When a Child Dies: Living With Loss, Healing With Hope

When my fifteen-year old son died in March 1999 following a long journey with cancer and a brain tumor, I remember feeling the way Mt. St. Helens looked after her summit was removed by a volcanic eruption. I stood under an evening sky watching slate blue dusk blend into ragged peaks and lava domes.

A friend once had a cabin perched on a bluff overlooking the lake, surrounded by gigantic pines. Pulling up the hood of my sweatshirt, my face strained into the wind. Fireweed and purple-red flowers dotted the level earthen floor, in a place where a forest and the cabin once stood.

Jay, my son and youngest child, a pole star of my life—had passed. I would never get over it. Nor would I ever be the same. I would not give up or given in to societies mistaken notion of getting over grief. Instead I would find a way to live with it and not allow it to hold me back.

But how could I follow my destiny when I couldn’t even buy a new sweater without exchanging it twice before deciding on a color and the right fit. I was starting my life over from scratch, terrified of making decisions, even little ones. There were moments when I didn’t think I’d ever care about anything again. My mind felt glued shut, and my heart like it was laminated, sealed in plastic to keep out further pain.

Yet standing with the mountain I had a soul bleaching moment when I understood that I didn’t want to stay closed up and hollow feeling forever, and eventually I found a way to allow myself the space to grieve deep and fully and feel every ounce of the pain and yet continue to walk forward.

I walked, circling the crater, and saw wild violets blooming. The mountain had been scattered and sundered into bits, and she survives. I swallow a clotty grief deep inside my throat. A grief so wide it gave me laryngitis.

Bold and enthusiastic thoughts of my son filled me. I’m breathing proof he was once more than a photograph. I shuffled out into the empty field of my mind to find enough words to make it through another winter of writing.

Nothing quits. My life has changed into something I didn’t want, and I began gathering the pieces that are left of me, coaxing them back into growth, and starting again, but like the mountain I’ve lost all of my big trees.

The horizon is still mine. I feel myself a part of the mountain, with hills catching the sunset through a furious wind, dust devils kicking up dirt. All my senses are alive, out on the edge. I imagine fireweed blooming on the burned over land in my heart, beginning purple petals.

When a child of a loved one dies you may feel helpless and ill at ease. You can help, though. Here are ten practical ways to really help a grieving parent:

1. Don’t avoid us. Be the friend you’ve always been.

2. Listen if we want to talk about it.

3. Cry with us and don’t try to find magic words to ease our pain.

4. Don’t say, “Call me if you need anything.” Most bereaved parents won’t feel strong enough to pick up the telephone. Instead offer to do something specific.

5. Give special attention to and offer to take care of our other children. Siblings have not only lost a brother or sister to death, they have also lost their parents to grief.

6. Remember: Grief is exhausting. Grief feels like fear.

7. Marker events, the first day of school, birthdays, and holidays remind us our child is absent. Pay careful attention to us on holidays. Most bereaved parents dread holidays. Follow your heart and take a leap to reach out to us because we are deeply hurting. If we say no, ask us again year after year. Eventually we will feel strong enough to say, “Yes.”

8. In the days and especially in years ahead share a fond memory and mention the name of the child who died in conversations as casually as you would any living friend or family member.

 9. Acknowledging the date our child died by sending us a card or flowers is a wonderful way to remind us that you are remembering our child and we need not walk our grief journey alone.

10. There is no timetable for grief. Be patient with us. We don’t recover from the death of a child, we learn to live with it, and over a process of years we begin to find a new normal.

First published by EMK Press (Click to download this pdf article)

Terra Trevor is the author of a diverse body of work. Her stories illuminate our humanity, remind us to be open, to connect, to hope, to question, or bring change. She is the author of Pushing up the Sky: A Mother's Story, a memoir widely anthologized. Her work and portrait is featured in Tending the Fire: Native Voices and Portraits (University of New Mexico Press). Her work also has appeared in Voices Confronting Pediatric Brain Tumors (Johns Hopkins University Press), and in numerous other books, anthologies and literary journals online. www.terratrevorauthor.com

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