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The Biggest Hurt

Only someone who's been through it can know the anger, the guilt, and the numbing grief of a parent who has lost a child.

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Parents who lose a child are multiply victimized. We are victimized by the realistic loss of the child we love, we are victimized by the loss of the dreams and hopes we had invested in that child, and we are victimized by the loss of our own self-esteem. Not unlike the survivors of the concentration camps, we cannot comprehend why we did not die instead. --A.S. Kliman, Understanding Bereavement and Grief

At 5:15 on a Thursday the downtown streets are awash in humanity: people pouring out of buildings, heading toward train stations and bus stops and bars. Only a handful are moving against the tide: night shifts, maintenance crews, and a smattering of others on special missions. A few enter the doors of the Daley Civic Center on Randolph Street, pass through the security scanner, and take the elevator to the Cook County State's Attorney's office on the fifth floor. They settle quietly around a large table in a conference room. No less than others whose jobs bring them downtown during the so-called off-hours, these people are here to work--to do what psychologist Erich Lindemann has called "grief work."

A young couple enters the room. The man has his arm around the woman's shoulder. She is trying not to cry.

A stolid woman in her early 40s moves across the floor as though carrying an immense weight, sits down, and stares fixedly at the table.

Another couple, also in their 40s, look around nervously as if unsure they should have come.

A younger woman, accompanied by two children, asks if it is all right for the youngsters to be present. She is assured it is.

A young man in a three-piece suit carefully leans his briefcase against his chair as he takes a place and chats with those around him.

Several older women, veterans of the group, nod to newcomers, exchange names, find chairs.

Therese Goodrich, the facilitator, welcomes the group and asks them to give their names and describe briefly the circumstances of their loss--"if you're comfortable doing that." Some speak so softly it's almost impossible to hear them. Their stories are as stark in their brevity as in their utter finality: an 18-month-old daughter who developed fatal complications from a virus, a 25-year-old son killed in a traffic accident, a two-month-old victim of sudden infant death syndrome, a 24-year-old son lost while fighting a brush fire in Florida, a 16-year-old son slain in a gang-related shooting.

Goodrich assures the group that no one is here to pass judgment or provide unwanted advice, only to listen respectfully and share insights with other parents whose worst nightmare has come true.

"If this is your first meeting," says Goodrich, "we ask you to attend two more and then decide if this is a tool that can help you." That, she says, is what the Compassionate Friends are all about.

Each year more than 100,000 Americans under the age of 25 die. About half these deaths are the result of illness, a quarter are due to accidents, and another quarter are fairly evenly divided between suicide and murder. Every death is a tragedy, but the death of a child carries the added weight of unfulfilled potential. Something in the human spirit rebels: this is not the way it's supposed to be, this is unnatural.

Recently, after a two-year-old boy was shot to death on the south side by random gunfire as he sat in the backseat of his uncle's car, community leaders, politicians, and activists marched in protest. "How many babies will we let die?" asked one of the posters. The march got only passing notice from the press--the media couldn't linger long on that one senseless death. But if the public forgets, inevitably those left behind can't: the parents.

As psychologist Therese A. Rando has pointed out in her recent book Grief, Dying, and Death: Clinical Interventions for Caregivers, "The loss of a child through death is quite unlike any other known. Ask adults what loss they dread most and the majority will state that, while they may worry about the loss of a parent, spouse, sibling, or friend, the loss they fear they could never cope with is the death of their child. Studies have shown that in comparison with other types of bereavement the grief of parents is particularly severe, complicated and long lasting, with major and unparalleled symptoms and fluctuations occurring over time."

The Compassionate Friends (TCF) is a self-help group founded in England in 1969 by an Anglican hospital chaplain, Reverend Simon Stephens, and two couples who had recently lost children to illness. The parents found that by listening to each other, by crying and remembering together, their grief was eased. The success of this simple, informal approach spawned other groups in England and Europe. The first U.S. chapter was established in Miami in 1979. Today there are some 660 chapters in this country, with a net growth of about 60 a year. Eight chapters are located in the Chicago metropolitan area. The national headquarters is in suburban Oak Brook.

At the Thursday-afternoon downtown meeting, Goodrich shows a short video and asks the group to jot down their reactions. Most of the tape is an interview with Yvonne Ameche, wife of former Baltimore Colts football star Alan Ameche, six months after their 21-year-old son Paul was killed in a car accident. She talks about the initial shock, the overwhelming numbness, the periods of time she can't remember, the support of friends, and the deep hurt that won't go away. Says Paul's teenage sister, "We loved him, yet I'm just pissed that he'd be so careless with his life that he'd run a stop sign." At the end, after she and Paul's siblings have had their say, Yvonne declares with a kind of tired resignation, "I think we will cry about the loss of Paul forever."

The video has a catalytic effect on the people in the room, triggering a battery of associations. Wesley (not his real name), a man in his early 40s, says he can relate to Yvonne Ameche's pain. "It's so constant," he says. "Even though it's two months since it happened, I have to ask myself, Is it worth it? Sometimes I just pray for a swift resolution." His wife sits very still beside him and says nothing. Her jaw is set. This is their first meeting with the Compassionate Friends.

Others around the table echo Wesley's hurt. "For a long time nothing meant anything to me," says an older woman. "I thought I was going insane."

Adds a well-dressed young man who looks like he might be a lawyer, "I felt like I had early Alzheimer's. I'd go into a room in my house, and I'd just stop cold because I couldn't remember why I was there." Others nod.

"When my daughter died," says a woman, "I was just looking for a way out. I had these pills, and I thought I'd just like to be with her."

Apparently fortified by these sympathetic strangers, Wesley is moved to talk about his loss in some detail. His 25-year-old son, who had just completed ten weeks in the Chicago Police Academy, rose early that day, preparing to go to classes. "For some reason--I don't know why--I got up too that morning, and so did my wife," says Wesley. "We usually didn't. And we were all there talking in the kitchen before he left . . . maybe I should have seen that as a sign that something was wrong. You know? And I ask myself why I didn't react."

A few minutes after his son rode off on his motorcycle, Wesley heard sirens and felt a tinge of fear. Then came the telephone call. "When I got to the hospital," he says, "I could see it was bad. His brain was swollen, and he had a collapsed lung and internal injuries. When I saw all that blood, I didn't have no hope."

Wesley says he would almost welcome going insane at this point. "I'd be somebody else then, wouldn't I?" he muses. "I wouldn't remember . . . but I guess nobody is that lucky."

Says Goodrich, "We have to believe it will get better. We don't know how and we don't know when, but it will get better." Others join in with accounts of their own ongoing, far-from-perfect recoveries. A woman explains how keeping a journal has helped. "I write something every day," she says. "It's my way of coping. Of course, I haven't gone back to read any of it yet. Maybe later . . . "

Another, whose son died several years ago, recalls that for a long time she could not say that he was dead. "I'd always say we had lost him," she explains. "When at last I could say 'he is dead,' I knew I was accepting it."

Others say their recovery began when they could call up happy, pleasant memories of their child. "When I could remember something funny she did and laugh about it--even if tears came soon after--" says one woman, "I knew I was getting better."

The lawyerly man says he and his wife tortured themselves for six months after their baby daughter died a year ago of a mysterious virus. "I wondered, did we give her enough Tylenol?" he says. "Or was her formula maybe spoiled? It was my job to protect that child and I didn't." But as time has passed, he says, so have most of the self-accusations. Besides, tonight he has an announcement: Two weeks ago his wife gave birth to a seven-pound, nine-ounce girl. "They're both fine," he says, grinning. "I'm grateful to you for pulling us along." The group applauds--there are even a few cheers.

