Book Review: The Bereaved Parent by Harriet Sarnoff Schiff

Written in 1977, nine years following the death of her son in 1968, The Bereaved Parent by Harriet Sarnoff Schiff is touted in the back-of-the-book description as the “classic  book for parents whose child has died – and for all who want to help them.” From what I’ve read, this particular book on grief and loss was one of the first of its kind written by a parent whose child had died and, therefore, was embraced by bereaved parents and widely considered as groundbreaking.

Book Introduction

In the introduction, Ms. Schiff emphasizes the fact that only a person who has walked this walk of a bereaved parent can truly understand what it’s like to walk the walk.

Some things are beyond describing. No matter how eloquent the words, their impact can fall flat when not accompanied by a similar experience…the emotions one feels are only believable and truly understood by a fellow bereaved parent. (p. xi)

She then gives her reason for writing the book: to give some suggestions that might help fellow bereaved parents on how to cope and an encouragement to carry on.

What we needed then was somebody who could say, “I survived the same ordeal you are now enduring. You can do it. I have some suggestions that might help.”

We would have placed a value beyond price on such assurances. We could have avoided some dreadful pitfalls had we been warned by people who had undergone the same grief we now faced.

…Parents with dead babies, parents whose sons died in war, parents who are elderly and lived to bury their middle-aged children, all have a great need to know that others have experienced the emotions they are feeling and that these others are dealing effectively with both their bereavement and life.

But just as important as knowing you are not alone is knowing you can and must learn to carry on despite this most unnatural of disasters.

The death of a child is frequently called the ultimate tragedy. I believe this is true. But it is a tragedy that must not be compounded by allowing everything around you to die also. There are other children, mates, sisters, brothers, friends, who need and deserve to see you functioning well.

This book is intended to help you regain that level. (p. xii, xiv)


Although she gives some excellent advice, I feel like one of Ms. Schiff’s goals in writing this book is to encourage the grieving to “move on” as a recurring theme. For example, in the chapter entitled “Bereavement and Grieving,” Ms. Schiff writes:

Many of the negative patterns, unfortunately, are set during the weakest time – the most vulnerable time – for these parents. They are set during the early stages of grieving…It is during this early period, even though the pain is great, that we must begin to take the first steps out of the cocoon of mourning and back into the land of the living.

Although in no way should your grief be buried, it is important to take some positive steps. Do it slowly, trying to be gentle with yourself…It is important that no one neglect taking that first small step – and it should be a small one. That way, if you fall, it’s just a tiny way down. It won’t be terribly hard to climb back up again.

It’s something you can do. (p. 30-31)

She encourages dads to allow themselves to cry or to have lunch with friends or lead an activity, for mothers to put on lipstick or change their hairstyle. It feels as if she is trying to encourage bereaved parents to move on, to look for “something left to enjoy” that would penetrate their grief. Try something. If you fall down, get up and try again. “It’s something you can do.”

In the very first chapter of the book on the very first page, the author gives the biblical story of King David who, immediately following the death of his child, adorned himself with fancy clothes and put on a tremendous feast.

When friends asked him how he could eat with his child newly dead, he replied he had done all that was humanly possible while the boy was alive and now that he was gone, it was time to pickup the pieces of living and go on with life…The wise king had come to a truth that countless parents in pain have also found. The living must go on. (p. 1)

She also uses the example of the story of David later in the book, telling how their rabbi told this story at their son’s funeral.

He (the rabbi) made an excellent choice. He told the story of David and how he did everything possible for his son while the boy was alive, but, when the son died, David once again took up the business of living…It was a selection…[that] suggested a path to follow after the funeral — to attempt to emulate David and to take up life once again. (p.10-11)

Although I agree with her that we, as bereaved parents, can’t allow ourselves to become recluse, the whole get back on your feet and do something to get “out of the cocoon of mourning and back into the land of the living” early in the grieving process seems a bit premature. I feel that it puts undue pressure on parents to feel like they have to begin the “moving on” process as soon as possible following the death of their child, and it’s an unfair standard to impose on bereaved parents.

