Monday, June 25, 2012

Two Deposits in Heaven: Making Sense of Child Loss

[Reviewed and updated January 16, 2022]

A reader writes: I think for me, right now, the worst part of my son’s death is not knowing exactly what happened. He died in a hit-and-run motorcycle accident, and we still don’t know the details or who was responsible for his death. Through the many trials of this life, I've become what others call a very strong person. I'm generally not someone who cries. In my life, my tears have usually been due to overwhelming frustration where I just couldn't take anymore. This is the second one of my children I've buried. Two deposits in Heaven! One of my other sons died many years ago at the age of 3 months from SIDS. I know the grieving process and I also know that this is very hard on the rest of my family. I have three grown children, all of whom still live at home. I felt I needed to find my support elsewhere because I know we all grieve differently. I have a strong belief system, so I know my sons are happy and in Heaven, but I'm still their mom and I miss them both so very much! I feel like I've been in a protective bubble and it is starting to deflate. I know a lot of things about grief but my knowing doesn't always help. The difference between the "head" and "heart" I suppose.

My response: Your statement that you have two deposits in Heaven touches my heart, and I’m so very sorry that you’ve endured one of the most difficult of losses a parent can experience—not once, but twice! As a mother whose baby died shortly after he was born (and following what we thought was a normal pregnancy and delivery), I know firsthand the agony of loving and losing a precious infant. As a mother of two grown sons, I simply cannot imagine the agony of losing an adult child to death. My heart hurts for you, and I hope you’ll accept my deepest sympathy.

Your need to know exactly what happened to your son is completely understandable, and it reminds me of what another bereaved mother experienced when her son was killed in a tragic accident.

You say you have a strong spiritual belief system, but that doesn’t always help. Struggling with what you know in your head and what you feel in your heart is normal, too. When we are coping with a traumatic loss, such as the death of a loved one, we are forced to begin the difficult process of adapting to what is happening to us. Part of that process is trying to make some sense of it. We search for meaning. Whatever faith we had may be shaken to the core, as the very values and beliefs we’ve held onto all our lives suddenly are brought into question.

Whether sudden or expected, the death of someone loved is an unwelcome and extremely painful interruption of our relationship with our beloved—and for most of us (in our culture at least), it not only hurts, it just feels wrong. Intellectually we may know that death is a part of life, and sooner or later it will happen to all of us, but in our hearts and souls we grieve. Sometimes we’re angry that this has happened to us, and we need someone—anyone—to blame for the injustice of it all. Sometimes the one we want to blame is God, or our higher power, or fate or the universe, or whomever else we think we can hold accountable.

A great deal of research has been done around this matter of religion and the part it plays in grief, and I think it’s important to note that for some, religion can offer an effective way of coping with loss. For example, in the Handbook of Thanatology: The Essential Body of Knowledge for the Study of Death, Dying, and Bereavement, Robert G. Stevenson writes about a hospital chaplain named Mwalimu Imara. (Imara was the chaplain who worked in Chicago alongside Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the famous psychiatrist who wrote the ground-breaking book On Death and Dying). In his work with dying patients and their families, Chaplain Imara noticed a significant difference in those who believed in and practiced what he called authentic religion. People with authentic religion, he observed, used their religion to form their sense of who they were. They used their faith to set and follow their life priorities, to make choices and face the consequences of those choices, and to make sense out of life and death. They found a way to answer those basic questions about life and death—and as a group, they were less anxious and less fearful of death. These individuals were better able to cope with loss and to move through the grief process more effectively.

I must tell you, my dear, that my precious baby David was loved from the moment he was conceived, and it does not matter that his time on this earth was so brief—I’ve always thought of him as my special angel—but now I will think of him as my own “deposit in heaven” too. Thank you so much for giving me that very beautiful image!

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