Grief, especially parental grief, has been studied and dissected from every possible angle by theorists and practitioners. But their findings, often couched in technical language, offer scant consolation to the bereaved. Much of it sounds cold and unfeeling. Sigmund Freud, for example, said that the "work of grief" is to free the survivor from "attachments" to the dead person. "Normal" grief, he explained, does not leave any traces of "gross change" in the person. Such declarations have led some Freudians to look on grief as a sort of illness that one ought to recover from in a set amount of time and without a great deal of assistance, finally returning unscathed to normal activities. Others maintain that Freud was not so harsh, that he saw grief as an ongoing process with no set time limitations--which opens the way for more sympathetic treatment of bereaved persons.

Erich Lindemann, author of the seminal 1944 book Symptomology and Management of Acute Grief, also used language that caused misunderstanding. He claimed the purpose of grief work was to bring about "emancipation from the bondage of the deceased"--which raises images of the dead reaching out from the grave zombielike to hold mourners in a state of morbid captivity. But many contend that Lindemann was merely emphasizing the necessity of undergoing healthy grief and warning against the kind of unrelenting mourning that paralyzes.

A more recent theoretician, Colin M. Parkes, writes about the "wound" created by the loss of a loved one and warns that unless the wound receives treatment it can become infected, leading to psychological and physical illness. This concentration on wounds and illness disturbs some, though it is generally agreed that Parkes's analysis of "stigma"--society's tendency to avoid newly bereaved persons almost as if they were lepers--is an extremely important contribution to the overall understanding of grief.

The Compassionate Friends steer clear of abstractions, however. At TCF national headquarters, located in a large, modern, antiseptic building, Therese Goodrich says that the organization has no theoretical orientation, no religious affiliation, no links to other organizations, no set agendas for meetings, and no specific plan of action. The aim, as TCF literature states, is "to offer friendship and understanding . . . to listen and provide telephone friends, to provide sharing groups that meet monthly, to give cognitive information about the grieving process, and to provide acquaintance with bereaved parents whose sorrow has softened and who have found fresh hope."

Goodrich, 59--an outgoing, maternal woman with graying curly hair--has been executive director of the national organization since 1984. She gladly acknowledges that she and her husband, John, are among those whose sorrow has softened. In May 1971 the third oldest of their nine children, Paula, was killed in a bizarre accident. She and a group of fellow high school freshmen were filming scenes of spring growth in a forest preserve near her Forest Park home. They had already shot other scenes--at a local playground, a church, and a senior citizens' home--all of which were to be edited into a short film titled "Where Do I See God?" for their religious-education class. As they were filming, a driver on a nearby road lost control of his car, which hurtled through the brush and struck Paula where she stood on a bicycle path. No other teen was injured. Even 22 years later, Goodrich still finds a touch of irony in the film's subject and the sudden snuffing out of her daughter's life.

Supported by members of their parish, the Goodriches endured the inevitable panic, confusion, depression, and outrage. With eight surviving children ranging in age from 5 to 18, Goodrich says she and John operated "on autopilot" for several years, putting the serious business of grieving on hold. "We didn't talk a lot about Paula," she says, "mostly because it was just too heavy and we didn't want to hurt each other." She visited the grave once or twice a week for the first year, and when she saw fresh flowers there one time she mentioned it to her husband. "He said yes, he had put them there," she says. "I never even knew he had been visiting the grave on his own."

Eventually the family began to understand that silence was not healthy. "For the first time," says Goodrich, "we realized some of the guilt the oldest two kids had been carrying--the sense that they could and should have prevented this. The survivors carry an awful burden, and it's there long after the church and community and the neighbors have gone back to work." Today the Goodrich family tries to remember Paula with joy, not sorrow, she says. At get-togethers they show slides of her and of the other kids growing up, and they talk about her, especially on birthdays and holidays. Goodrich says they think of her as "safe" and in the hands of God, as someone they will see again.

Goodrich became involved with the Compassionate Friends in the late 1970s as a way of reaching out to others overwhelmed by the deaths of their children. "Our approach is simple," she says. "Just let people tell their stories and sort out what's happening to them in a nonthreatening group. We're available to anyone, regardless of belief, whether an atheist or a religious fundamentalist or anything in between."

