|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
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The Worst Loss
How Families Heal from the Death of a Child
By Barbara D. Rosof
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1994 Barbara D. Rosof
All rights reserved.
A Loss Like No Other: What Parents Lose
"When you lose a child, your losses are just beginning." — Tom
Patrick was fifteen, and he savored every moment of his summer. His job at the pool gave him a chance to see all his friends. He'd brought his times down in the freestyle. He'd gotten up the nerve to ask Rosemary out, and now they'd been going together for a month. At the end of August he and his brother and his dad were going to canoe in the Boundary Waters wilderness for a week. On an evening in July, just at dusk, Patrick and Rosemary were sitting on the curb in front of her house, talking. A drunken driver careened around the corner, going 50 mph. His car hit Patrick and dragged him eighty feet. When the car stopped, the driver wheeled it around and backed over Patrick as he sped away.
The death of a child is a loss like no other. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry's diagnostic bible, does not overstate the case when it calls the death of a child a "catastrophic stressor." It robs parents of what they love most, isolates partners from each other, and deafens them so that they cannot hear the cries of their other children.
It is four months after Patrick's death.
"I'm in the middle of a hurricane, in a tiny life raft. My raft's leaking badly; some days I'm sure I'll go down." Elaine is Patrick's mother. She speaks in a low, flat voice. Suffering has drained all the light from her face. "I can see Tom, my husband, out there. He's hanging on to a raft of his own, but he's too far away to reach.
"The day-to-day stuff undoes me. Patrick would come grocery shopping with me sometimes. He'd goof around, pick up a box of detergent and do these loony commercials, right there in the store. He made me laugh until my sides ached. Now I walk past some detergent he'd gone off on, and I realize I'll never see Patrick do a commercial again. Last week Tom came with me. He had the cart, and I'd gone to a different aisle to pick up some silver polish. I came back to where he was, in the cereal aisle. He was holding a box of raisin bran. Patrick's the only one in our family who ate raisin bran. Tom held the box in both hands, and his shoulders heaved. I knew he was crying, and I didn't have a thing to give him. I couldn't even go and hold him. I walked to another aisle and waited.
"Jeremy, our youngest, has always had this way of taking stairs three at a time. He sounds like a herd of elephants. I used to yell at him to keep it quiet. Since Patrick died, he climbs the stairs one at a time, very slowly. Like an old man. Annie, my daughter, said something about it yesterday. I hadn't noticed. My own son, and I hadn't noticed."
To Annie, seventeen, the sadness in her house is nearly palpable. "All the light and the color drained out of our family when Patrick was killed," she says. "We sit at dinner, and it's like we're lost in this fog; nobody hears, and nobody can touch each other." She hesitates, then adds, "A lot of the time I feel like I've lost my dad too. He just sits and stares, and he doesn't want anyone to say Patrick's name. Mom's pretty much of a wreck, but at least she'll talk about him."
When you lose your child, there are no precedents. Nothing prepares you for your loss, or for the intensity of your grief. "It's like someone reached inside and wrenched out a part of my body," Elaine says. "I really feel like some vital piece of me is missing. I'll never get it back, and I'll never be whole without it. I know all the theory of grieving, and I'd even worked with parents who had lost a child. But since Patrick died, I hurt so much I've felt my grief must be different. Nobody can live with this kind of pain."
Grief for a child is wrenching and disabling. It hits harder and lasts longer than anyone anticipates. In Maternal Bereavement, Linda Edelstein describes the sweeping disruption that occurs in all areas of a survivor's life. She calls it disorganization. "Disorganization is a form of adaptation to trauma, the symptoms including listlessness, depression, startle reactions, recurrent nightmares, fears, and unsteadiness in relationships and in work." A mother who prided herself on her cooking finds she cannot plan what to have for dinner. A father who played eighteen holes of golf every Saturday now stares at his clubs and wonders what the point was. Tom remembers his disorganization in the weeks after Patrick's death as "like watching myself on television. I'd see myself walking through the motions. I did what had to be done, made funeral arrangements, talked to lawyers and the police. I went to work. But I was on autopilot. Completely mechanical."
As the immediate disorganization subsides, the long haul of mourning begins. Mourning consumes your energy for the first year. As you struggle to come to terms with the finality of your loss, you have very little left to give your partner, or your children, or yourself. Your grieving will take longer than you or anyone around you expected. Your loss will be with you every day, casting a shadow on all that you do. Your life, and those of your children, has been permanently altered. Nothing will ever be the same again.
To understand how a child's death so devastates a family, we need to look at the special nature of the bonds between parent and child and between siblings. As we understand what a child means to parents and to brothers and sisters, we begin to take the measure of all that they have lost. Here we will explore the special connection between parent and child. In chapter 2 we will look at bonds between siblings.
