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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

How My Daughter's Death Taught Me
The Meaning of Life


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We are living in a death-denying society, but the unnaturalness of outliving one's child compounds the bereaved parent's loss. In her seminal book, Parental Loss of a Child (1986), Theresa Rando addresses this unnaturalness. She believes that survival guilt — guilt associated with outliving the deceased — may run rampant.

Rando notes a "strange and callous" avoidance response on the part of society to the bereaved generally, and particularly so to the bereaved parent. When loved ones die, we often speak of them as "passing on," "passing away," "departing," "resting in peace," or "sleeping." Denial is prevalent even among those in the business of working with the deceased. In funeral homes, rooms for the dead are often referred to as "slumber" rooms. If they have a difficult time addressing death, is it not surprising that society in general would, including radio talk-show hosts dishing out advice?

The consequences of such denial for those grieving may be profound — again, especially for bereaved parents, for whom grief is felt very differently. Dr. Expert, you need to put yourself in their place to understand. At a time when bereaved parents need comfort and support, they often hear meaningless phrases such as, "Keep a stiff upper lip," "It was God's will," "Thank goodness you have other children," or "You are young, and you can have other children." Imagine how you'd feel!

A friend of mine, Nancy Zenoff, Ph.D., who became a psychologist after her 19-year-old son died while he was hiking, works extensively with grieving parents. She believes that they are often permanently and negatively affected when people near them are unable to offer support. This is especially true when estranged parents realize that their isolation from each other might have come about because of the other's ignorance.

The Value of Continued Support

A mother whose 20-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver commented,

Well, I find it sad that people aren't able to show their feelings. I had tons of support at first, but now it would be nice if every once in a while someone would say something — just a few words of support. You know, you wouldn't even have to say anything. Just a little hug or something. But as a whole, society has a hard time dealing with death, and that's too bad, and that's where they think it's just better to go on, and I do. I'm tired of the facade. I'm tired of playing like I'm fine, but I can't be myself because people can't handle it.

A mother whose 10-year-old daughter was killed in a drive-by shooting discussed the value of support and being able to talk about her daughter.

I'm feeling a little bit better, maybe, accepting things. My hurt and grief are the same. I still get depressed at times, but I still have a lot of support, which I really need — family and friends, and church. I need to talk. To talk to anyone who will understand. So I feel I'm doing as well as can be expected.

A husband talked about the lack of support his wife received after their four-year-old daughter died of leukemia.

Well, it's interesting. Some of what my wife considered her best friends were her biggest disappointments. They don't acknowledge our loss. They never called her, they never talked to her. I don't know why. Maybe it's because of disturbing us. "Oh dear, they've had that horrible thing happen. They probably don't want to be bothered." She wants to be bothered! She wants to be called.

Shadow Grief

Early research by Larry Peppers and Ronald Knapp in 1980 may counter your belief that to remember is not to go forward. They define the lingering effect of death as "shadow grief," which seems to be quite prominent among mothers who suffer prenatal losses. Among the mothers studied, the vestiges of grief remained for years.

Shadow grief is described as a form of chronic grief that can be a burden for the rest of parents' lives. This does not mean that grief continues to dominate their existence as it once did, but instead that the feelings are never entirely forgotten or resolved.

Shadow grief is not overtly manifested. Instead, it is characterized as a dull and constant ache in the background of one's feelings that on certain occasions and under certain circumstances comes to the surface. Anxiety, sadness, and sometimes tears are then expressed.

This finding is important in that it was discovered in the majority of families studied by Knapp. Employers, mental health professionals, relatives, friends, and others, even talk-show hosts like yourself, may be better able to assist grief-stricken families by understanding the profound importance of this concept.

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