Moving Forward, but Never Moving on: What Parents Who Lost Children Need You to Know
Like millions of American moms, Shana Teehan has pictures of her son throughout her house. She posts about Jak on Facebook, and shares stories about him with colleagues, strangers, and friends. Some of those stories bring a smile to her face, while others bring tears.
Because, unlike millions of American moms, Shana’s son is no longer alive. Almost five years ago, Jak’s stepfather Tim found him unresponsive in his room. Despite efforts by Tim and medical professionals, this seemingly healthy teenager was declared dead, due to cardiac arrhythmia — what most people know as an often harmlessly irregular heartbeat.
Shana was shattered. “I barely cried before his death. Now I cry all the time.”
No longer would Shana watch her son play with his dog, or flash goofy smiles when she whipped out the camera. She still clung to his love of turtles — seen in photos on Facebook, former pets, stuffed animals, and other collectibles — but now, they were a memory of the past instead of part of her son’s present and future.
Changing the Conversation Around Child Loss
About 45,000 American children die outside of the womb every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and more than half are under one year old. A CDC spokesperson told me that more than 21,000 babies died in the womb after 20 weeks’ gestation — known as a “stillbirth” — in 2019. Other researchers recently estimated that more than 15% of pregnancies end in miscarriage prior to the child’s viability outside the womb.
Each of these deaths ripples far beyond the individual who dies. The deceased child, his or her parents, and siblings are those who are likely most affected. But so are more distant relatives, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. There are family friends, parents’ colleagues and community members who know of the tragedy. Out of the estimated 46,000 non-miscarriage child deaths each year, there may be dozens or hundreds of people whose lives are affected.
Yet despite the many people their children touch in their short lives, parents find themselves feeling isolated and alone — from each other, as well as their wider families and communities. They face grief, divorce, mental health challenges and other difficulties. Some are able to move forward — they never “move on,” Shana told me — while others wallow in unimaginable grief.
I was first introduced to the common conversation surrounding child loss in 2018, when I met Celeste Peterson. Peterson’s daughter Erin died in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, and she became one of the faces of the tragedy’s families. She told me that people often say they don’t want to talk about her daughter because they don’t want to bring up bad memories. But for Celeste, Erin’s death in a mass shooting means she’s always on her mind — and she said that she’d much rather talk about the positive memories, instead of dwelling on the bad ones.
That conversation has stuck with me since. Why does helplessness cause people who haven’t lost children to struggle to communicate with someone who has? Why do phrases like “at least he didn’t suffer” and “it’s God’s plan” fly off our tongues without any thought to how they come across to a grieving parent? Well-intentioned though they may be, these comments can come across as clichéd, trite and offensive.
Why do parents feel so isolated after losing a child with these large communities of caring people? Shana and other mothers I interviewed described feeling that their community can’t relate to them, that they can’t relate to their community, and that many people’s attempts to “help” result in awkwardness, offensive statements, and — sometimes worst of all — silence because nobody can “fix” losing a child.
On the other end of the spectrum are the people who never say anything. Shana described people she knew well never bringing up Jak after he died, or only saying, “I’m sorry” — something she had done to a friend years earlier, because she just didn’t know how to talk to that person until she joined the grieving parent club.
My wife and I almost became members of this club, the one nobody wants to belong to. Last year, an infection shut down our eldest’s colon and nearly caused kidney failure. We returned home after 10 days in the hospital and three blood transfusions, but it took another month for her three-year old body to truly begin recovering. She is now a healthy child with a great sense of empathy and humor, all things we would have missed had modern medical care not been available — and which leave me at a loss to relate to someone who can no longer watch their child blossom.
To understand child loss better and how to support grieving parents, I spoke to seven mothers and one father about the deaths of their children. I asked each about the hardest part of their loss, their most important takeaway for other people and how to help break the stigma which surrounds talking to people about losing a child. What they told me about grief, joy, faith, and intimacy helped me understand that those of us who are not part of the club can often be of most help by treating grieving parents like parents — asking about all of their children and keeping the memories of lost children alive.