The Child-Parent Bond
The ties of love and hope that bind parent and child are the most powerful in human relationships. We can tease apart the strands and identify five factors that charge that bond with its special importance.
Children Invite Our Love, and They Return It Richly. From infancy, by their physical helplessness and their intense need for interaction, our children invite us into a mutually loving relationship. Many parents freely acknowledge that the love they enjoy with their child is the richest, most satisfying, least ambivalent in their lives. Young children adore and idealize their parents. Preschoolers know that their mommy is the prettiest, sweetest, wisest mommy and their daddy is the strongest, bravest, kindest daddy. Children's experience with our actual shortcomings does not shake their conviction. This kind of unqualified, no-strings-attached love is heady stuff for parents, one of the sweetest rewards of parenthood.
Remembering her son, Elaine says, "I had a relationship with Patrick that nothing will ever replace. We sang show tunes together, and he talked to me about his swimming, school, whatever was on his mind. When he got into junior high I sort of stepped back a little and let him figure out how close he wanted to be to his mother. But he still wanted to talk. And play Chinese checkers. I taught him Chinese checkers when he was six, and that was always our game. Even that summer, he was getting to be such a big guy, with a job and a girlfriend, and still, once in a while he'd find me and say, 'Hey, Mom, how about Chinese checkers?'"
No matter how much we love them, and they us, our children do things we do not approve of. They hurt us. They disappoint us. Sometimes they become people we cannot like. Yet no matter who our child becomes, no matter what the years bring, some piece of our early, intense love persists.
Harry knows more than he ever wanted to about the persistence of his love. He is thirty-eight. As we sit in the October sunshine in a park, he looks too young to have an adult son, and yet he looks very old. He scuffs the yellow leaves at his feet as he tells me how his son Ray died.
"Ray walked into a gas station at about ten o'clock at night. He waved a pistol at the guy behind the counter and told him to empty the cash drawer into a bag. The guy was the owner, and he'd been robbed before. He reached under the counter, grabbed his gun, and came up shooting. He shot Ray twice in the face, point-blank range. Ray died before the police got there."
Harry's large palm presses hard against his eyes, as if he could wipe away the scene he visualizes. Several moments pass before he speaks. "What Ray did was flat wrong. He'd been messing up his life that whole year: drugs, hanging around with some pretty bad company. I wish I could say it was his first robbery, but it wasn't. He and I were on the outs, because he knew what I thought of his life. I knew he came over to the house when I wasn't there, to see his mother, and I never interfered. There was still a lot of good in that boy. I figured he'd work things out for himself and then he and I could work it out. He ran himself out of time."
Harry leans away from the bench and pulls his wallet out of his back pocket. He extracts a worn photograph, and his hand shakes a little as he holds it for me to see. A blond boy of nine in a baseball uniform smiles up at his father. "This is the Ray I remember."
Our Children Carry the Hopes and Aspirations That Are Most Precious to Us. A child embodies deeply valued parts of the parent's self. Helping his child grow, watching his potentials unfold, fulfills a parent's hopes for himself. She will have long legs and run effortlessly. He will learn from me all I know about animals, and he will come to love them as I do. She will grow up knowing she's smart, and she'll go to college.
"Children are a second chance," goes the saying. A child offers us the opportunity to set right what went wrong in our own childhood. Rebecca is an articulate woman of thirty-four, a pediatric nurse practitioner whose daughter Kate died at five months of the mysterious cessation of breathing called sudden infant death syndrome. Rebecca grew up with a very disturbed mother, who abused her physically and violated her sexually. With considerable effort Rebecca extricated herself from her family, went to college, married, and started a family. Although she loves her young son, nothing could match her pleasure and her hope when she learned she was pregnant with a daughter.
"That was cake and ice cream and the Fourth of July," she remembers. "My pregnancy and the time I had with Kate were the happiest time in my life." Her face lights up, confirming her memory. "Having a little girl helped me begin to heal some of the awful stuff from my childhood. When I took care of her, I felt like I had a shot at finally putting that stuff behind me. Doing right by her was the deepest satisfaction of my life. I guess taking care of her was taking care of me. I keep going now, for Rick and Charlie. But when Kate died, some of my hopes died with her."
We Create Our Child in Our Mind. A child exists as a real and separate person. Equally real is the child we create in our mind, a part of our self. Even before a child is conceived, parents have fantasized about it, endowed it with their hopes and longings. Our sense of our own self, both good and bad aspects, interweaves with our growing knowledge of our child to form this internal image. Our child becomes an intimate part of our self-image and our self-image an integral part of our internal vision of our child. Psychiatrist Beverly Raphael describes the child we create: "The image each parent holds of the child will be constantly modified and molded by the real interactions with him. It will be a complex amalgam of the thoughts and feelings, memories that encompass the relationship's past as well as projections for the future. It will include both positive and negative aspects, and will encompass mutually dependent needs of both parents and children." Most of the time our real, external child and our internal image blend seamlessly. All unconsciously we create this complex synthesis of self and other, revising it as the child grows and changes. Only when the private, inside version of the child parts company too sharply from the outside, observable child do we notice there are two. Every parent will remember times when the child he saw did not fit with the child in his mind.