I feel, on one hand, Ms. Schiff is espousing a “new” (at the time) philosophy that it’s okay and healthy to grieve, while also seemingly to write from the accepted viewpoint at the time that a bereaved parent needs to figure out how to move on.

One interesting antidote Ms. Schiff gave regarding the perspective on grieving at that time:

One funeral director, who holds  a master’s degree in social work, recently went so far as to say that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, with her magnificent public stoicism at the funeral of the assassinated president, “set grieving back a hundred years. She created an example of dignity for the world that people emulated just as they emulated her dress and little dinner parties…not stopping to think that in private she cried…just as we all do.”

“Mrs. Onassis,” said the funeral director, “set a tone for grieving the people began to follow blindly — and one that became expected by onlookers. Some of my clients, bereaved parents, actually were ashamed of their own comparative ‘lack of control’ as this attitude filtered down to the general population.” (p. 16)


One other area where I feel Ms. Schiff puts undue pressure on the bereaved parents was in her chapter titled “Bereavement and Communicating.” While addressing the difficulty in knowing what to say to a parent whose child has died, Ms. Schiff writes:

It seems impossible to me to understand the cruelty of friends and family who desert parents at such a time. But in my research I found countless couples who had horror stores to relate, such as a brother, once close, who stopped calling his sister shortly after her child died, or friends who were never heard from again after the funeral.

…Perhaps the beginnings of this type of alienation lie in the awkwardness of not knowing what to say. This discomfort can create a million excuses for a friend or relative not to call a bereaved parent. One day falls hard upon another, and suddenly the friend looks around and a month has gone by without making the difficult phone call. Now, with the time lapse, along with the awkwardness comes the need for apology, and once again the evasion “too busy” to make that call takes hold. Soon, enough time has elapsed to make the problem so embarrassing that it’s simply easier to forget the whole thing.

I believe, after much investigation that, unfair as it may see, the burden for sustaining relationships rests with the bereaved parents. At a time when it is most difficult to do, they are placed in the position of having to take the initiative of making that first call, extending that first invitation…Strike a tone of friendship. Extend a friendly hand. People want to help. They just need to be shown how…By taking that first step, the danger is averted of the awkward pause that could last a lifetime…People are basically decent. My experience has shown they truly want to help. After all, it is most difficult to live with oneself knowing you have deserted a bereaved family.

But, as in may human endeavors, people need guidance. They need to be shown how. The responsibility for maintaining social relationships often comes to rest with the bereaved. We are the ones who must set the tone and pace for social relationships. If we don’t, we may find that no one will.

Contact your friends. Ask how family members are. Put people at ease by speaking freely…Invite someone over for coffee. Or suggest meeting at a restaurant for a meal.

…It is entirely possible – if not probable – that your first act of initiative will fail. In fact, you may fall flat on your face. But the second time you take the initiative will be easier until eventually you have mastered the art of communicating although bereaved. (p. 103-107)

I have to say that one thing I will never understand is how many people we thought to be good friends – and on whom we assumed we could count for support during the worst time of our lives – could have deserted us so badly and left us so alone after Jason died. Even when I reached out, I felt like I had my hand slapped away.

I realize that it is a very difficult thing to know what to do or say when a child dies. Conversation is awkward. People don’t want to do or say the wrong thing. But I entirely disagree with the assumption – even specific direction – that the parent whose child has died has to be the one reach out, to make the invitations, to take on the “burden for sustaining relationships.” With all the bereaved parent is dealing with, it’s just plain wrong and backwards.

It’s too easy a cop-out any more, in my opinion, to just say “I don’t know what to do,” and then do nothing or expect the bereaved family to give direction or reach out. Nobody really knows what to do, especially the family who has lost a dearly loved family member and whose lives have been entirely shattered. It’s all uncharted territory for everyone. We do notice who does and who does not walk with us. We notice who stepped up and who stepped away. We forgive, even without forgiveness asked, but we notice and remember.

This may sound harsh, but, when we, as bereaved parents and siblings, are at our most raw and most vulnerable, we don’t need to be deserted. People need to step up…and to continue stepping up. We may not hear them the first time – or even the second or third time – through the fog of grief or be able to respond right then, but we don’t have the energy to reach out to family members and friends and to teach them how to support us. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it should not be the norm.

