Anyone whose child has died is acutely aware of the enormous gap that their child leaves, no matter what their age or the circumstances of their death. However, when you have lost your only child, or all of your children, the emptiness within your heart has another dimension altogether.
Many speak of feeling as if there is no reason to go on, since there is no one for whom they must be strong or feel responsible. The loss is not only of the present relationship, but also of future hopes and dreams. When an only child dies, all hopes of weddings, a daughter- or son-in-law, and the possibility of ever becoming a grandparent are gone. The future can appear bleak and empty.
It can be very difficult for childless parents to hear stories of surviving children – even from other bereaved parents. You have, perhaps, an even greater need to talk about your child who has died, but it hurts to have no living children to relate these adventures to. Christmas and birthdays are particularly painful, and there is no-one to remember and acknowledge your role on Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day.
If you have to deal with the loss of two or even more children you face very complex emotions. It may be that another child has died in completely separate circumstances and so the stages and agonies of grief are begun all over again. Or perhaps more than one child died in a single incident and there is the confusion of grieving equally for two or more unique children. Each had their own individual characters and personalities, and we have had a very different relationship with each.
If you have lost your only child, or you know someone in this situation, here are some important points which you may find helpful to focus on:
Once a parent, always a parent
You may ask, “Am I still a parent?” Hold on to the fact that once you have been a parent you are always one. You know that your love for your child or children (whether babies or adults) will never go away and is part of who you are.
Grieve for the loss of the future you expected
This will take time. Not only do you need to mourn your present loss, but also the loss of all future hopes and dreams. Very gradually you will be able to incorporate your all-important past into a new present and future.
Adjust to your loss
Well-meaning people may encourage you to take advantage of your new ‘freedom’ to develop your career, other interests or community work. But this is not a ‘freedom’ you would ever have chosen, and it is painful to even think of it in that way. Try to lay aside such hurtful suggestions as you adjust to the enormity of your loss.
Find a ‘new normal’
Gradually, imperceptibly, as you travel the long journey of grief, you will find you have gained a new strength and will begin to find new interests in a future that is quite different from the one you had anticipated, but which can again be filled with peace, joy and meaning.
Eventually some bereaved parents become involved in charities, perhaps supporting a cause their child was closely connected with. It may be possible to work to prevent further deaths from similar causes to that from which their child has died. Some find a positive way to allow the name of their child to live on by leaving awards or memorial prizes.
As one mum put it: “My charity became my child; his legacy for eternity … It is my Sunday lunch for Alex, his roast potatoes and my attempt to feed him and make him loved forever.”