In former times, when families tended to be larger and more closely knit and to include the extended family, grief work could often occur at home, in a naturally supportive environment. But, Goodrich notes, with the proliferation of the nuclear family and the geographical unrootedness of modern America, there's a need for artificially formed "safe harbors" for the grieving.

The national office, with an annual budget of $200,000 (supplied entirely from private donations), has two full-time staff and six part-timers. Its main functions are referring people to existing groups, helping to form new ones, and publicizing the organization. About 20 inquiries come in every day, Goodrich notes, but interest soars whenever the organization receives major publicity. When Ann Landers mentioned TCF in her column around Christmastime last year, the office received 1,300 inquiries in one week.

Almost 100 new chapters open up every year in the United States, while another 40 usually cease functioning--a natural development, Goodrich believes, as people recover, join other groups, move, or find that the Compassionate Friends is not the answer for them. Among the largest growth areas are Florida and Arizona, where retired parents often join TCF to handle the deaths of their adult children. "Those are some of the hardest deaths," says Goodrich, "when, for example, an 80-year-old loses the 50-year-old son or daughter she depended on. The experience can be heartrending."

To those who might argue that the Compassionate Friends and similar groups encourage prolonged or morbid grief, Goodrich replies that no one can determine the "proper amount of time" before resuming normal life. Nor can anyone sort through the tangle of emotions that torture a grieving parent, the strongest of which are guilt and anger--they just have to be lived through.

On January 19, Stanley Latham, 24, a recently discharged soldier, was shot to death outside a club on South Michigan Avenue. His alleged killer was an off-duty Chicago policeman, and there appeared to be no justification for the shooting other than a difference of opinion between the two men and an ensuing argument. The policeman was later arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

In mid-March, Karen Latham-Williams, Stanley's mother, attended her first meeting of the Compassionate Friends--appropriately enough in the Civic Center office, which State's Attorney Jack O'Malley donates to TCF. At first she has some difficulty just getting out the words. "He chased my son," she says. "Shot at him six times . . . no reason . . . my only child." When someone suggests reading a specific book on sudden loss, Latham-Williams shakes her head. "I'm an avid reader, but the thought of reading on this subject is not appealing . . . not now." This slim, striking woman, an executive secretary who looks younger than her 43 years, has always taken pride in the fact that Stanley steered clear of gangs and other problems during his high school and early adult years.

She is clearly sustained by her determination that justice be done. "For one month I was in shock," she explains after the meeting. "Now I'm mad, I'm angry." She has attended every preliminary hearing so far for the man accused of shooting her son, and she has written letters daily to O'Malley's office. She protested when an attempt was made to lower the policeman's bond on the ground that he is no threat to society. "They told me the prosecutors wouldn't go soft on him just because he's a cop. They told me they'd probably go even harder," she says. "Then they tell the judge he's a good boy--they say he needs separate quarters at the jail because he's being harassed. Well, I don't know about that. I'm afraid that if they think nobody cares, this is a case they might just push aside.

"I will not let this happen," she says, her eyes flashing. "I have to be strong! I have to stay in charge."

Veteran members of the Compassionate Friends make no attempt to hurry Latham-Williams along toward a more tranquil state of mind. They realize that her anger both gives her a reason to get up in the morning and insulates her for a time from the full implications of the loss of her only child.

She read of the organization in a book given her by assistant state's attorneys, then looked up the local number in the phone book. "I feel like these people understand where I'm at," she says after her first meeting. "I'll definitely be back." Family and friends are supportive for only so long, she adds. "Then, after a while, they have to let go. I can't!"

Anger is a driving force for many TCF novices. Joan, a young, outgoing mother whose three-month-old son died of SIDS, rages at many things. She had been home from work only a few minutes when her husband called to her and said that the baby wasn't breathing, that his hands and feet were blue. He was rushed to the hospital and kept alive for two days. Then he was diagnosed as brain-dead, and artificial life supports were removed at exactly 12:35 PM, the exact hour and minute that the baby had been born three months before.

