3rd July 2021 is National Bereaved Parents Day. The theme this year is “Keeping their memory alive”. (Visit The Compassionate Friends for more on this.)
This post is dedicated to all those who have sadly experienced the death of their child or children. I am a bereaved parent myself – both of my children – Pax and Catherine – died. The journey of grief as a bereaved parent is not easy. Frankly I didn’t think I would survive, but I have. Grief does get more ‘liveable’ and less intense, although the ache of loss never leaves. Here are some thoughts on being a bereaved parent.
As a parent, we do not expect to outlive our children. It does not feel natural or normal to have done so.
Because our child was younger than us, we lament that their life was not completed. They had not lived what we would normally consider a full life span. That is why one of the special pains that accompanies the loss of a child or young person is the sense that with their death we are not only grieving who they were but who they might have become.
If you’ve sadly suffered a bereavement like this, you’ll know what I mean.
We wonder what would they have looked like as the years pass. What they would they have done with their life. Who would have been their friends or partner. Would they have had children of their own. What kind of person would they have been. What would they have accomplished. These are all questions for which there are no answers.
With their death, the world has lost a special person, a person of significance, because every single person is special, every single person has significance. The world is poorer without this individual.
We might watch as their peers grow up and reach the milestones of life that our child never reached. Their friends finish school, take their exams, go to university or get jobs. They might find a special someone with whom to share their life. There may be children born to them. They may write music or a book. They may own their own house. They may be a fun person who is the life of the party. They may visit places they have dreamed of. They may possibly do any of these things, but our child will not.
We miss our child for who they were.
But we also miss them for who they might have been.
The aching void
I miss my children in so many ways. My life is full and busy, but there are times when there is a terrible void. Pax, who died at 3, would have been 42. Catherine, who died at 30, would be 41. What would the intervening years have brought? What would they be doing now? Surely we’d be meeting up for meals, going on walks, going shopping, doing the usual ‘mother and child’ things. There would have been hundreds more photos. As it is, my family photos stopped for Pax in 1982. They stopped for Catherine in 2011. Their friends grow older on Facebook. Pax and Catherine do not. Pax is forever 3; Catherine is forever 30.
A speaker at a training session I attended said that in his opinion, parents are comforted by imagining as time passes the milestones their deceased child would have reached, such as significant birthdays or their wedding day. I disagreed quietly. Surely this speaker was not himself a bereaved parent! I can’t imagine that many bereaved parents are comforted on the day that would have been their child’s 21st birthday or any other milestone. Instead, there is an acute pain for our child who is missing and what they have missed out on. Of course their life was valuable, no matter how short, but it hurts desperately that their life was shorter than we wished.
We may struggle to allow ourselves to enjoy life as we endure the reality that our child is not here to enjoy it too. Our life probably isn’t perfect and we probably haven’t achieved everything we wish for. But at least we still have the chance to try. Our child does not.
Keeping their memory alive
Sometimes I’ll look at a big view and say, “Catherine would have enjoyed this.” I imagine how my son and daughter would have related to each other as they grew up. Would there have been grandchildren to visit by now? By thinking of my children, they remain real to me.
The theme of this year’s Bereaved Parents Day is keeping our children’s memory alive. This is so important for bereaved parents. If you visit any graveyard, chances are that the graves that are mostly highly decorated and cared for are those of children and babies.
Vitally, we talk about our children. Our pain is sometimes softened when our friends and family acknowledge our children and we can have conversations about them, but sadly this does not always happen. Finding spaces where we can remember and speak about our child, without feeling any criticism that we should ‘be over our grief by now’, is vital for us. That’s why support groups such as The Compassionate Friends are so important, and a reason why I also run bereavement support events (although mine are not exclusively for bereaved parents). Speaking with other parents, in person or online, can help in our journey.
Keeping ourselves going
Our lives are not what we expected or wished for. Our children’s absence hurts; it always will. We may have periods of extreme despair, or we may have lost the spark that we used to have.
There is no magic or quick solution to the pain of this particular grief as parents. As we walk through life now, we will always miss our children. Yet we can respect their memories by keeping going, however difficult that might sometimes be. Then again, we might be surprised to discover joy in unexpected places. For me, it’s in nature. For others, it is in music. For many, it is the continued relationships with other children and grandchildren. And then there are the special moments when we feel the invisible presence of our deceased children.
Above all, the love we shared with our children is a treasure that endures. It can sustain us. Let’s hold on to that.
READ MORE –
Follow this link for a selection of articles on child bereavement, including my own experiences: