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Question
I just buried my daughter who was only 38 wwhen she died from breast cancer. At least she was under care of hospice, so we were together to the very end. This is my second daughter to die, as i lost an infant from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) many years ago. We have no other children, so now what? I am only 63, as is my husband, so we are in a tailspin about how to survive the years in front of us. Is there even a word for a mother or father whose children have all died? We are childless parents, I guess. It is beyond words for me.

Answer
My heart goes out to you. To have suffered the death of both of your children goes against all our assumptions about how life should be and against the basic parental instinct to protect our children from harm. Indeed, it is beyond words and comprehen­sion. In fact, there is no single English word to identify a bereaved parent such as there is for a widow or an orphan. Duke University English Professor Karla Holloway has proposed we might use viloma, a word drawn from Sanskrit that means “contrary to the natural/usual order.” A bereaved parent herself, Dr. Holloway thinks if we learn to identify a parent who is grieving the death of a child as a viloma, we would acknowledge the reality of their loss more completely. Personally, I hope our society does find a word for a bereaved parent that would identify not just the fact of the loss, but the state of being bereaved in which parents find themselves.

Bereaved parents grieve with great intensity and, all too often, experience heavy costs to their physical, psychological, and social well-being. You experienced both a sudden death of an infant many years ago and now the death of an adult child who was only 38 years old. As many bereaved parents have told me, “It doesn’t matter how or at what age your child died, it hurts the same either way.”

The wound of parental grief is always disorienting and complicated. You and your husband need to treat yourselves gently as you search for meaning and purpose going forward while caring for your physical and emotional health, the relationship between the two of you, and your connection with others.

In a chapter on the history of approaches to helping the bereaved over the last hundred years or so, David Balk (Handbook of Thanatol­ogy, 2021) notes that most grief experts agree on the critical impor­tance of sharing grief with others. This makes clear that while times of solitude in grief can be healing for you, ongoing isolation is not.
Perhaps no one will understand what you are experiencing as well as other bereaved parents. The hospice that cared for your daughter will have programs like grief groups, educational materials, and other local activities to support both of you.

Two national organizations that offer parents information, friend­ship, and support to rebuild their lives after the death of a child are Bereaved Parents of the USA (www.bereavedparentsusa.org) and The Compassionate Friends (www.compassionatefriends.org). Each have an informative website, annual conferences, and local chapters. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, local chapters have adapted to online meetings as well as in-person gatherings.

Other important sources of connection, of course, are your family and friends who knew your daughters and can grasp the magnitude of your loss. Medical and psychological professionals as well as faith communities are also experienced and wise in helping the bereaved.

No one can take away the indescribable pain of your grief. But finding life-affirming relationships with others both as a couple and individually will be important sources of healing. The philosopher and psychologist, William James wrote: “Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help you create the fact.” As you are able to find new paths, those fresh passages will lead you into a less painful and more hope-filled future.

 

– The Rev. Paul A. Metzler, DMin, an Episcopal priest and psychotherapist, is semi-retired following over 40 years of service as a clergy member, therapist, and hospice-based grief counselor.
Email your questions for the experts to askjourneys@hospicefoundation.org. August 2022 Journeys Newsetter

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