Death of a child the ultimate test for families
Sharon Nolan poses by a wall of photographs inside the office of Parents of Murdered Children, Inc. in Cincinnati.
By LEANNE ITALIE
Associated Press Writer
Published: Saturday, September 19, 2009 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 3:36 p.m.
One left turn was the difference between normal and “new normal” for Patricia Loder.
Notes from a bereaved mother
Susan Chan knows firsthand what it feels like to lose a child. Her 18-year-old daughter, enjoying the waning weeks before high school graduation, was thrown from her boyfriend’s motorcycle after a deer jumped in their way.
It was 1992 in Topeka, Kan., where Chan and her husband, Gary, remain.
“You never expect this is going to happen to you,” she said. “You read headlines and it’s always about somebody else, and one day you’re a headline. It’s so hard to explain to somebody who hasn’t been there what it’s like to lose a child. There’s no good way.”
The couple, now married for 41 years, sought the help of The Compassionate Friends soon after Rachael died. It’s a large network of survivors established specifically for those struggling with the deaths of children, grandchildren and siblings. Chan is a chapter director for the organization and offers this advice:
Grief is not an event. It is a process. It does not have a distinct finish line. Each person’s journey is as unique as his fingerprints. Your grief journey will be guided by many things besides the relationship you had with the child who died. It will be influenced by your past life experiences (including previous losses), your religious beliefs, your socio-economic status, your physical health, the availability of a support network and, in many cases, the cause of the death itself. People want you to be “over it” way sooner than you can ever imagine. They don’t seem to understand that this is not the flu. We learn to integrate it into the fabric of our lives. What they don’t realize is that we will never be the same people we were before our child died. Grief is not a predictable journey. One day we may feel somewhat stronger, the next day we may crash and burn. Grief is sometimes like winding a ball of yarn — you wind and wind on it and sometimes drop it and it unravels before you, then it is time to start winding it up again. It is important to remember that as we grieve, we must also mourn the death of our child. The two words are usually used interchangeably, but they mean different things. Grief is on the inside — what we are feeling. Mourning is “grief gone public” — in other words how we are allowed to express our grief outside of ourselves. (Definitions from the work of Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition). We have a great need to tell and retell our story far longer than many people are willing to listen. We need to find safe places to tell our story. Pain is part of the grief process and cannot be ignored or “gotten around” if we are to heal. Remember that letting go of the pain does not mean letting go of the love you had for your child. That love will remain with you always. At some point each of us must make a conscious decision to heal. We must decide whether we want to become bitter or better. Everyone seems to have an explanation for why this happened to you. It is a characteristic of our society that we want to be problem solvers. I haven’t met a bereaved parent yet who felt there was a reasonable and acceptable explanation for why their child had to die. We need to be selfish as we grieve. By this I mean we must be good to ourselves, be patient with ourselves, look to what we need to do to move forward. We need to be open to the help others can provide. This is not a journey we need to make alone. Ask for help when you need it. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but an acknowledgment that you want to heal.
She was almost home in the Milford area of Michigan on the first day of spring 1991, turning left on a road like any other, when a speeding motorcyclist sideswiped her car and killed her two children.
They were Stephanie, 8, and Stephen, 5.
“I was one of those people who would wake up screaming because that videotape went off in my head all the time, playing over and over again,” Loder said. “That’s a horrid weight you carry around all the time because no matter what, whether you’re right there or a thousand miles away, you’re always supposed to protect your children. Always.”
When her grief threatened to overpower her, Loder reluctantly attended a bereavement support group with her husband, Wayne.
“There were people there who had lost their mothers, their fathers, their grandparents,” she said. “They all had grief and I respected that but no one there had lost a child.”
The pain, she said, is like no other. It eats at marriages. It eats at siblings through its relentless guilt and hopelessness. The weight of it, as Loder and other parents describe, sometimes tears families apart, but it more often draws them closer together, researchers said.
Buried in the news of Jaycee Dugard’s release after 18 years in captivity was her mother’s divorce, but the Loders — like many families — found their way through with help from other survivors who know what it feels like to get up each morning and attempt to live their lives after a child’s murder, accident or illness.
While reports of startlingly high divorce rates under the circumstances stretch back more than 30 years and once ranged from 70 to 90 percent, a 2006 survey for the bereaved families organization that helped the Loders showed a significantly lower incidence, far lower than the national average of roughly 50 percent.
