Unfortunately, over the past year I have visited with and comforted four friends who have experienced what most grief experts believe is the most profound loss – the death of a child. While the “children” ranged in age from 20 to 50, the loss of any child is a heartbreaking experience like no other. Losing a child is unnatural, disrupts the order of life, and is a loss of innocence. Parental grief is different from other loses – it is more intense and a long, sad journey that many experts in the field say never end. Grieving parents find ways to get through, not over their loss. The significance of this profoundly life-changing experience causes me to reflect on the extraordinary depth and breadth of the bond between parent and child.
Becoming a parent is one of life’s most amazing events. Children are precious symbols of the future and there is a unique and complex relationship between parents and children. Journalist, Debbye Bell describes herself becoming a mother as “I was not prepared in the least for the kind of rapturous, over-powering, all-consuming, feel-it-in-my-bones love that I have for my precious little girl”. When one becomes a parent there are significant psychological changes and adaptations. For most there is an experience of profound love that knows no limitations.
The connection between a parent and child is such a powerful love that death does not end it. Once you are a parent, the love for your child never ends. Even when a child dies, parental love survives. Researchers, Arnold and Gemma, 1994 write: “There is no relationship like that of parent and child. It is unique and special…The bond between parent and child is so powerful that its strength endures time, distance, and strife. No loss is as significant as the loss of a child…On the death of a child, a parent feels less than whole.” Letting go of and saying good-bye to a loved child may be truly impossible but one can survive this loss.
Becoming a parent changes much of the very normal “self” focus that is natural to humans. One of the miracles of parenting is that giving your child what they need becomes more important than getting what you want. Even most people that before becoming a parent had a self-centered life will put a loved child first. Would Disney World exist if this were not true?
The experience of worry and concern for another change when one becomes a parent. The worries change as a child grows and matures; but the paternal focus on the physical health, happiness, and future of one’s child is a natural preoccupation of parents. The very thought of anything bad happening to a loved child can be terrifying.
It is a parental challenge to balance the fear of pain or harm for a child with the realistic acceptance that a child cannot be shielded from bad things. All children will have difficulties and struggles. Good parenting provides enough freedom for a child to take reasonable risks, have challenges, and live a full independent life. The terror of tragedy involving a loved child has to be tempered with the realization that no parent can (or should) completely protect a child.
If you are a parent, love and cherish your child. Strive to keep them safe and happy but accept the limits of the power to keep them from harm. If you have lost a child, be kind, generous and patient with yourself as you struggle to survive a long, lonely and painful journey.