Most of us experience the death of a parent or grandparent and the loss of the past it brings. The death of an elderly family member, however, does not threaten the family’s reason to exist, and its future hopes and dreams remain. The death of a child, however, brings with it the death of part of the parents, and the psychological death of the family. In bereavement literature there is agreement that the death of a child is almost beyond the parents’ endurance. The parent-child bond is arguably the strongest bond there is. The concept of the child as an integral part of the parent’s self is logical in that the survival of the child depends on altruistic parenting. If mother and baby did not become strongly attached the baby would die. The purpose of attachment, therefore, is the survival of the species. Thus, parenthood is deeply challenged by the death of a child.
The debilitating pain parents feel after the death of their child is connected to the fact that an integral part of them has gone. The child’s room is empty; there is a space at the table; the parents speak and there is only silence; everything reminds them of the fact their child has gone, and as they proceed further into their grief they realise that death means a very long time. When Freud’s daughter, Sophie, died, the reality of his grief was very different from his theoretical model. In a condolence letter to a friend, nine years after Sophie’s death, he wrote:
Although we know that after such a loss the acute stage of mourning will subside, we also know we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. Actually this is how it should be. It is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not wish to relinquish.” (Mourning and Melancholia, Freud, 1961)
The post-1940s generation was the first to enjoy a healthy childhood. When these children themselves became parents, they, unlike their predecessors, did not usually have any experience of childhood death. The trend to smaller families, increased economic, medical and emotional investment in children, together with raised awareness of good parenting practice, has resulted in parents assuming it is within their power to keep their children safe. Modern-day parents are generally aware of potential health problems and risks to a child and have more ability to seek appropriate help. The idea of a child dying, therefore, is so foreign that when it does occur the family is often thrown into crisis. A typical result is that parents blame themselves for not being more vigilant.
A child’s death preceding that of the parents is regarded as unnatural, as it subverts the natural order. Life expectancy in Western countries has increased and it is assumed that the majority of people will live into old age. When a child dies, parents lose not only their child but all that their child represents, such as a future together, and descendants. Life as they assumed it would be ends with the child’s death.
The natural order of life can be observed in the way the seasons follow on from each other and in the migration habits of birds and animals. We grow up learning the skills we need for each season by observing our families and communities who guide us towards adulthood. We assume that, in our turn, we will pass on what we have learned to the next generation who, in their turn, will watch us grow old and die and who will bury us.
The media represents a view of the world in which death is associated with old people or abnormal circumstances. The idea that we will all eventually die is kept at a distance. In the past, in Western societies, death was not hidden and private. Before dying was ‘professionalised’, says Joan Didion, it did not occur in hospitals:
Women died in childbirth, children died of fevers. Cancer was untreatable … death was up close, at home.” (The Year of Magical Thinking, 2006)
Today, with many people dying in hospitals or hospices and the elderly living out their last years in nursing homes, the act of dying is no longer visible to the wider community. Fast-paced, secular, modern living, with its rapid social change, decline in societal support, and emphasis on youth, personal achievement and consumerism, serves to deflect ideas of our own mortality. We see dramatised death in the form of murder, war and accidents every day in the media, confirming our perception of death as unnatural. Death is acceptable in films, books and songs and in the form of public grieving for the death of famous celebrities, but our own death, or that of our children, is too disturbing to contemplate.
In an earlier era when child deaths were commonplace, bereaved parents were not left to grieve alone. Bereavement was an experience shared by the whole community. In contrast, in modern Western societies, many bereaved parents are on their own, without the anchors taken for granted by past generations. Societal norms, which have been well-established to deal with the death of the elderly, have not been developed to the same extent to deal with the comparatively rare event of child death. Thus, not only are modern parents often left to grieve alone, but also unrealistic expectations are placed on them as to how and when they express their grief.
The lack of familiarity with child death in the wider community is shown by the frequency with which parents report that friends and colleagues, in trying to offer sympathy, often respond with comments such as: “I know how you feel. I lost my old dad last year – he was 92”. Even worse, says Anne Grinyer in her 2002 book, Cancer in Young Adults through Parents’ Eyes, are comments about the death of a beloved pet (which, the commentators imply, qualifies them to empathise), or remarks that the parents are lucky in having other children, or can have more. Though it is often sad when elderly parents die, it is expected that parents die before their children. Though it can be heartbreaking when pets die, it is expected that owners will outlive them. Parents may be young enough to have more children, but each child is unique and cannot be replaced.
Tessa Duder, whose daughter died of heart failure in 1992 at the age of 24, writes in the foreword to Beverly Gatenby’s New Zealand study of bereaved parents For the Rest of Our Lives:
This grief is not like that for a spouse, a partner, a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, a relative, a colleague, a lifelong friend. This grief is different … It’s a club not one of us chose to join or wants to belong to. The membership is for life; we cannot resign, take leave of absence, or escape by moving to another city or country. It’s a paid-up life sentence, inescapable.”
Ann Finkbeiner, in After the Death of a Child: Living with Loss through the Years, her 1998 study of thirty bereaved American parents, sums up the emotional injury involved as being equivalent to the kind of physical injury that would necessitate a stay in an intensive care unit. This is expressed in the following poem, which also offers guidance on how to proceed with bereaved parents:
Please don’t ask me if I’m over it yet.
I’ll never be over it.
Please don’t tell me she’s in a better place.
She’s not with me.
Please don’t say at least she isn’t suffering.
I haven’t come to terms with why she had to suffer at all.
Please don’t tell me you know how I feel,
Unless you have lost a child.
Please don’t ask me if I feel better.
Bereavement isn’t a condition that clears up.
Please don’t tell me at least you had her for so many years.
What year would you choose for your child to die?
Please don’t tell me God never gives us more than we can bear.
Please just tell me you are sorry.
Please just say you remember my child, if you do,
Please just let me talk about my child.
Please mention my child’s name.
Please just let me cry.
Dr Sandra Arnold lives in North Canterbury, New Zealand. She is the author of three books, including a memoir about the death of her daughter, Sing No Sad Songs. Sandra has a MLitt and PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. She is currently working on a new novel and a collection of short stories and flash fiction. See Sandra Arnold’s NZSA webpage here