To lose a child

Maura Stephens
25 January 2006

Bereaved parents around the world face the greatest grief known to our species. Nothing can diminish their loss, but Maura Stephens suggests that perhaps there are some healing ways to channel it.

“I remember the look on their faces when the water swept them away. No mother should ever have to go through this.”

“The water dragged my wife away and my two-month old twins and my seven-year-old son.”

“I knew I had to let go of one of them, and I let go of the older one.”

“Please help me; I have no food to eat. I have lost my children and my husband. What am I to do now?”

“One daughter was sixteen years old and the other was thirteen. We could save ourselves but could not save them. I have no children now.”

More than a year has passed since these parents lost their children in the 26 December 2004 tsunami; most of them also lost their homes and possessions. But the agony of being homeless and without possessions pales in comparison to experiencing the death of a loved one, especially one’s child.

“If you lose a child, even as a baby, not a day goes by that you don’t think of him,” my friend confided in me recently. “My son died thirty years ago, and he was less than a month old, but I’ve known him at two, at eight, as a teenager, as a young man. I see him in the face of almost every child, adolescent, and 20-something-year-old person I’ve met in these years. I’ve imagined him playing soccer, fishing, building a tree house, reading a book, washing the dishes, learning to cook, swimming in the ocean, falling in love, having his heart broken, having children of his own, and back again learning to walk, doing homework, you name it. It doesn’t matter how old your child is when you lose him; the pain is constant and the sense of loss never leaves you. My heart breaks every time I hear of another parent losing a child; I can’t imagine the pain of losing one who has lived long enough to develop a personality, because I know all too well that losing your child even as an infant is so devastating.”

Parents who have lost children respond in so many different ways; there is no single way to grieve. And not much brings comfort. The worst things, bereft parents have confided to me, are being told, “you’ll get over it”, or being treated like a pariah, as if it’s a contagious condition, or having people avoid the subject of your dead child, or – perhaps worst of all – hearing, “you can always have other children”.

“Those things just cut like a knife when I was already feeling as if my insides were shredded by razors”, another friend said after his 12-year-old daughter, his only child, died of a rare genetic disease just three years after his wife died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of thirty-eight. “I internalised everything for so long; I was like an automaton, just barely able to put one foot in front of the other. It took me a long time before I decided to take my own sorrow and try to do something positive with it.”

Parents all over the world right now are grieving the loss of their children, trying to adjust to a new world that will never again feel quite right, trying to carry on despite numbing pain, trying perhaps to put on a brave face – for themselves or the public or for their surviving children, if any, and other family members. Their children have died from illness, accident, hunger, disease, suicide, starvation, homicide, genocide, natural disaster, and war. Like cancer, this is an equal-opportunity curse, as children in all economic circumstances are vulnerable.

The other side

But geography and circumstances do play a role, and children in poor and conflict-ridden countries exit the womb with the odds stacked against them.

The group of bereaved parents counts higher-than-average membership from places like Khao Lak, Thailand, and the numerous other communities in the Indian Ocean-area countries devastated by the tsunami; pretty much any neighbourhood in Baghdad, Iraq; the earthquake-devastated regions of Pakistan, Kashmir, and Afghanistan; the drought-suffering Horn of Africa; Keching, Shaanxi province, China, where twenty children were killed in a blast in March 2005; Vistahermosa, Meta, Colombia, where in February three children were killed by a FARC landmine while playing soccer; the village of Turbi in northeast Kenya, where in July feuding clans massacred a large number of children on their way to school; the refugee camps in Chad for refugees from Darfur, Sudan; Niger, where one out of four children dies of malnutrition before reaching the age 5 (an even grimmer statistic than that one in six children on the continent of Africa fails to make it past age five); Afghanistan, where one in five children dies of common but preventable diseases before reaching age five; and the American Chippewa Indian community of Red Lake, Minnesota, where on 21 March 2005, a student shot and killed five other students, a teacher, and a security guard and injured five other students before killing himself.

