You hovered over the crib to check the rise and fall of an infant’s chest. You held your breath when the bicycle first rounded the corner and disappeared. You fretted over violated curfews and the smell of cigarettes or alcohol. Finally, you breathed a sigh of relief because the focus of all your worries had safely reached adulthood. And then the unthinkable happened. An accident, an act of violence, a terrible illness struck, and the person you nurtured through the perils of childhood is dead.
Working your way through
“Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” so wept King David of Israel when news of his adult son’s death reached him (2 Samuel 18:33). So have grieving parents wept through the ages. You are not supposes to outlive your child. At the root of the overwhelming pain you feel lies the conviction that you, not your child, should have died first. I realize that this CareNote will not relieve your pain. I can only hope to address some of the particular needs that attend the death of an adult daughter or son. May you find it useful in your pain.
- Expect slow-very slow-healing. Grown-up kids are a special delight. Overnight, defiant teens turn into likable adults. Many of them leave home, get jobs, go away to school, start families of their own. The hurts you may have inflicted on one another during the growing-up years often begin to yield to new appreciations. You can enjoy the opportunity to come together in a new way, in an adult relationship-in short, to become friends. Death shatters that unfolding relationship. This time your son or daughter is really gone. And so is what was supposed to live on after your death: the genetic heritage you passed on, the mannerisms and the values your offspring picked up from you. Not even death can change the fact that your child, whether born of your own flesh or made your through adoption and nurture, is a part of you. You invested much of your treasure-financial, emotional, spiritual-in this person, and you cannot recover from such a loss overnight. Recovery will take years-and, in a sense, you will never fully recover. One woman whose daughter died seven years ago puts it this way: “My nephew lost a leg 20 years ago. At 43, he lives a full and active life without it, even though he limps a bit when he is tired, even though he still feels pain. Losing my daughter has been like that for me. At first I couldn’t bear to put my feet on the floor in the morning. It still hurts. Sometimes the pain is sharp; sometimes I limp quite badly. But I go on. Sometimes I even run or dance.”
- Find support wherever you can. “No one knows how I feel” is the common complaint of grieving parents. And it’s true: No one does. Neither did you until the day death took your son or daughter. Such a loss is beyond the reach of a parent’s imagination. We can go so far, and then our minds shut down in the face of the unthinkable. Some of your friends-the same people whose presence was such a comfort at the funeral-may well begin to avoid you as though you carried the plague. They may grow uncomfortable if you mention your child’s name. They don’t always understand your need to keep the memories alive. Some will be so afraid of making you cry that they won’t let you cry. Neither can you necessarily count on your family-not even your spouse, if you are married. However tightly you may have clung to one another at the time of death, each of you mourns a different person. Your son’s relationship with his mom was not the same as with his dad. Your daughter was dear to her siblings in varying degrees and for various reasons. Each of you will handle your sorrow in a uniquely personal way. One of you may need to talk, the other to be alone; one to cry, the other to rage. Some people find great comfort in their religious traditions; other can only shake a fist at God. Your spouse may crash on the day you feel up to an outing. Old sibling rivalries may surface among remaining children, if there are any, as they begin to wonder if you care whether they’re still around. And no one knows what to do with an approaching holiday. Support groups for grieving parents can offer comfort. Your church community may be able to link you with someone else who has been through a similar loss most grief therapists will adjust their fees to meet your budget, although finding one with whom you are truly comfortable may take some shopping around. Finding support requires a lot of effort at a time when putting your shoes on in the morning seems effort enough for one day. But in the long run, it is well worth the work. The support can be a lifeline.
- Claim your heritage. From the moment you began to anticipate your child’s arrival, you dreamed of all you would share with him or her. Now it is your turn to be on the receiving end. Your son or daughter has left a heritage for you-everything his or her life meant. The people your daughter or son may have added to your life, such as friends, a spouse, or children, are a very important bequest. You will want to keep as close as possible to those who possess this bank of shared memories. To lose a relationship with your child’s closest friend or life partner would only double your tragedy. Nurture the ties with care. At the same time, allow your child’s loved ones the freedom to get on with life in their own way-even when that is hard for you to do. When Dottie attended her daughter-in-law’s second wedding, she wept throughout the ceremony. “It was the hardest thing I’ve done since we buried our son,” she admits. “But it would be harder to lose her, too.” The new husband eyed her warily at first, but now Dottie is an extra grandma to the couple’s toddler. If your child had children, these grandchildren are a precious legacy as well. Not only do you need them to keep your place in the chain of generations, they also need you to keep them in touch with their roots. No one else can tell them about Dad’s childhood interests or when Mom’s sense of humor first emerged. No one else remembers their ancestors or what life was like in the “olden days.” Find a way to touch others’ lives with the legacy of love your daughter or son left you. Some parents adopt their child’s interests. Harold and June began a scholarship fund for gifted music students at their son’s high school with memorial gifts. Cathy coordinates the schedule of volunteer reading tutors in the school where her daughter taught. Sam devotes his spare time to training young volunteers at the local science museum, his son’s favorite haunt. Death, as well as life, can give you new direction. When someone asked Mario to collect donations for the American Cancer Society in his neighborhood, his first response was bitter. Why should he help someone else live when the disease killed his daughter? But he’s now an area coordinator. Latoya is active in MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), founded by a woman whose daughter, like Latoya’s, was killed by a drunk driver. Susan, whose son was shot in a holdup, works for hand-gun control.
You buried a part of yourself with your daughter or son, and the loss will ache for a very long time. Nonetheless, your adult child will always be a part of you, living in your memories and in your heart. better than any of the people who offer you the cliché, you know that the value of a life cannot be measured in years.
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