The death of a child changes us forever. Death changes our day to day lives and nearly always changes our deep beliefs about justice, life’s trustworthiness, what’s most important, and our relationship with God.
Some parents report that their religious beliefs and faith community are a continuing source of comfort and strength to them. They speak about their belief that their child is in “a better place” and is no longer suffering. Others speak about how “everything has a reason”, and trust that there is a greater purpose in their child’s life and death although they do not yet have a glimpse of it. Still, other parents have found healing in the mourning customs of their faith. Jewish tradition, for example, invites a parent to daily prayer services for eleven months, in company with others who are bereaved and reciting kaddish. One parent recently told me that her rabbi calls on her child’s birthday every year, and they have coffee and conversation. It is a new tradition they have created for themselves over the years.
Other parents have said, “What’s the use of believing in God? I prayed and prayed and God didn’t listen. I thought if you followed your faith and were a good person, bad things weren’t supposed to happen.” For many of us, the death of a child is like a hurricane that blows apart all we have trusted and believed, leaving behind spiritual wreckage. It may take years for us to rebuild our faith, and to incorporate what we have experienced and learned. Spiritual distress is a common and normal experience in the years after a child’s death, and you may want to find a sensitive spiritual companion with whom you can openly discuss your feelings. Such a companion should be a good listener, who does not try to prescribe answers for our questions, and accepts us just the way we are. Perhaps that can be a chaplain, a clergy person, or a trusted friend. Be patient with yourself, as the spiritual reconstruction of our life is a slow process and typically takes years, not months.
Some parents, who may not think of themselves as religious or spiritual, nevertheless, are connected and sustained by something bigger than themselves. The Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Jimmy Fund Mass Challenge Bike Ride are examples of parents who honor their children by “repairing the world”, and at the same time find new meanings for their altered lives in a greater cause.
Your spiritual path is your own. There is no right or wrong on the journey that we take. No two of us are alike, even when we are members of the same family! May you find the strength you need, and discover ways to nurture the living connections that you have with your child who will always be a part of you, although in a different way.
Reverend Mary Robinson, Department of Pastoral Care
Seeing a therapist
There is help, and other families have found it helpful. Going home with a list of people that you might call can be helpful. Grief is hard work in terms of your energy, as well as in terms of your eating and sleeping. We encourage families to be in touch with their own primary care doctor so that the people who take care of them know that they are going through this and that it is hard. The other thing that we know happens is that usually in a six to eight week period there is a lot of help. There are a lot of people around, condolence cards, people going to funerals. But it does not last forever, and often when that period is over, people can still need help. It can also be a very special healing and valuable time to be able to have somebody where they can still talk about things, to put the pieces together, to try to understand what happened.
Elaine Meyer, PhD, RN, Clinical Psychologist
We have the memorial service which is a collaborative program with the residents. It’s a really wonderful event with the staff. Each child’s name is read out loud. Each family gets a flower to put into a communal bouquet and the staff does as well. It’s a couple of hours and there’s a dinner afterwards. We usually do it out by the medical school and families can bring as many people as they want. It’s once a year in June. It’s sort of the culminating experience.
Christine Rich, RN, Center for Families
Keeping Connections occurs once a year. It is a half day event where families come in and there is usually one topic that is presented by a speaker. Then they break up into small topic groups that are led by two staff people. The child life specialists work with the siblings running children’s groups.
Christine Rich, RN, Center for Families