The loss of a child can leave you feeling like all is lost but as Dr Stella Compton-Dickinson explains there is support that can help bring meaning and purpose back into your life.
There are many different ways that we experience loss over the course of our lives. Sometimes we have time to prepare and first thoughts then are of holding on to hopes of recovery. At the end there is the profound emotional pain of seeing our loved one fading from us, but at least sometimes there is time and opportunity to say goodbye.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (by Soygal Rinpoche) is a seminal work that describes how it is possible to die well, but this cannot be said to be the case when there is the sudden loss of a child.
Angelina Jolie states that the death of a child is her greatest nightmare.
Older people who have lived more of life than the individual who is passing on may feel like the grandfather I witnessed at his daughter’s bedside. He said 'I wish it was me that was going, not you.' This is not uncommon; such situations often involve feelings of guilt that affect the natural grieving process for the loss of the younger person.
Consider Arthur Honegger’s statement: ‘as someone who has lived the nightmare of losing a child, I know that the enormous hole left behind remains forever.'
No-one who has suffered such a shocking event can ever be the same.
So, how can those left behind understand the pain of sudden loss of a youngster or infant who may just be starting out on their life's journey?
There is no preparation, no opportunity to say goodbye.
Parents of a baby who dies of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) will have to process an overwhelming range of emotions, but this cannot occur until the initial shock response has dispersed.
Coping with the shock of loss
The immediate psychological defence mechanism can be disbelief - thoughts such as 'it cannot be true' or 'this cannot be happening to me'. The most profound defence mechanism is dissociation; the individual may feel numb, emotionally blank and disconnected from their feelings. Intense distress may follow. There is a risk of depression if the stages of grieving do not progress naturally. There is no consolation.
The old adage ‘time heals’ seems unhelpful. Yet there is some truth in this, if only one can weather the hard journey through terrible emotional pain and suffering which some liken to C.S. Lewis’ wasteland. Sometimes it seems that the feelings may kill you. In fact it is rare that emotional pain does kill people. It is possible to find spiritual strength and sustenance through such anguish if one can hold on to Plato’s words: 'what does not kill you makes you stronger'.
Living with 'if onlys'
When a child dies suddenly the primary caregiver may have a very different long-term response than their partner. This can affect the relationship if there is over-isolation and an inability to share and comfort each other.
Generally, the parent’s sense of care-giving responsibility seems to be shattered leading to huge feelings of guilt. An internal dialogue about how the event could or should have been avoided may ensue. Living with the ‘if onlys’ of the past, suffering regrets, parents may be unable to cherish the ‘what is’ of the present.
Recovery to some semblance of a new normality can gradually occur if the parent can take a positive view by feeling gratitude for other family members, rather than being swallowed up in grief, which can leave siblings of the lost child struggling to fill the gap. Hopefully, with this approach parents can become more aware of the joys of their existing family. This can motivate a mum to be even more of a mum.
The grief process
By allowing life to continue with some sense of normality the bereaved can slowly come to terms with accepting what has happened. Life can begin again as an independent process to that of grieving.
Thinking about how our senses affect our moods can help orientate us to the present and to what needs to be done. Practical things may help to regain some semblance of normality. A friend or neighbour may visit just to offer food or make a cup of tea. Calming herb teas such as chamomile or the scent of lavender may soothe, caffeine based drinks may be effective pick-me-ups. However, we can never assume what the bereaved may like or dislike, as sensory perceptions can become associated with the loss at the moment of shock - an evocative smell or a particular Christmas carol may bring emotionally painful flashbacks.
Everyone deals differently with loss. If a young person is killed in an accident it may mean that siblings are overlooked, as they can never replace the one that is gone.
People who have suffered such a dreadful loss may feel that everything was beyond their control and that all is lost, but befriending others who have suffered similarly can provide sharing and support which gives life meaning again.