"I thought, is someone playing a sick joke on me?" says Joan. "I asked God, what did I do wrong that he'd be just snatched from me like that? I needed to know."

She and her husband decided to donate the child's heart and liver to help other children, and Joan felt pretty good about that. But her anger boiled up anew when she saw how poorly the mortician had made up the baby for placement in the casket. "It didn't look like him at all," she says. "I thought at first it was somebody else. My daughter said, 'That's not him!'" Joan says she even thought of taking her .38-caliber Smith and Wesson to the funeral home--"I would have blown the funeral director's brains out on the spot!" She didn't, but her feelings remain volatile.

"I'm so unpredictable, vindictive, angry," she says. "I'll find some morning that I've smashed some of our china, and I won't know why and I don't even remember doing it. I'm watching my two daughters [two and four] all the time. They can't even go to the bathroom without me checking up on them. I watch them when they're asleep to make sure they're breathing. I'm so afraid. It's gotten crazy--sheer madness!"

No one at the meeting argues with Joan about the appropriateness of her response. In telling their own stories some attest that anger is not madness--that faced with the inexplicable death of a child, anger may be the only reasonable response.

One woman speaks about the anger she still harbors toward her daughter's husband. He did not tell her of her daughter's death until six hours after it occurred, she says. He made all the funeral arrangements himself, without consulting either parent, did not even mention the parents' names in the funeral notice, and has refused to return or share with her the beloved scrapbook of her daughter's baby years. "I am very bitter," says the woman, "and I'm just beginning to deal with it. It's taken me three years just to come here to a meeting and talk about it."

Guilt combined with anger began to torture Kathleen Pollin after her son, Anthony Pratt, 14, was struck by an Amtrak train in November of 1977. The boy and a friend had sneaked through an opening in the fence near Irving Park and Cicero and were walking along the tracks when the train bore down on them. The friend leapt out of the way in time, but Anthony did not.

Pollin, now 51 and a facilitator for a TCF chapter that meets at Saint Edward's Church on the northwest side, vividly recalls her reaction. "I felt that maybe I hadn't been good enough," she says. "Maybe if I hadn't worked that day and had been at home, maybe if I had reminded him to be careful . . . "

Anthony was the youngest of her four children. He'd been a patrol boy, and he was smart, a freshman at Lane Tech. Surely, she thought, she must somehow be to blame for this injustice. Then her anger set in: Why would he do such a stupid thing? Why didn't the railroad properly maintain its fences? Pollin talked endlessly with friends and relatives until she sensed that they couldn't discuss the matter anymore--she was wearing them out. A neighbor told her about a TCF meeting in the suburbs. Three months after burying her son she walked into a meeting and said, "I don't know what to do. I need help."

Says Pollin, "They said 'that's OK,' they handed me a box of tissues, and they let me talk. Nobody judged me for what I was saying and feeling because they had all been through it themselves." Nevertheless her recovery proved long and difficult. She developed asthma, thought about suicide for almost four years, and saw her marriage crumble. She and her husband divorced in 1981. "It's one of the things a tragedy like this can do," says Pollin, who is now an executive secretary with an insurance company. "It can cripple the family, pull it apart."

Through it all the little band of TCF associates stuck with her. In gratitude for her own survival, she began facilitating the north-side chapter two years ago. "I want to give back a little of the support I got," she says. "There's that, and I still need to feel some support from others."

In some cases the strain on the marriage can become so severe that the help of fellow parents is not enough; the couple may simply lack the physical and psychological energy to be mutually supportive. Tina (not her real name), a professional woman in her early 30s from the northern suburbs, attended two TCF meetings last year following her four-year-old daughter's death from rare complications induced by a case of chicken pox. She is not planning to return.

"I'm in a do-or-die attempt to save the marriage now," says Tina. "We're into family counseling, and I think it's more helpful." The loss of the child, she notes, threw the family into turmoil. Tina became depressed, her husband's drinking increased, and their other daughter, age five, began acting out her own sadness and confusion by throwing temper tantrums and becoming aggressive.

