Living with dying

How do we minister to parents who have lost a child?

Victor M. Parachin writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Four years after he lost his 25- year-old son in a mountaineering accident, Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote A Lament for a Son, an eloquent statement on the emotional pain a parent experiences at the death of a child. The book captures the philosophical turmoil of the grieving parent:

"It's so wrong, so profoundly wrong, for a child to die before its parents. It's hard enough to bury our parents. But that we expect. Our parents belong to our past, our children belong to our future. We do not visualize our future without them. How can I bury my son, my future, one of the next in line? He was meant to bury me!"

The United States Census Bureau reports that nearly 100,000 children and youth under 24 die every year from illness, accident, and suicide. The death of a child impacts family integrity and unity. It is estimated that up to 70 percent of parents suffer serious marital problems when a child dies.

Parents who lose children need the compassionate guidance of their clergy, funeral directors, churches, family, and friends. Here are six strategies to minister to grieving parents.

1. Encourage the parents to find friendly listeners. Bereaved parents do not need empty platitudes, such as: "You'll get over it," "Time will heal," "It happened for the best," "This too shall pass," "You can have other children." Such remarks, while not necessarily false, may hurt the bereaved more than they help. They block emotional release and interfere with the grieving process. The bereaved need people who are genuinely interested in them, and who will listen to their pain and share their hurts.

Robert DiGiulio, who lost his wife and daughter in a car accident, speaks of the importance of such relation ships in moments of crises. He writes in his Losing Someone Close: "Treasure your relationships. I know that many people who lose someone very close feel abandoned and alone as if they have no one or nothing to live for. The only solace I can offer, the only advice I can give, is to really make an effort to reach out to other people. Find people to laugh and cry and share with. They will help you to mend your shattered life. My family and my friends have been priceless. I have thrived, not on their words of sympathy, but simply on the fact that they have been there for me."

2. Show that grief and faith do coexist. Gently remind grieving parents that their feeling of sorrow is not an indication of lack of faith. The truth is that grief and faith teach each other: while faith cushions the blow of bereavement, grief often deepens the experience of faith.

This interaction of faith and grief is reflected in the experience of a family that lost a 23-year-old daughter. The family expressed their initial struggle through a searching question: "We knew we could survive. Could we, however, survive in a way that would do credit to our God, our faith, and our daughter?"

Much later the family expressed their feelings in a statement of faith: "We are better Christians now that she has died, for we have learned something about how others also suffer. The power we have to communicate the comfort that comes from God has increased. We are more useful to God than we were because we are better able to speak of the comfort He offers the wounded."

3. Encourage the bereaved to join a support group. There is possibly no greater source of consolation and support for bereaved parents than that of a support group made up of other fathers and mothers who have lost children. The pain of child loss is so deep that it cannot be understood and analyzed; only shared and supported.

Beverley Raphael, an Australian psychiatrist, in one of the most definitive books on grief, The Anatomy of Bereavement, affirms the power of a support group over therapy: "Professional support may be reasonable, although there is much to suggest that professionals find this area a painful one also. The greatest support often comes from sharing with other parents experiencing the same crisis."

4. Lead the bereaved to tap faith resources. Virginia is a troubled mother. Six of her sons died one after the other, all victims of muscular dystrophy. She was a carrier of the disease but did not know it. While muscular dystrophy can lay dormant for as many as five generations, it can erupt suddenly in one generation as in Virginia's family.

A local news reporter asked Virginia how she managed to deal with the death of six sons. To a casual observer her answer could appear trite. But given the magnitude of her losses, Virginia's remarks demonstrate the power of her Christian faith: "It was prayer," she replied. "If ever any hatred or anger was about to creep in, I began my prayers, and these feelings just burned away like fire. I always looked at it like this: if Jesus carried His cross, I should carry mine."

"Religion," writes Rabbi Harold Kushner in Who Needs God?, "is first and foremost a way of seeing. It can't change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts, and that in itself can often make a real difference."

5. Professional counseling may be needed. Not every bereaved parent will need professional help, but some will need a skilled counselor if other informal support is not avail able. The case of a minister shows how necessary professional counseling may become to get over the process of grief. This minister experienced devastating isolation after the death of his son. To begin with, he was almost stoic. He officiated at his son's funeral, saying, "I couldn't imagine anyone else doing it." But during the weeks that followed he found the pain unbearable. He says: "As a minister we were expected to have the faith and strength to over come our grief, but as parents our grief was just as strong. We were expected to be much stronger and more full of faith than we were. I cried every day for six months. For a week the phone never stopped ringing after our son died, then it never rang. I thought I'd go crazy, and felt like screaming in the silence."

Recognizing that his emotional state was deteriorating rapidly, he wisely sought the help of a professional.

6. Prepare the bereaved for special days. After the death of his son, Nicholas Wolterstorff discovered: "The worst days now are holidays Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, birthdays, weddings. Days meant as festivals of happiness and joy now are days of tears. The gap is too great between day and heart."

Mother's Day, Father's Day, and death anniversaries can also be painful. The pastor and the church can help the bereaved manage such difficult days. Being a friend to the bereaved to help them talk or cry is a good start. Encourage the parents to do something in memory of their child---give a pie, a book, a bouquet of flowers, or pay a visit to someone lonely or in need.

We are created to heal. Healing sometimes takes a long time, but it will take place. One mother, five years after her seven-year-old son died, says: "I can now look at his picture and not cry. Believe it or not, life does get better."

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Victor M. Parachin writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

January 1994

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