The death of our child is the worst thing that can happen to us, whatever the cause. For each family, the pain and loss are unique, and it is a struggle to carry on with life. However, some of us have to bear, as well, the burden of a society which is harshly critical of our child, for a variety of reasons. These include deaths resulting from: drug, alcohol, and solvent abuse; prostitution; illnesses such as anorexia; dangerous recreational activities; involvement in crime; accidents where there has been a responsibility for the deaths of others; and suicide. When these circumstances exist, some people may express opinions such as, “He brought it on himself,” or “It was her choice,” and have the attitude that we are not entitled to the same respect or sympathy for our grief that is shown to others. We often feel an inordinate amount of guilt and shame, and that we are in some way to blame. Our grief is valid no matter how our child died. It is never lessened by difficult circumstances; rather, the opposite is true – it is intensified.
This leaflet is written for families who have suffered from a judgemental society, after their child’s death. We thank all those parents who have shared their experiences and thoughts with us, and have thus helped in the writing of this leaflet.
The years before our child’s death
Some of us have been on a rollercoaster of trauma and conflict for years before our child died. We have lived with unpredictability and, perhaps, had lengthy discussions with schools, police, hospitals or social services, always hoping that the problems would be resolved and that our loved child would overcome his or her troubles. We may have had to cope with constant anxiety, asking ourselves “Where is he?” or “What is she doing?”, waiting for the next knock on the door or phone call to summon us to the police station or hospital. Sometimes we have found ourselves in conflict with the authorities over what is best for our child; sometimes we have had no idea that there was a problem at all. We may have lost touch with our son or daughter altogether, and news of the death may come after a long silence, broken occasionally by rumours. We have often borne the burden of our anxieties with the support of only a few trusted friends and relatives – too ashamed to admit openly the extent and nature of our family’s difficulties. Whatever the individual circumstances, our grief journey begins when we are already at a low ebb, worn down by worry and uncertainty. For some, it will seem that the grief actually began long ago when our troubled child became unreachable, and death is the final phase of a prolonged and frightening nightmare. While our child was alive, there was still the hope that things could improve. It was this belief that kept us going through the day-to-day despair; the strain of pretending everything was all right to the outside world; and the struggle of working and keeping the family functioning normally. However difficult these times were, they came to an abrupt end with the shattering news that our son or daughter had died.
The early days
The news of our child’s death is always a terrible shock, however we learn of it. Shock often protects us from reality for a while, but this detachment does not last and feelings flood in, threatening to overwhelm us. Most people feel some guilt when their child has died, thinking that, if they had acted differently, they could have prevented the death. For parents whose child has died in a way that others may consider as anti-social, these feelings are complicated from the outset. Even before we are subjected to the opinions and judgements of others, we begin to accuse ourselves, and believe that we may have failed as parents.
The contradictory nature of our feelings can be very frightening. We may experience violent rage at what our child has done, to himself and to our family, and yet also feel intensely protective of him, understanding his pain and confusion in a new light. We may acknowledge an unvoiced relief – quickly followed by guilt – that the long nightmare is over, that there is an end to the trauma and uncertainty of what she will do next, yet wish we could turn the clock back so that she was still alive. We may be ashamed that his actions have damaged others, and yet want to find someone or something else to blame for what has happened, for it not to have been our child’s responsibility. Each particular set of circumstances will have its own agonies.
Many people have to be told the news of the death: our other children; relatives; friends; neighbours; and staff in schools or work. The police may be involved, and sometimes the media. As well as the inevitable procedures, such as identification and post-mortem, there may be decisions to make about how much information we disclose, at least in the early days. If the media are persistent, it is a good idea to make a brief statement, and then ask them to respect our privacy and our grief. When we begin to plan the funeral (which can only take place after the body has been released by the Coroner*, (if involved), the pain of the circumstances of the death may make it hard to decide what form it will take. As a family we should begin to look back on the whole of the child’s life, rather than focus on the immediate past.