TCF advocates readily admit that even when there are no special complicating factors, the self-help approach is not for everyone. Some people do not function well in groups, and some find their loss too difficult to talk about however supportive their peers.

But for others TCF works very well. Eleanor Najita at first sought psychological counseling to deal with her daughter's death in mid-1990. "I was told I didn't need private therapy," she says, "and that I would probably do better with a support group like the Compassionate Friends. And besides, it's a lot cheaper." She is now convinced that the counselor's advice was right for her. During the past year she's attended about eight meetings of the downtown chapter, and has proved especially sensitive to the pain of others.

"We were lucky," she says. "We didn't have a lot of guilt and anger--just a lot of sadness." Najita, 56, a retired elementary-school teacher, is of Korean ancestry; her husband, a University of Chicago professor, is Japanese. Both were raised in Hawaii, and that is where most of their relatives still live. Their daughter, Mie, the older of their two children, graduated with honors from Loyola University and began a successful career in marketing in Minneapolis. But when a chronic kidney condition grew worse, two surgeries and regular dialysis failed to halt the deterioration. She died at the age of 29.

"We had some wonderful talks in the hospital," says Najita. "Her father and I expressed ourselves to her, and she understood what was happening . . . she was a wonderful woman in many ways. I see her as a kind of shooting star that streaks across the night sky, then falls quickly." Still, Najita cannot escape the sense that her daughter's life was tragically incomplete, or a lingering sorrow that death arrived so out of season.

What she treasures about TCF, she says, is the group's relative anonymity. "Here I am known only as a mother who lost her only daughter. There's no extraneous baggage in our relationships. I feel I am listened to because of my grief, not because of who I am."

Najita keeps a journal of her reactions and insights. Although Mie's ashes were scattered in Hawaii, she puts fresh flowers once a month on a small home altar dedicated to her memory. According to her Buddhist belief, she tries to regard her daughter now as a "spiritual presence," someone quite different from the woman she loved--so different, in fact, that she is now identified with a new Buddhist name. "But of course," says Najita, "when I think of her, she is still Mie to me."

Najita says she will remain with the Compassionate Friends as long as she finds support there and is able to reach out herself in compassion. "It will be time to quit," she adds, "when I feel morose or find that I am feeding off the tragedies of others."

Goodrich believes that the public today is more aware of the unique trauma the death of a child causes. Films like Ordinary People and The Accidental Tourist have helped mightily, she says, as has the writing of experts like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who explore how people adjust to the inevitability of death. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD); Parents of Murdered Children (POMC); SHARE, an organization for parents who lose newborn babies; and the National Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Foundation, which sponsors groups for parents whose children have died of SIDS, have also helped educate the public as well as offered support to the bereaved.

But Goodrich contends that large segments of the public still look upon death as the same in every case. Whether it's a 95-year-old grandfather whose heart finally gives out or a six-year-old daughter killed by a hit-and-run driver--these people expect the survivors to react in one-size-fits-all fashion.

The worst offenders, says Goodrich, are the very people who ought to be the most sensitive: clergy, doctors, and funeral directors. "I don't believe more than 10 percent of the deaths of children are handled well by these people," she says. "The tendency is for the professionals to mouth pious, insensitive statements that show no feeling for the people, so they can get on with the business at hand." They're not deliberately callous, Goodrich explains, but even well-meaning people feel helpless and incompetent in the presence of another's inconsolable sorrow. TCF publishes pamphlets and other materials to assist religious and medical personnel, siblings, teachers, counselors, employers, and coworkers faced with a sorrowing parent. The organization also produces a quarterly newsletter, and there is an increasing demand for all these materials. Information about TCF is available from the national office, P.O. Box 3696, Oak Brook, IL 60522-3696, (708) 990-0010.

That people really want to help, notes Goodrich, is best evidenced by the significant number who work as facilitators or chapter aides all over the country--people who are willing, at considerable personal cost, to dwell for a time in the most arid deserts of the human spirit, take very seriously the hurt of others, and listen.

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