The proper way to grieve for a child

I hate Galveston.

When I look out over the seawall, I find no peace in the sounds of wind and wave or comfort in the roiling swirls of water gently crashing into the jetties. I see only the bodies of children being dragged and slammed with senseless violence against the sand just beneath the waves. As I look out over the Gulf of Mexico, I see only a sadistic child-eating monster mocking the hole in my chest.

And May is the cruelest month, because it was Mother’s Day in 1992 that I lost my niece and nephew to the powerful spring rip tides along the coast of Galveston. My niece, Cindy, who was seven, was pronounced dead on the beach, but my nine-year-old nephew, Doug, was flown to John Sealy hospital and placed on life support. Although the doctors offered us no hope of his recovery, he was kept on life support for 72 hours to monitor his brain activity.

Image

The only photo I have of Doug and Cindy, from 1990.

During that agonizing 72 hours, we did what most families do. We held his hands, stroked his hair, talked to him, read to him, took him his favorite stuffed bear, massaged his legs, and loved him with every ounce of strength we had. At the moment they stopped life support, the Galveston radio station played his favorite song, “Born in the USA.” Yes, we were on the radio. We were on the news. Our family’s grief was broadcast on the nightly news. I avoided the cameras, but the children’s father was there, tears cascading down his face, explaining how he felt about the death of his children. Who needed this explanation?

Perhaps it is surprising, and perhaps it is not, that I decided to enter the medical humanities program at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. I spent years driving to Galveston and going into the hospital where my nephew died. Sometimes I avoided the building, but other times I went there and sat in the garden specifically to think of what had happened before. When I completed my required ethics practicum, I went on rounds with the doctors in the pediatric ICU—of all places.

As part of this experience, I was able to witness conversations with doctors and the parents of children who would never recover. The doctors were kind, caring, and professional, and every word destroyed me a little. I imagined the conversations the doctors and nurses must have had regarding my family in 1992. I imagined how they debated the proper course to take: how long to keep him on life support, how to break bad news to the family, and how to prepare for the death of a nine year old. I had thought this experience might help me come to grips with my past trauma, but I honestly cannot say it did.

As medical humanists, we study the ways people make meaning of suffering, but I want to tell you with great heartfelt certainty—there is no meaning in the death of a child. And when you try to make meaning of it, you rob me of my grief. I am entitled to my grief. My pain is my own. When you tell me the children were on loan from God, and he has called them home, I am only amazed that you worship a monster and call it God. When you tell me they are in a better place, I want you to know that the world they left behind is immeasurably worse for their absence. When you tell me anything, you amplify my pain and submerge me in the depths of despair with no comfort and no meaning.

What does someone grieving the death of a child need? Solitude. And comfort. Silence. And conversation. A distraction. A project. Time to do nothing. Time to think. Time to cry. Time to scream. Time to fall apart. Time to get it together. There is nothing you can do. But, really, you should try. And you should know when to back off.

I can remember talking to priests, ministers, social workers, counselors, and well-meaning friends. No one can really offer any comfort, but a few people managed to refrain from intensifying the pain. In particular, Robert Schaibly, who was the minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston at the time, offered sincere condolences with no advice, no explanation, and no demands. He was empathetic and shared my pain without taking it as his pain. No other clerical person I met was able to achieve something that seems so simple. Perhaps the simplest acts require the greatest art.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
This entry was posted in dignity, Grief, Medical Humanism, Suffering and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The proper way to grieve for a child

  1. Kim Willis says:

    Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Berta-Isabel says:

    Dear Randy,
    This one of your most beautiful pieces of writing, because is has been done from the deepest of your sorrow.
    Death is so understandable all the times, and much more when you think about so young lives who suddenly disappear from us.
    I still cannot assimilate my husband death after almost 19 years now.
    You should be ready to stand that, but it is so strange to my mind, at least, no to be able to see, listen to, touch someone you love. It is such a pain that it is impossible to describe…
    Life is like running behind a butterfly, as beautiful as inconstant and untouchable… Death, I don’t know what it is, so indescribable for me.
    Take care, my friend.
    BI

  3. Lorna says:

    Randy, well written and heartbreaking. I cannot imagine the grief. I’m sorry for the lost opportunity of their lives and I am sorry for everyone who has had to suffer through their loss.

  4. “What does someone grieving the death of a child need? Solitude. And comfort. Silence. And conversation. A distraction. A project. Time to do nothing. Time to think. Time to cry. Time to scream. Time to fall apart. Time to get it together. There is nothing you can do. But, really, you should try. And you should know when to back off.”

    As a bereaved parent, I agree. Good advice, particularly the “you should try” part. There are excellent resources out there now – better than when our son died – for people who would like to understand how to help a grieving friend or family member. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Wow. Powerful. Sad, tragic, so very young, so full of life, they are beautiful children. I, as a grieving mom would simply like to say “I am so sorry for your losses, for you, and your entire family”.

  6. Pingback: The Proper Way to Grieve for a Child: Cicero’s Example | Ethics Beyond Compliance

  7. Pingback: Performing masculinity and grief: A death of my own | Ethics Beyond Compliance

  8. Pingback: Performing Masculinity and Grief: a Death of My Own -

  9. Pingback: Masculinity And Grief: A Death of My Own | Pakistan Times

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s