ReliefWeb reports that in the last fifteen years more than 2 million children have died as a direct result of armed conflict, more than 6 million have been permanently disabled or seriously injured, and more than 1 million have been orphaned or separated from their families. Another 8,000-10,000 have been killed by landmines. That means probably 18 million parents – and twice as many grandparents, not to mention siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, teachers, friends, and classmates – have lost a beloved child; and it doesn’t begin to include the millions who lost children outside of areas of armed conflict or the bereaved parents left behind by adult children who predecease them, another unthinkable, unendurable pain.

But the pain must be endurable; many parents survive years beyond the death of their child and somehow have to find strength to do so. The great American author Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) lost his 24-year-old daughter, Olivia Susan (“Susy”) Clemens, to meningitis in 1896. Despite his brilliance and acclaim as a writer, he was unable to articulate his feelings even years later. To make the attempt, he wrote, “would bankrupt the vocabulary of all the languages”. Ten years after Susy’s death he wrote in the second volume of his autobiography: “It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live.”

Twain’s heartbreak affected his work; he was neither as prolific after Susy’s death nor as optimistic, although he did continue to write, make public speeches, and speak out against injustice. Bereaved parents in richer countries often do take their grief and do something positive, channeling the love they have for the child into working for the greater good. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (Madd), in the United States, claims to have saved 300,000 lives since it was begun in 1980 by bereaved mothers.

Nora Cortinas and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo – mothers whose children had been “disappeared” by the brutal Argentine military regime – helped bring down the regime but continue to protest againstcorruption and repression by successive governments. British-French couple Andrew and Mirielle Archer lost their 32-year-old daughter Samantha Fayet and her infant daughter, Ruby Rose, to the tsunami in Thailand’s Baan Bang Niang beach, Khao Lak. They have created a charity in their memory to help disadvantaged Thai girls get an education.

To follow up some of the stories and resources in Maura Stephens's article, see:
BBC Tsunami coverage
Nepalese children caught in internal armed conflict/em>

The healing beyond grief

Yet even doing something positive like this only serves to numb the grief, not erase it. One never really gets over the loss of a child. As Andrew Archer wrote after Samantha and Ruby Rose’s deaths, as quoted by the BBC:

Then your head goes dead,
your body numb.
So you take some pill and go to bed.
You wander lonely as a cloud
although we want to scream out loud:
GOD! How can you let things like this go on?
Our lovely girls so beautiful are gone.

My friend who lost her child as an infant thirty years ago has spent much of her life working for the greater good in various ways. She says: “It does help me to spread the love I have for my son around; I feel like there’s so much of it, so I do as much as I can for the other children of the world. Now just think of all the children who are without parents! If only we could put some of these devastated people together.”

It seems to me that would be a cause worth delving into, for parents who have lost children or others who simply care.

The numbers of orphaned children in the world is astonishing; more than 13.4 million have lost their parents to HIV/Aids alone. Children without parents often do not have grandparents or extended families into which they can comfortably be placed, so they often end up in places such as boarding schools, hospitals, orphanages, prisons, detention centres, refugee camps, psychiatric facilities, or the streets.

It is well documented that orphans are more susceptible to a host of ills and abuses that would not plague them if they had their loving parents around to protect and nurture them. They are more susceptible to hunger, illness, physical and mental trauma, stunted development, lack of education, loneliness, and fear. In conflict situations they are often exposed to violence, physical abuse, enforced labour, even death. Unicef estimates that worldwide, 1.2 million children each year are trafficked, often to be forced into sexual slavery, another 1 million are exploited in the multibillion-dollar prostitution and child-pornography industries, about 300,000 in thirty countries including Burma (Myanmar) are forcibly conscripted into military service, sometimes as young as eight years old.

I think that people who have lost a child are even more likely to be horrified by such reports than others, as their own great loss reminds them every hour of every day –every minute of every day – how precious and fragile young life is. If they can channel just a fraction of their love and grief into doing something to change these children’s lives for the better, it may help to make their pain more bearable.

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