A mother remembers such a time with her young son: "Once, as I drove up to preschool to pick up Jared, I saw a little kid with skinny legs, mousy brown hair that stuck out, and food on his face. I thought, 'What a grubby little kid.' Then I realized it was Jared. Boy, was that a jolt. I was looking at him the way someone who wasn't his mother would see him." She recalls the moment with a rueful smile. "But I always remember that picture. It gives me a little better balance; it sort of offsets my adored-beautiful-son routine." This mother's jolt when she saw her son as someone else was one of those occasions when a parent becomes aware of the two images. Just noticing the difference prompted some correction of the internal version.
This constant unconscious interplay between the real child and the internal one contributes to the importance the child holds for the parent. Our child exists in the world; he also exists as a kind of continuous psychological creation, a blend of the actual child and our hopes and fantasies. We see in our child our best hopes embodied. Some pieces of our picture will fit; more will have to be cast aside, or recast to fit the reality of the child.
Jack, a newspaper reporter, a man who values verbal skills very highly, talks about his son, now in high school. "He can't spell, he doesn't really like to read that much, and he can't always say what he means. For years I thought he wasn't that bright. It wasn't until he got into junior high and started making As in math and science and did a project on ecosystems that wowed everybody that I began to understand that he's very smart. He's smart on his terms, not on mine. I really had to rethink who I thought my son was. I had to give up my idea of a kid with verbal skills, who could talk and write and do the stuff I love. But when I did that, gave up my idea of who he ought to be, I found I could enjoy who he actually is."
It is the real child, in all her unique particularity, that drives the dialogue between inner and outer. When you lose your child, you are left with this richly elaborated creation, the product of your own efforts, conscious and unconscious. With the real child gone, the dialogue cannot continue. Not only have you lost the real child; you have also lost the interplay that has enriched your internal life. Because this process goes on for the most part out of awareness, it is hard for you to name this painful aspect of your loss. When you say "I feel like I've lost a piece of myself," you are speaking of this loss of the interplay between your internal experience of your child and the child herself.
You want to talk about your child. Talking about him revives that interplay. Harry: "People assume that if your kid dies, it would hurt too much to talk about him. They're wrong. I don't talk to everybody, but with our friends, people who knew him, it really helps. When we talk about Ray, I feel like I'm keeping him alive. Not literally, don't get me wrong. But talking about him helps my memories of him stay stronger, especially the good ones. It's like watering a garden."
With a living child, the interchange between inside and outside, real child and the child in your mind, simply continues, as constant as breathing and as unnoticed. Only when your child dies and the dialogue ends do you become painfully aware of its absence. Talking about him, remembering him with people who knew him, helps you to hold on to him. Talking and remembering restores the interchange that death derailed.
Your Child Gives You a Job and an Identity. There is no question that raising a child is a job. Especially in the first six years, children require enormous investments of time and energy from their parents. No matter who works outside the home, no matter what the child care arrangements, parents are the bottom line. In society's eyes, and in our own, we have committed to the job of caring for our child. Mundane, unpaid, the job of parenting rests on that nonnegotiable commitment.
Early on, parents learn the costs of their commitment, in difficult choices and sacrifices. "I was offered an assignment in Bosnia last year," says Phil, a free-lance news photographer. "It was a great opportunity, and I hated to turn it down. But I've worked too much in war zones to delude myself about the dangers. After Betsy got pregnant, I started thinking seriously about how I wanted my child to grow up. What would it be like for my kid if I was gone half the time? Or if I was dead? Some days I read about what's going on, and I really wish I was over there. But that was a trade-off for having Sarah."
Excerpted from The Worst Loss by Barbara D. Rosof. Copyright © 1994 Barbara D. Rosof. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
Part One: The Torn Canopy,
1. A Loss Like No Other: What Parents Lose,
2. The Family Undone: What Children Lose,
3. How Could It Happen? The Ways Children Die,
Part Two: The Work of Grieving,
4. Why Must We Grieve?,
5. Acute Grief,
6. The Long Haul: Mourning,
7. You and Your Partner,
8. How Children Grieve,
9. Suspended in Pain: Barriers to Grieving and Their Resolution,
Part Three: Families Speak,
10. The Loss of Possibility: Stillbirths and Infant Deaths,
11. The End of Hope: Terminal Illness and AIDS,
12. Sudden Deaths,
Part Four: The Rest of Your Life,
15. Getting Through It: The First Year,
16. The Rest of Your Life,