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My Education on Child Loss

I decided to make homemade salsa today.  It was a long time after our son passed away before I could make my homemade salsa recipe again.  I have such a clear memory of him saying, “That’s the best salsa I’ve ever had” the first time he tasted it.  That is also my opinion of this recipe, so eventually my desire for some homemade salsa won out over the stab of pain I feel every time I consider making it and then remember him saying that.  I still feel it, though.  I still hear him saying that, and see him with his bowl of salsa in front of him, sitting slightly hunched over at our oak dining table, chip in hand, ready to dip.

I experience many such reminders of the beloved son we lost 2 years ago on a weekly, if not daily, basis.  We miss him terribly and are still grieving our loss.

I also experience many confused and questioning looks over this fact on a monthly, if not weekly, basis.  For the most part, the only people I’ve encountered who understand how long it takes to absorb the effects of the sudden, unexpected, tragic loss of a child, are other parents who have lost a child.

I’ve had many people – many well-meaning, loving and caring people whom I love – tell me, “my great-aunt died, so I know how you feel”, or “my child lost a child, so I know how you feel”, or “my ninety year old mother died, so I know how you feel”, or “my sibling died, so I know how you feel”.  And, like I said above, I know all these people mean well, love me, and I love them.  But, they don’t know how I feel.  Nor do I know how they feel.

I don’t expect someone to just take my word for something, so today I’m offering some excerpts from the most helpful book I’ve read over the course of the past 2+ years we’ve been walking this awful road of grief.  The book is I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye; Surviving, Coping and Healing After the Sudden Death of a Loved One, by Brook Noel and Pamela D. Blair, PhD.  I frequently refer to these passages in this book to help myself remember that I am not crazy for still feeling like I feel.  I share them with you today with the hope that it will help you understand why I sometimes still exhibit the effects of our loss.

It has been said that there is no loss as devastating as the loss of a child – regardless of your age or the child’s.  Sudden death is a mix-up of everything we know to be true in life.  Losing a child to sudden death is a break in the natural law and order of life.  The child we have spent our time loving and caring for and planning to watch well into adulthood has been taken.  It is a heartbreak like no other.

In her book, Surviving Grief, Doctor Catherine M. Sanders writes, ‘The reason parental grief is so different from other losses has to do with excess.  Because loss of a child is such an unthinkable loss, everything is intensified, exaggerated, and lengthened.  Guilt and anger are almost always present in every significant loss, but these emotions are inordinate with grieving parents.  Experts estimate that it takes anywhere from three to five years to reach renewal after a spouse dies, but parental grief might go on for ten to twenty years or maybe a lifetime.  Our lives are severely altered when our child dies and there can be no replacement.  Substitutes offer little respite.  This is not to say that there is no hope for happiness.  It is just that the shock and severity of this kind of loss leaves us feeling completely helpless and full of dark despair.’

As Dr. Sanders points out in the previous excerpt, our emotions are intensified with the loss of a child.

There are so many dramatic changes and hardships to understand and overcome with the loss of a child.  It has been said that after losing a child, we embark on a life-long healing process.  Understanding these unique challenges can help us to understand how to work through them.

Disorder seems to be more prevalent after losing a child as compared to any other loss.  While we may face disorder in our physical and emotional lives, we also feel disorder within the world.  When we have children, we expect them to outlive us.  We build a future around our children.  We build dreams and fantasies and goals.  In short, we build a world.  When a child is lost, these fantasies and dreams come crashing down without warning.  Basic logic seems to have abandoned the world as we know it.

Children are an extension of us.  They carry many of our physical and personality traits forward into the world.  We see ourselves in their eyes.  Through our children, we envision a better future.  When we lose a child, we lose this extension, and we lose this hope.

Guilt runs strong in surviving parents.  As a parent, we expect ourselves to be able to take care of our child.  From birth, most parents promise their children they will protect them.  When a child dies, we may feel a sense of personal failure.  We may think we weren’t “good enough” as parents.  These distorted thoughts are the mind’s attempt to make sense of the unfathomable.

Although anger is present in most types of grieving, it is different when we’ve lost a child – it’s often much more intense.  Parents simply cannot passively accept this devastating loss – they must express their anger at someone.  It might be God, it might be the doctors, it might be whoever was present – but the anger will come.

In her book, The Worst Loss, Barbara D. Rosof writes, ‘The death of a child is a loss like no other.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s diagnostic bible, does not overstate the case when it calls the death of a child a “catastrophic stressor”.  It robs parents of what they love the most.

Losing an adult child carries unique challenges.  A parent has put so much time and energy into raising a child.  You spend hours, days, and maybe years lecturing children on how to be safe.  After all this careful care and attention throughout their youth, you assume you are ‘out of the woods’ – that now you will reap the rewards of watching your child develop as an adult.  You wait for them to marry or follow a career or have children.  When you lose a child at this life junction, although you have many precious memories, you are robbed of the future experiences you have expected.

In the brochure titled, The Death of an Adult Child, The Compassionate Friends write: ‘If the adult child dies as the result of an accident or an illness, parents are often told (while being comforted by friends and family) that they should be grateful that their child lived as long as he or she did.  Of course you are grateful to have had your child twenty-five, thirty, or forty years, but that does not mean your grief is lessened!  Many parents have stated their relationship with the adult child had become one of friendship.  They feel that they have not only lost their child, but a friend as well.”

I have felt, and still often feel, each and every one of these feelings.  It has not been an easy road, journeying through this grief.  But I am still journeying; I haven’t stopped and I’m not stuck.

“…..but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  Philippians 3:14-15

Now for some fun!  Here is the recipe for the salsa my middle son claimed was “the best salsa he’d ever had”:

Fresh Tomato Salsa

4-6 large fresh tomatoes, chopped and drained in colander 

1/2-1 onion, chopped

1 tsp. minced garlic

1/2 lime, juiced

1 tsp. salt

2-3 jalapenos, chopped

1/4 cup canned, diced green chilis

3 tbsp. fresh cilantro, chopped

Mix and pulse in food processor until desired consistency.

Mix and pulse in food processor until desired consistency.

Enjoy!  And please remember my boy when you do!

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