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.