While the loss of a lifelong partner and companion can be devastating, it is not unexpected. The death of a child, however, is – as labelled by Psychology Today in 2016 – an “‘an-out-of-order’ death [since] normally the parent dies first.” So, as pointed out by the BBC in 2002, with regard to ageing parents, and following on from the death of Princess Margaret at 71 years of age, “few parents imagine they will attend the funeral of a grown-up child.”
Moreover, a study of British widows reported that “many elderly women admitted they found the loss of a grown-up child far more distressing than the death of their partner. ‘Women have the expectation that their husbands will die before them, but for their middle-aged child to die is quite shocking.” And this was compounded by the fact that while “society is ready to deal with many forms of bereavement – even the deaths of very young babies – there are almost no support networks for those predeceased by their grown children.”
In addition, “people find it very difficult to express their condolences to an older grieving parent,….[and] this can lead to an elderly parent’s feelings being neglected,…[or] ‘discounted’ as they are told to be grateful that their ‘child lived as long a life as they did.’ Such sentiments ignore the deep and complex emotional bonds which develop between a parent and child over many decades….
“The demise of an older child can also take a unique toll on the well-being of an aged parent. The majority of old people are looked after informally – particularly by their children. The death of their carer has a huge impact.” And because their loss is also considered to be the most “unnatural of bereavements,” Psychology Today emphasised that “support is critical, [and] there may be value in seeking counselling or joining a support group.” The one that it suggested, The Compassionate Friends, is an organisation that had its beginnings in the UK, and was also mentioned in the BBC article. It has also developed offshoots in Australia, as detailed in an ABC News Radio feature in 2015, through an interview with one of its UK founders, Canon Reverend Dr Simon Stephens. Critically, he said, the non-profit organisation “extends beyond individuals in government and religious institutions.” Instead, “it is based on the belief that only parents who have experienced the trauma of losing a child can offer the sort of compassion and understanding that distraught families need.”
And this is what Cheryl Whitburn found, as she recounted to The Daily Telegraph in 2015 how The Compassionate Friends had helped her in her grieving. After the death of her son through an allergic reaction in a work-related situation, she “was still grieving months later and found counsellors could not understand what she was going through. She finally made contact with The Compassionate Friends and found strength in the support of people who understood her pain. ‘The tears lessen, you laugh occasionally but you never forget,’ Mrs Whitburn said.”
She also ensured that her son’s death “was not in vain. His situation was used to campaign for banning peanuts from schools and it led to founding a Campbelltown chapter of The Compassionate Friends.”
At the same time, as another survivor – Pat Taylor – has noted, it is important for those around a parent who has suffered this extreme loss to know that it is important for them to keep on trying to reach out to their bereaved friend or relative, even if they don’t know what is “the ‘right’ thing to say or do.” Those people “who have rushed in to be supportive during those first few weeks after the death of the loved one” need to continue to be there for the long haul.
In addition to this advice, however, she also wrote – in the Huffington Post in 2014 – about a variety of things that survivors themselves have done in answer to the question of whether life is “even worth living after the loss of a child?” For herself, it had been 13 years since her adult daughter died of cancer, and, as she put it, “I am still exploring the complexities of grief. I have no all-encompassing answer to these questions. What I did to keep breathing is different from what someone else will choose to do. I think that is the key word: choose. We can either choose to follow our child into the grave or learn to live without them. Live or die? Cancer stole their young lives – will it steal yours too? There are as many ways to cope as there are people trying to cope.”
What Taylor herself did was to complete a documentary film called Sara’s Story – about her daughter, who had been an aspiring actress and “who had always dreamed of ‘making it’ in Hollywood.” After she died, it was screened at the West Hollywood International Film Festival, and it “made me feel good to help her fulfil her dream of making it in Hollywood, one way or another!” She also gave examples of what other surviving parents of adult children have done after the loss of their child. They included:
For herself, Taylor said, “I love to stay connected with all the people who knew Sara, especially her young friends. For me, this helps keep Sara alive in my heart and soul. It helps me to keep breathing. I can only hope that all [those] in the same position can also find a reason to keep breathing. It is worth it.”
At 67 years of age, Margaret-Anne Hayes found her reason by taking up running, four years after her son Aaron had died from cancer, and during which she had gained 25 kilos in weight. She discovered it almost by accident, but – as she told The Sunday Telegraph’s Body and Soul in 2009 – by the time she was 69 it had become her ‘passion’. Initially, she had suggested to a friend who had had a stroke, that “we both train for the nine-kilometre Sydney Bridge Run. I thought it would help her feel better and help me to lose [that] weight.”
In the end her friend was too ill to run, but Hayes decided to do it anyway, and went to Can Too for help. This is an organisation that “trains people to run or swim races in return for raising money for cancer research.”
As she told it, “I’d never run before and it was much harder than I expected, but I’m so glad I kept going, because finishing that race was almost on a par with having my children. I am such an ordinary person. I felt as if I’d never achieved anything before, but crossing that line at the age of 67 was amazing. Afterwards, my training group persuaded me to enter the half-marathon, and finishing that was even better. I heard everyone cheering and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I’d never had a high like that in my life.
“Today my goals are to run another half-marathon when I’m 70, and also to raise $70,000 for Can Too by my 70th birthday. I feel confident I can do it. I’ve lost all my weight, my blood pressure is excellent and my body muscle mass is way above average.” And, to iterate her feelings about it, “Running has become my passion.”
Once we are dead, that is that. But if we are an ageing or an aged person, the death of a beloved adult child can be seen as a fate worse than death. At such a time, therefore, the continuing support of others is important, as is the depth of understanding that might best come from others who have survived an equivalent level of pain.
And then, there is the work that is needed on a personal level, to find that specific pathway for each of us as an individual. As we’ve also seen, it can take time, but it is possible, in such ways, to forge through the barrier of extreme heartbreak towards a life where the loved child is never forgotten, and would be happy to know that we have, as well, been able to breathe and to live again.