Grief Can Tear You Apart, or Help You Create a Future
After Jak’s death, Shana could barely function. “I didn’t make a meal for months. People would ask how they could help, but I couldn’t even breathe — never mind answer them.” She relied on Tim, who came into Jak’s life only a few years earlier, to keep the family together.
“Tim became more involved than ever in our children’s lives. And he was the rock for our relationship,” Shana said. “Another grieving mom told me that most couples don’t survive the death of a child, because there are so many emotions — anger, sadness, guilt, depression — for both parents that they become virtual strangers. Intimacy — from hand-holding to sex — feels like betrayal — how can I feel joy when my son is dead? And over time, that chasm can become insurmountable. Tim made sure that chasm never existed.”
Chasms are common among grieving parents; however, limited academic research indicates that most couples do not divorce after losing a child. One 2003 paper noted that a major factor which may indicate the level of parental and marital stress is related to the suddenness of the child’s death. Parents who have time to absorb losing a child over time, as compared to a loss following a sudden injury or drowning, also have more time to absorb their grief and work with a spouse through the process.
The CDC’s records show that accidents are the leading causes of death for kids ages one to 14 years old. However, a 2008 paper from the Journal of Family Psychology stated that how a child dies does not seem to matter to individual parents; their grief, lifestyle changes, and overall stress are fairly consistent. “Recovery from grief was associated with having a sense of life purpose and having additional children,” said the paper. Also irrelevant was “the amount of time since the death.”
Almost nine years ago, Amanda and Alex Ward arrived at a hospital ready for the pain of labor and joy of meeting their first child. What they weren’t expecting was that Amanda would have to experience that pain only after learning that their Clairee Ann had died.
Alex described the labor as “the nightmare that keeps on giving.” And as soon as he returned home from the hospital, he cleared out all the alcohol in the house. “I hadn’t slept in more than a day, and I was tempted to drown my sorrows,” he said.
For both Alex and Amanda, having more children, finding a sense of purpose and not being held back by grief were critical to facing the challenges ahead. “Once the doctor cleared me for physical activity, we immediately began trying to have more children,” Amanda said. “That decision allowed us to look forward, and today, we have three more beautiful children. We also saw a therapist separately and then together, because we didn’t want our loss to end our marriage.”
For Shana and Tim and Amanda and Alex, grief could have torn them apart. Instead, they forced themselves to deal with child loss head-on, refusing to let grief hold them back from the future.
‘He Treated Me Like a Mother’
Thirty years ago, my cousin Megan Louise was stillborn at 40 weeks’ gestation. My aunt Karyn remembers the grief of saying goodbye and burying her baby; she also remembers people’s often awkward ways of trying to comfort her, and the man who gave her the gift of treating her like a mother.
“People tried to help, but they often made things worse,” said Karyn. “I wanted to punch the ‘It’s God’s Plan’ folks, and especially the woman who said I was fortunate that Megan died before I could bring her home and really bond with her before she died. Most people gave me awkward hugs, asked how I was and how they could help.”
After taking maternity leave, Karyn returned to work as a hospital nurse. It was there that a colleague’s mistake helped her heal in a way she didn’t even know she needed.
“A respiratory therapist who didn’t know about Megan’s death saw me. He could not have been more enthusiastic, starting with a hug and then asking Megan’s name. He asked where ‘Louise’ came from — it was my mother-in-law’s name — and her birth weight — six pounds, two ounces. And then he said how I must be really enjoying my time with Megan at home.”
Karyn said everyone else in the room stared at the therapist in horror, and when she explained that Megan had died, the man was mortified. He apologized profusely. But Karyn gave him a hug.
“He treated me like a mother,” says Karyn. “He didn’t treat me like I was broken. He didn’t say he was sorry for a ‘miscarriage,’ like Megan was just a lump that was gone. He treated me like a mother and her like a daughter. And I didn’t know how much I needed that.”
