How to survive the death of a child

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Two caveats:

  1. The title is a little hype. I don't think you ever really get over the death of a child. I have had parents tell me it had been twenty years and they still are not over it. I get that.
  2. I have not lost a child, but, I do know how to read. I read a touching story of a man who did lose a child and I'd like to share it with you in hopes that if you or someone you know has lost a child, you might draw comfort from this article. This is one of my all time favorite books. If I was stuck on a desert island with only ten books, this would be one of them.

What Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better (Cameron Stauth and Dan , Ph.D. Baker)

My own heartbreak struck early. I was young and in love, a doctor of psychology on the way up, just starting a family, and feeling more or less invulnerable. Then my world fell apart.

I was having the happiest day of my life. My second son was born, and he was soft and tiny and adorable. I saw the family resemblance, and it was like discovering gold. I saw his whole life stretching ahead of him—his infancy, his toddler years, childhood, college, beyond—and it made my own life seem so much happier and more connected to the world. When I held little Ryan, he felt like love incarnate in my arms. And then the doctor said, “Something’s not right.”

My feet got cold and I could feel my heart kick against my chest as the doctor began to try to stimulate Ryan’s breathing.

A little later, as Ryan wiggled fitfully in an incubator behind a thick wall of glass, the doctor told me in a tight voice that Ryan appeared to have hyaline membrane syndrome, a failure of the lung’s alveolar sacs. The hospital wasn’t equipped to deal with it, so Ryan was loaded into an ambulance to take him to the larger city of Lincoln, Nebraska.

The memory of that ambulance, red lights flashing in the black night, is burned into my brain.

We did everything we could, including praying, of course, but little Ryan died.

Because my wife was still in the hospital recovering from the C-section birth, I had to attend to the details of death by myself—looking in the Yellow Pages for a funeral home, selecting a plot that was somehow appropriate, picking out a tiny casket, and buying a headstone and trying to think of what to say on it. What can you say?

Take my word for it: Your worst memories will never fade.

I bottomed out on grief. Even now, as sick as my heart is with the loss of my dad, I know that nothing can touch the despair that tortured me then. I was inconsolable, afraid to start each day and even more afraid of the endless future, totally impotent to rescue my emotions from a feeling of sinking, sinking, sinking.

I asked God, “Why me?” and every time I seemed to get an answer, I argued against it. No, we hadn’t scheduled the delivery too early. No, it hadn’t been my fault that the small hospital couldn’t help him. No, it wasn’t genetic. No, I hadn’t done something so evil that I deserved this. I wrestled with God—but that’s a fight you never win.

Because my life continued, whether I liked it or not, I tried to piece my world back together. But as most people do—even young psychologists who are supposed to know better—I tried to find my world again by using coping mechanisms that did more harm than good. At the time, they seemed reasonable, even courageous. I’ve learned since then, though, that the coping mechanisms I was using just make the prison walls of grief and fear stronger. These days, I even have a pejorative name for these maladaptive coping mechanisms: the Dirty Ds. As I struggled to survive emotionally, I demanded that my fate be altered, even though no alteration could possibly suffice. When not enough happened, I devalued my efforts to recover, and sank deeper into helplessness. I began to demean myself and think that I somehow deserved this tragedy, through some weakness I wasn’t wise enough to recognize. Instead of trying to learn from my loss, I discarded its lessons. I saw it as pain, and nothing else. And as failure piled upon failure, I desperately doubled all of my ill-conceived efforts, thinking that if I could just dump more of my heart and soul into this agony, I’d find a way out.

It didn’t happen. The Dirty Ds will betray you every time. It’s astonishing that they’re so popular.

Then one day, when I couldn’t stand the onslaught of even one more moment of morbid thoughts, I pretended for a few seconds, or maybe a minute or two, that Ryan was still with us, and I let myself love him as I had when I’d first held him in my arms.

For that short time, the darkness lifted. The oasis of denial was a comfort.

But, I wondered, was it really the denial that had done it? In my head, I knew all too well that my son was dead. So without this pretense, I again let myself focus on my love for him. And the respite from the pain returned.

Over time—a long time—I found that when I actively allowed myself to summon all my love for Ryan, I actually felt better—strange surprise—instead of worse.

I also found that I could love Ryan very much despite the fact that he would never love me back—never even know me. I realized that my love for him (and not his for me) was the legacy he’d left, and that no one could ever take it away. Except for me. And I refused to let go. The love was too powerful and too sweet. It was the one thing that was greater than the pain.

Every day, through tears at first, I set aside time to let myself rest in the tranquility of my love for my little boy. Gradually, the love I experienced began to grace me with more than just a vacation from pain. It also gave me the emotional power to forgive, and to stop torturing myself with the question, Why me? In an emotional holocaust like this, you can blame anybody and everybody—the doctors who should have known more, the ambulance driver who could have driven faster, the taxpayers who refused to build a bigger hospital. Myself. Fate. God.

But I forgave. I let go of my somehow comforting companionship with anger.

I knew that my love for Ryan was mine forever, locked into my heart, immortal. I knew that no event could ever again devastate me so completely. I knew that life was precious and ephemeral, and that from here on, I would treasure my first son, Brett, even more that I had before. And I learned that if I focused on giving love to Ryan, my family, my friends, and my clients, I could be whole in my soul once more.

So on that otherwise ordinary day, I became an optimist. I learned what optimism really is: It’s knowing that the more painful the event, the more profound the lesson.

From that day on, I realized that there was something happy people know that unhappy people don’t: No matter what happens in life, there’s always something left to love, and the love that remains is always stronger than anything that goes against it. That was the same knowledge that had saved me when Ryan died, and now I saw that it was a universal truth.