thoughts into the vast universe.

      ~ in memory of my sweetheart, my love, my life, my joy, my happiness, my world, my daughter, Helena Gabrielle ~

  13. I lost my beloved Josh 19 months ago. He was my heart and soul…Not a second of everyday goes by where I don`t think of him. I miss him so much…I just want to hug him again. I feel like I just exsist…no ambition .. no energy…nothing. Friends leave…family becomes scarse…relationship dies….everything died for me the day Josh died. Everyone tells you the first year is the hardest…what do they know..have they lost a child? After the first year nothing changes….it actually gets harder cause reality sets in and you know now that you will never see your child again. You will never see his smile, hear his laughter, feel his tears, see him become the wonderful parent he would of been….It feels like you have no future.

  14. I lost my son Ethan 5 years ago. It was the anniversary 2 days ago. I miss hm everyday and the pain is still raw. Like you I feel I just exist. Like you my friends and family vanished. My husband left me 3 days later and even emptied our joint bank account leaving me penniless and unable to pay for our son’s funeral even. I spent the first two years isolated from the world, totally broken. I wanted to die myself. I felt I had nothing to live for anymore. Then one day as I was doing done voluntary work for a local hospice, I sat with someone who was dying. I realised they had no choice and that I had a choice. I chose life. I chose to live the life that should’ve been my son’s. I decided to become a doctor and started the journey to do this. The first year I did my science GCSEs – got As. The second year I did an Access diploma – got straight distinctions. The third year I started work as an auxiliary nurse in a hospital and applied to medical school. I found out on April I got in and I start in Sept. People think I’m strong. I’m not. Losing your child is like losing your future. Having your child’s memory and the strength of your anger at their untimely death is ultimately the strongest motivation and driving force anyone could ever have to live our lives to the fullest – for them and in memory of them. It’s all we have. I still cry, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel real joy again, but I live every moment so it counts, and feel my son’s spirit helping me to achieve the almost impossible, every day.

    • You are going to be a great doctor !

  15. Thank you for posting this. Tomorrow it will be 2 weeks since my son died. I still can’t believe it. It feels like it just happened and most of the time I am in complete shock. I like that you talk about things I have not considered I might encounter. I have 2 surviving children. My 13 year old is not handling it well. The 8 year old seems ok now but I worry about how they will feel when it finally sinks in that Matthew will not came home. What do I do with his things? Leave them right where they are? Will that only contribute to my denial? I have thought about holidays and birthdays and I am terrified. Right now I am numb.

  16. Hi everyone-so sad to be reading these posts. I’ve lost twin boys – one 15 years ago aged 24 and one 11 weeks ago aged 39. I still have my daughter – and her two children-thank heavens. So I’ve been through this before …. when my first son died his girlfriend was pregnant so I also have another grandchild aged 14. When my first child died I truly didn’t think I would survive- but somehow I did. But now my second son has died I now again think I can’t do “this” again! The only smallest bit of comfort I can find is that they are together again as they were so very very close. Losing your child/children has to be the ultimate pain and I am having a very hard time understanding why…why…why. There are so many evil people in the world why take our precious children.


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