‘Not Everyone is Meant to be 80 Years Old’
Phrases like “before their time” are common when dealing with a young person’s death, especially when it’s sudden. After all, American life expectancy is about 80 years, and many people live at least a decade more. But Leigha Doerrer, who lost her son Everett to an abnormal connection of blood vessels in his brain, has come to believe that not everyone is meant to live to a ripe, old age.
When I first spoke to Leigha, she said silence about their grief, from them or their community of support, was not a challenge she and her family faced. “We spoke about Everett as early and frequently as possible” after his death, Leigha said. “We stuck to our faith in God, and our priest encouraged us to use his death as an opportunity to help others.”
Within days of Everett’s death, the Doerrers printed out cards about him and put them in the parish pews. Everett was a baptized, two-and-a-half-year-old when he died, so he’s a saint under the Catholic Church’s teachings. He became the Patron Saint of his family’s parish, St. Rita’s Parish in Alexandria, Virginia. Each year, on the Sunday before Everett’s feast day, the Doerrers offer coffee and donuts to parishioners. And even today, six years after Everett’s death, students at the parish school visit his gravesite as part of their religion lessons on death, Heaven, and saints.
None of this means that losing Everett was easy. “We were actually having a relaxing morning, and out of nowhere he vomited, had blood pouring out of his nose, and started having a seizure,” said Leigha, who was six months’ pregnant with her fifth child at the time. “His heart stopped for the first time before the ambulance arrived — my husband, a former EMT, got it going again by giving Everett CPR.” About 24 hours later, Everett died.
Leigha has previously described the day between Everett’s initial seizure and his death as “24 hours of mercies,” because she and her husband had time to mentally prepare. But nothing could have prepared them to tell Everett’s siblings — aged about seven, five, and four — that their brother had died.
“Paul and I came home from the hospital, and the kids were having fun, hanging out on the bed. I paused at the door, knowing that I was about to ruin the rest of their lives.” The five-year old saw Leigha and Paul and, brightly, asked, “Is Everett home?” When Leigha said no, their eldest asked, “Is he dead?”
“I couldn’t answer,” said Leigha. “Paul had to break it to them.”
Leigha says faith sustained her and Paul. “Losing a child is like losing an arm — you’ll go through the rest of your life without what everyone else takes for granted. But not everyone is meant to be 80 years old — maybe Everett was just meant to live to be two-and-a-half, go right to Heaven, and be part of the St. Rita’s community.”
When Adoption Plans Fall Through
Joy and Vinni Granados have had two children die — Mateo died 36 days after being born prematurely, and Joy miscarried Juan Maria just a few months later.
“Mateo had a 10 percent chance of living outside the womb,” said Joy, who rejected abortion when it was presented to her. “Ten percent is better than zero, and we had to give him that chance. And we wouldn’t change it for the world.” She added that her Catholic faith sustains her after Mateo’s death because she can trust that he’s in Heaven, not suffering anymore.
But while she mourns her children’s deaths and initially struggled with feeling guilty over her miscarriage, she said the hardest child to give up was Morgan, one of eight babies they tried unsuccessfully to adopt.
“We held Morgan in our arms for three days, getting to know her and envisioning our life together,” Joy said. They were shocked when, just before the adoption became legal, Morgan’s mother changed her mind and they had to let her go.
Joy and Vinni adopted a son named Lucas in between losing Mateo and Juan Maria. They love their son, but since they aren’t allowed to stay in touch with Morgan or her mother, they can’t help but worry about the child they longed to care for. “Mateo and Juan Maria are in Heaven,” Joy said. “But Morgan may be suffering, and I can’t do anything about it. All Vinni and I can do is pray.”
You’re Always a Mother
With most children who pass away dying very young in life, it’s easy to forget that losing a child is always hard for parents — even later in life. My grandmother and my wife’s grandmother have each lost an adult son — my uncle Walter from a heart attack at 60, and my wife’s uncle Mike died from cancer at 67. And while each mother has also lost a spouse, they shared that outliving their children was much more difficult.