Families very often suffer additional burdens because of the attitudes of others. Rumours and untruths may abound, and people either avoid speaking of what has happened, or unwittingly say hurtful things, while trying to be helpful. Our children who have died in ways which attract criticism are most often young adults; some of the people we meet may suggest that their loss is easier to bear than the deaths of small children. We receive comments like “He was grown-up and living his own life,” or “You couldn’t have been responsible for her actions.” We may find that those whom we thought of as close friends ostracise us, while help is found in unexpected places. Our surviving children may hear unkind comments about their dead brother or sister, and want us to tell them that the stories are untrue. If we can, we will, but we may not always be able to reassure them or protect them. We may find ourselves needing to support vulnerable members of our family while feeling unsupported ourselves. The attitude of the police or social services may appear to be critical of us and hard to bear. Sometimes we will imagine censure and criticism where none was intended, but the feelings of isolation and shame are real to us and we suffer intensely. At social events we will, as all bereaved parents, dread the question, “How many children have you got?”. However, we have the extra problem of deciding how to reply to, “How did s/he die?”.
There are some constructive things that we can do. We can tell our surviving children that we love them and that we still love their dead brother or sister; that love is not conditional, and that we can be angry with someone’s actions but still love them. We can answer their questions honestly, while not burdening them with details they cannot understand or absorb at the present time. Our friends may not know what to say to us, but we too may be locked in silence, even though we want to share our feelings. There are some people that we must speak to about the situation at home, such as our surviving children’s teachers. If help is offered to us in the way of counselling, we can consider it carefully rather than dismissing it out of hand. It is often easier to unburden ourselves to a complete stranger whom we need never see again: there may be some aspects of our child’s death that we are ashamed to admit even to family or close friends. We can try not to isolate ourselves through fear of what others might be saying or thinking, though this can be hard to do. The first time that we resume any part of our daily routine is usually the worst: going shopping, returning to work, attending meetings. When we have faced up to these situations, we have the courage to carry on. People can move only at their own pace, and each family member will have different feelings and preoccupations. Support groups, made up of people who have been through similar tragedies, can be very useful in helping us to feel that we are not alone.
Some of us suffer much more than others from publicity at the inquest and from negative, or even false, reporting of stories about our child. The Compassionate Friends (TCF) has a leaflet, On inquests, which may be of some practical help. The length of time that often occurs between the death and the inquest means that feelings we had hoped were behind us are re-awakened; we are travelling this painful road over again. The media may resurrect our story many times, even years later, when a similar event occurs.
Longer-term family issues
Such a devastating blow takes its toll on every member of the family, and, in the long term, we all must find our own way of grieving, adapting to what has happened, and living with what cannot be changed. If there is conflict between parents about past events and how these were handled, such disagreements can be bitter and damaging. Sometimes we find difficulty in accepting the circumstances of our child’s death; talking about the death, and the events surrounding it, may be too painful for us. Tolerance, patience and understanding will be needed if the family is not to break apart.
Our surviving children have much to contend with. There is a danger of our becoming over-anxious, protective or excessively strict because of what happened, at a time when our children are themselves battling with a whole army of conflicting feelings. They are sometimes furiously angry with their dead sibling for the chaos he or she has wrought within the family, and the years of anxiety which have overshadowed their lives. They may show resentment towards us, their parents, either for not preventing the death, or for allowing their dead brother or sister to behave in the way that they did. Sometimes, all our focus has been on the member of the family causing problems for so long that the brothers and sisters have felt neglected and, in some cases, unloved and of less importance. Some of our children feel that we have not been honest in the past, and we have covered up for their troubled sibling, forcing the family into isolation by what was going on; others may think that they are being labelled by what has happened, or feel tempted to experiment with the same experiences, or feel pressure to do so from their peers. Low self-esteem will adversely affect their ability to cope with social situations. Good friends, who can cope with mood swings and who stick by them in the bad times, are an invaluable lifeline. So, too, are adults who can listen to them, and who are, perhaps, more able than their parents to bring some degree of calm into the turmoil. When we find that the problems are insoluble, it is better to seek professional help than allow situations to fester in silence and bitterness.
Although we are scarred for ever by what has happened, time does help us to find ways of coping and living with grief. We can begin to remember the good times we enjoyed as a family, and the joy our child brought to us. If our surviving children are quite young at the time of the tragedy, we need to find a way of continuing to talk about what has happened, so that as they grow older they reach a mature understanding of the facts, and do not have to cope with either secrecy or falsehood. Though anniversaries are painful, they can be a time to talk, to share memories, and to avoid the tragedy becoming something that is cloaked in silence.
Our child is part of our family for ever – long after the media and society have forgotten the circumstances in which they died – and we will always love them.
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