The Unspeakable Pain of Losing a Child
The wrenching news of the three teenage boys whose lives were cut short during the recent school shootings in a little Ohio town touched us deeply here at ThirdAge. Like parents and grandparents across the nation, we were riveted by sorrow and horror as the coverage unfolded. The poignant statement by 16-year-old Demetrius Hewlin’s mother and father seemed to us especially moving: “We are very saddened by the loss of our son and others in our Chardon community. Demetrius was a happy young man who loved life and his family and friends. We will miss him very much, but we are proud that he will be able to help others through organ donation.”
For me, the phrase “young man” was what jumped out of that release. The death of a child who is almost grown surely carries its own kind of profound pain. A young person on the cusp of adulthood is an unfinished story. Since the moment you gave birth – or actually since the moment you dreamed of getting pregnant — you’ve been doing all you can to give him or her every advantage and every opportunity. You’ve been through colicky nights, terrible twos, homework battles, and orthodontia bills. You’ve cheered at sports events, applauded at dance recitals, snapped photos of prom dresses, and visited college campuses. The next chapter is about to begin. And then it’s over before it has a chance to start. That must be one of the most searing losses imaginable.
Yet the death of a child at any age, including miscarriage and stillbirth, is devastating. As H. Norman Wright, a well-known crisis and trauma counselor and the author most recently of “Experiencing Grief,” wrote, “This is sometimes referred to as the ultimate bereavement. You’re not supposed to outlive your child.” Sadly, he knows whereof he speaks. The preface of his book begins like this: “I will never forget the words. ‘In the next hour your son’s heart and lungs will fail.’ There was such a sense of loss, helplessness, and finality. We had experienced a life of losses with him because he was disabled, but this was different.”
Thinking about that, we asked Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of teens and their parents and the co-author of “Teenage as a Second Language,” for advice about how grieving parents and grandparents can survive emotionally. Dr. Greenberg said, “An important protective factor is joining a group with parents who have had similar experiences. That kind of support can be immensely helpful.”
An excellent place to find both in-person and online support of the kind that Dr. Greenberg recommends is a site called “The Compassionate Friends: Supporting Family After a Child Dies.” You can visit it here, http://www.compassionatefriends.org/home.aspx. You’ll be able to click on a resources channel, an online support group, a list of groups meeting in your area, bereavement support for grandparents, advice columns, and more.
In addition, Norman Wright reminds us that the act of crying over a death can be valuable. He quotes Nicholas Wolterstorff, author of “Lament for a Son,” as saying about the death of his 24-year-old son in a climbing accident, “But why celebrate stoic tearlessness?. . . Must we always mask our suffering? May we not sometimes allow people to see and enter it?”
In the same vein, Compassionate Friends’ founder Simon Stephens says that his mission “is about transforming the pain of grief into the elixir of hope. It takes people out of the isolation society imposes on the bereaved and lets them express their grief naturally. With the shedding of tears, healing comes. And the newly bereaved get to see people who have survived and are learning to live and love again.”
That theme of hope also resonates in this memorable passage from Wolterstorff’s book: “If sympathy for the world’s wound is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won.”
Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the young victims of the Ohio tragedy. Demetrius’s parents, by donating his organs as he wished, have found one way to make sure that death does not win. May the others summon the courage to do the same.