Tuesday, December 18, 2012

No Greater Loss: Losing a Child

The events of last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School deeply affected me and every person I know. The heartbreak of losing 20 six and seven year old children, and 6 heroic educators, by a mass shooter at their school, is overwhelming. It has touched the universal consciousness and humanity of all of us, across the nation, and around the world. The randomness of the loss, that children could be dropped off for school in the morning and be murdered by lunchtime at the school, a place which should be safe, has made the world more anxious. It happened in Newtown, but it could have been our town.

If you get to middle age, you can't help but realize that life is full of losses, big and small ones. You can lose a love, a parent, a sibling, a friend, financial stability, a home, a job you enjoy, your health, a partner, or a marriage. Each of these losses can be very difficult. They each require a grieving process, and a rebuilding of an individual's life afterwards.

Of all the kinds of losses there are in life, I can think of no greater loss than the loss of a child. Even President Obama identified with the parents who lost their children so abruptly and needlessly on Friday, and was pausing to wipe his own tears at his press conference.

What makes losing a child so shattering?

Loss is almost always proportional to the degree that you were attached to that person that you lost. With babies and children, they are completely dependent upon their parents, so the identities of parent and young child are intertwined, not completely separate.

Losing your child at any age, but especially a young one, feels out of the natural order of things. This makes it harder to accept and process. While it is difficult to lose an older beloved family member, you are able to take some comfort at their having lived a full life. With the loss of a child, there is a surreal sense that this is wrong.

The grief continues in a sort of spiral over time as family members grieve again at every developmental milestone their deceased child will miss out on. There is grief at the time of the loss, but also when they should have graduated, driven a car, gone to college, married, and had children of their own. There is the grief for the life ahead of them they were robbed of, and your loss as parents and grandparents to share those later joys with that child.

Grieving parents need to go through the grief process--- the shock, anger, bargaining, sadness, and eventually acceptance. They need to find a way to go on, for themselves, for those who remain in their family, and to honor the child who was taken from them. Peer support is incredibly helpful for parents who have lost a child, offering a place to connect with others who truly understand the nature of this profound loss. Compassionate Friends is one such non-profit support group for parents who have lost a child.

Men and women grieve the loss of a child differently, and understanding this is essential to husbands and wives supporting each other non-judgmentally after the loss, even when what they need to heal may be different. Our grief is as individual as our thumbprints. It is helpful to know what is normal.

While both are challenging, sudden loss can be more difficult to accept and process than an expected loss. One can understand intellectually that the child is gone, but wake up the next day feeling that the loss is not real. There was no chance to prepare.

One of the last challenges with grief, after we have felt the pain of the loss, and adjusted to our world without that beloved child, is to put some of the energy that went into that relationship into other places. To effectively resolve grief, we may want to become involved in honoring the child's memory, perhaps by becoming involved in advocacy for change in the world.

In the Newtown case, using this horrific loss for creating more reasonable gun control laws makes perfect sense. I have had other parents I have worked with who helped themselves heal from their child's premature death through fundraising for research on the prevention and treatment of a disease that took their child. We can't bring our child back, but we may be able to save others. When we give action to our feelings of "enough," we help both preserve the memory of those innocents, and restore our own sense of agency, rather than powerlessness.

The death of innocent children is a profound assault to our sense of safety in the world, our sense of fairness, and a test of our faith. When bad things happen to good people, we struggle as human beings to understand the meaning. From across the US and around the world, we identify with the parents of those sweet young children who lost their lives last week at Sandy Hook. There is truly no greater loss, and it touches us all and calls us to action.

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