Getting Through the Grief

Much has been written about the grieving process, but faced with the certainty of a beloved child's approaching death, going through that process is not easy.

Many of us have read about the 4 steps or the 5 steps or the 7 steps of grief which always begin with shock and denial and always end with acceptance. The terminal illness of a child however, seems to add a new dimension. Our child is a part of ourself and we are losing that part of ourself closest to the heart. It's not like like losing a job or a home or even a spouse.

Let's briefly review those steps:

  • Denial and shock helps one initially survive the loss. It's a numbness that permits us to go on, however painful.
  • Anger is described by Helen Kubler-Ross as a necessary stage of the healing process. It's necessary to accept anger and not deny it because it can be a sort of anchor or bridge.
  • Bargaining takes the form of a temporary truce and may take moments or months.
  • Depression appears as we appropriately move to the present to face the loss while feeling we're in a fog of sadness.
  • Acceptance is not being ok with what has happened, but is the acceptance of the reality and that we have no choice but to re-adjust to the new reality. And we can begin to live again, but cannot do so until we've grieved.

The ancients say that children are attached to their mother by an energy cord, an invisible silver cord, which exists throughout the life of both until one of them passes on. This subtle body link is strongest at birth and as the child grows and becomes more independent psychologically and physically it begins to fade and by the time the child is 18 he/she is quite independent and the link is quite weak.

But for a very young child that link is strong. It is a link that permits the mother to help support the child's health and that seems to explain the very real physical drain that the parents of terminally ill children experience.

One of the very real services provided by the palliative team of a terminally ill child is that they understand and have witnessed (and often experienced themselves) these steps of grieving. They are able to help the parents work through the process and support them appropriately at each step.

We should remember that support comes from more than physical friends and hospice caregivers.

  • First, at the end of a child's life it is often the children who are most cheerful and positive. The children themselves can be an inspiration. It is always difficult for parents to let their children go, even if they think they are ready to do so.

  • Second, the untimely passing of an innocent child is certainly a mystery which both transcends and intersects the concepts of Divinity and metaphysics. However it is the very process of grieving that leads to understanding and solutions which ultimately enable us to continue on our own journey of life without our dearly departed.

I'd like to close with a story from Julie about Amy Coco. Amy was one ofJulie's early hospice charges who loved Julie's perfume (Coco by Chanel) hence her nickname Amy Coco. Amy was an absolutely charming, outspoken and delightful child. One of Julie's concerns is always for the parents' future without their precious departed angel. Amy's family were so very moved by Julie's counsel and considerations throughout their ordeal together. Very often a young mother choses not to have a family after losing their child. One day two years after Amy's passing her parents came to Julie's office and presented their brand new baby girl ... named Coco. They had resolved their grief, restored their life and moved forward into a bright future together. Julie still weeps for joy when she recalls little Amy Coco and her namesake.