The 2006 survey for The Compassionate Friends, of which Loder is now executive director, showed 306 of 400 respondents were married at the time of a child’s death. Of those, there was a divorce rate of 16 percent, less than half of whom cited the death’s impact as a contributing factor.
In a study by two Montana researchers in 1999, only 9 percent of 253 respondents said they divorced following their child’s death, with 24 percent of the remainder saying they had considered divorce but didn’t follow through.
“While the death of one’s child definitely places stress on a marriage, we believe the divorce rate is so low because of the commitment parents have to survive their tragedy as a shared experience,” Loder said.
After her car crash, which also killed the motorcyclist, a hospital nurse warned Loder about the high risk of divorce.
“First I was told my children had died. Then I was told my marriage would die. There are no words that can describe how that warning compounded the grief I already felt,” she said.
A range of factors are at play when it comes to the toll on marriages of fatal tragedy involving children, including a couple’s level of education and their ability to pay for outside help. Also on the list are whether a marriage was already at risk and how attuned loved ones are to the kind of support needed by the bereaved.
There’s no right way or acceptable span of time to grieve a dead child, yet friends, family and co-workers often urge parents to “get on with it,” compounding the pain and squandering a chance for loved ones to offer more meaningful assistance, Loder said.
“Oftentimes your family and your friends just want you to be better,” she said. “We hear that a lot, that families don’t understand. They want them to be their old selves.”
Christine Frisbee and her husband, Rick, were living in New Canaan, Conn., when they lost their second oldest child, 15-year-old Rich, to a virulent form of leukemia in 1989, just 15 months after he was diagnosed. The couple, with four other children, lost their savings eight weeks after their son died when the company Rick worked for went under.
“My husband and I are still married, but I admit we almost didn’t make it. We were so angry with each other on how we were reacting differently,” said Frisbee, who wrote the book “Day by Day,” about the lives of children with sick siblings. “One evening at home I asked Rick to hug me. He said, ‘I can’t. I hurt too much.’ He would never have said that before.”
On Sept. 7, 2001, Sherry Nolan’s 24-year-old daughter, Shannon, was beaten to death with a baseball bat. Five months pregnant with her first child, her husband led authorities to her body, buried in a wooded area in Cincinnati, Ohio. A jury convicted him of two counts of aggravated murder and he remains in prison on consecutive life sentences.
“At the very beginning anyone who’s had a family member murdered, you feel as if you’ve died that day,” said Nolan, who with her husband, L.C., and two surviving children sought the assistance of the support group Parents of Murdered Children.
“We went through the stages of what could we have done to prevent this, me saying to myself what did I do in my lifetime that my child is paying for. My husband saying the same thing,” she said. “Then when you realize you haven’t done anything, you turn to one another and say what did YOU do in your lifetime?”
Susan and Gary Chan of Topeka, Kan., lost their 18-year-old daughter Rachael in 1992, when a motorcycle driven by her boyfriend hit a deer at dusk.
“I don’t know how many times people said, ‘Oh, God made another angel singing in the choir,’ and I was thinking, ‘I need Rachael singing off-key in the shower,’” she said. “Part of the work is redefining who you are in this new reality you didn’t choose.”
Therese A. Rando, a Warwick, R.I., psychologist who specializes in the study and treatment of loss, said flawed research is to blame for the notion that a child’s death leads to divorce more often than not.
“In no way, shape or form is the divorce rate even near the national average,” Rando said. “I’m amazed there aren’t more divorces. The dynamics of losing a child are so different. If you’re a wife, you’re a widower. If you lose your parents, you’re an orphan, but we don’t even have a word for losing a child. It represents the very worst fear in all of us.”
The Chans were also helped by The Compassionate Friends, which offers support groups through 615 chapters in every state, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. The nonprofit organization also has chapters in more than 30 countries.
Talking with others grieving the loss of a child helped pull her husband closer after it appeared he was drifting away, Chan said.
“Early on my husband kind of went into a workaholic mode. It’s the only place he felt like he had some control, but he realized that he was putting off what he needed to do,” she said. “We made a commitment early on that this was going to be hard work, that it wasn’t going to tear us apart. We always came back to the fact that we both loved Rachael.”