“I don’t think there’s anything harder than giving up a child,” my wife’s grandmother Billie told me, her voice shaking. “I lost Elwood [her husband] first, but he and I had a lot of years together. He lived to be much older than Mike did. I just think that a couple should have those years, and they should have their children. Your children are supposed to outlive you.” She said what “hurts” the most is that Mike never got to enjoy the retirement for which he’d worked so hard. “He had so much to live for, and I think about that every day.”
My grandmother has likewise lost her husband and a son. She said Walter’s death was much more difficult in some ways. “I went to grief counseling, but everyone else had lost a spouse. It’s not comparable to losing your child, so I had nothing in common with them besides death.” Nana said that after Walter’s death, people told her, “You’re now part of a club that nobody wants to be part of.”
Not Part of the Club, But Part of the Solution
When I reached out to each of these grieving mothers, I wasn’t sure what to expect by going deep into their most painful and dark moments. What surprised me most was everyone’s openness to the conversation. Every parent expressed solidarity with Celeste, the woman who said she wants to talk about her daughter. Each of them shared their deepest pains, and what they want grieving parents and those who know grieving parents to take away from their stories.
I took several lessons from these hours of often heart-breaking interviews:
- Nobody can “fix” parents losing a child. But by dodging it, by not talking about that child, we are opening those closest to the child up to twice the grief — once, when the loss happens, and second, the last time the child’s name is spoken. Phrases that avoid the child’s name — “they lost a child” instead of “their child Megan died” — and which try to tamp down on the tragedy of child loss — saying “passed” instead of “died” — are well-intentioned, but may feel falsely distant for parents who will always feel close to the child or children they’ve lost.
- Offer what we can — and humbly accept our limitations. “Everett was a baptized Catholic younger than the age of reason,” said Father Daniel Gee, who was a priest at St. Rita’s when Everett died. “I couldn’t take away the Doerrer’s pain, but I could tell them the truth — that their son is in Heaven, and that they had done their job as parents. And I could help them see how their son can help others more in Heaven than here on Earth.”
- Treat parents like parents, not broken people. Help to fill the vacuum by becoming part of the child’s story, asking questions, and sharing your own experiences to keep the child’s memory alive, and helping the family feel supported as it faces an uncertain and painful future.
Early therapy can also help couples reconnect. “Research shows that about 80% of couples have different styles of coping with emotional distress,” said Dr. Alexandra Marcotte, a psychologist who regularly counsels couples going through distress. “One partner may fight for connection; and the other withdraws when distressed. This disparity can make connecting amidst pain and distress challenging, and the couple may not have a clear roadmap for turning moments of disconnection and conflict into moments of bonding.”
Moving Forward, but Never Moving On
For Shana, one of the hardest parts of losing Jak was knowing that there was a world beyond her family’s grief. “I told my other children that though the world had stopped for us, people were going to go to work, have birthdays, bear children and get married all around us. All we wanted was to sit still.”
Some people rose to the challenge of doing what they could for the Teehans; others failed, though Shana doesn’t hold it against them. “We had dear friends, close family, and people we barely knew mowing our lawn, getting groceries, and otherwise helping us get through the day. On the other hand, some people to whom I was very close have never offered us anything besides, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ But I can’t judge them — nobody knows how to help a grieving parent through such awfulness.”
Until earlier this year, Shana posted about Jak every day on Facebook. She describes it as her lifeline — a way to healthily express her grief. She stopped posting because it was beginning to feel like an obligation to her engaged audience, an extra burden she didn’t need. She’s launched a website in his honor called Just Jak, and is exploring how else to honor Jak and keep him alive not just to her family, but to the world — to move forward, she clarified, but never to move on.
Dustin Siggins is a business columnist and founder of the publicity firm Proven Media Solutions.
Originally published at Real Clear Religion. Republished with permission.