There is a lot more information available now and a lot more research has been done on grief following the death of a child, as well as some very good information written about how to help a person who is grieving. One example is a book I reviewed previously titled “A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help,” by Ginny Callaway. In addition, various bloggers have written some excellent posts on ways to help a grieving friend. I feel like there is more than enough information for a friend who would like to “help,” if only one takes the time to look.


Regarding marriage, Ms. Schiff accurately writes that it is unrealistic to expect bereaved parents to be able to support and comfort each other. The “at least you have each other for comfort” assumption could not be further from the truth. Not only could Joe and I not adequately support or comfort each other or our surviving children, neither could we, as Jason’s parents, support or comfort Alina’s parents, even though our children died in the same accident and we certainly understood to some degree the true and deep extent of their loss. I felt a strong assumption by people we knew that this should be something we could provide for each other, and, because of that assumption, some people felt that they were off the hook to step up.

Certainly having each other for comfort would be the logical solution. Unfortunately, as a number of parents whose child died have discovered, it is impossible to give comfort when you feel an equal grief. (p. 6)

On marriage, Ms. Schiff also makes the assertion that “some studies estimate that as high as 90 percent of all bereaved couples are in serious marital difficulty within months after the death of their child.” (p.57) In my reading over the years, I have heard this statement refuted, so I performed an internet search on “peer-reviewed articles bereaved parents and divorce.” (Just a disclaimer here: Because I can’t afford to subscribe to academic sites or educational journal sites, I only have access to and use free publications, peer-review/pre-publication manuscripts, etc. I do, however, try to find reputable free publications.)

One article I found states:

One particularly frightening myth about parental bereavement is the myth that suggests that a high percentage of parents divorce after the death of a child. It is hard to imagine a more painful prediction following the death of a child than the suggestion that one’s marriage is also at risk. Yet countless married survivors have been exposed to this myth in some form.

Like many myths, nestled inside is tiny kernel of information that snowballed into its current, unrecognizable form. One of the earliest books on grief and loss, groundbreaking at the time, was The Bereaved Parent by Harriet Schiff, published in 1977. It was the first of its kind, and bereaved parents everywhere found solace in the words of a woman who was also on the grief journey following the death of her ten-year-old son.

…In the book’s chapter entitled “Bereavement and Marriage,” Schiff writes, “In fact, some studies estimate that as high as 90% of all bereaved couples are in serious marital difficulty within months after the death of their child.” Schiff doesn’t cite her sources, and subsequent analyses of the bereavement research of that time do not clearly indicate where that opinion might have originated. Yet somehow this relative innocuous statement about marital strains became a divorce “fact.” People began to perpetuate the notion that 90% of all marriages end in divorce following the death of a child.

In 2006, The Compassionate Friends organization addressed this question in one of their surveys. The results found that only 16 percent of parents divorce following the death of a child, and a significantly lower percentage (4%) said it was because of the death of their child.

In a study entitled “Bereavement and Divorce: Does the death of a child affect parents’ marital stability?,” one researcher (Torkild Hovde Lyntstad) looks at the negative effects of the death of a child on marriage.

The death of a child can be an extreme stressor for the bereaved…Bereaved parents generally assume a more negative view of the world compared to non-bereaved parents…Multiple studies indicate that the grieving period can last for a very long time, even indefinitely…The results of psychological studies of bereaved couples show that bereavement serves as a major stressor in the marriage and negatively affects many aspects of marital interaction.’_marital_stability

Yet another article, “Parents Positive Interpersonal Coping After a Child’s Death,” emphasizes positive evidence of marriages surviving the death of a child.

Despite the challenging context of grieving for the death of a child, evidence shows that it is possible for parents to manage and preserve their relationship…The death of a child can lead to marital distress and divorce…however, there is also evidence of resiliency in parents’ relationship. Research has shown that not only marriages can survive the death of a child, but that this loss may even contribute to parents’ greater cohesion and strengthening of their relationship.

Without a doubt, the death of a child creates some major stressors on all aspects of life, marriages included, and there has been considerably more research on the subject than when Ms. Schiff wrote her book. It’s important not to assume your marriage will fail as a result of the death of a child, but it’s equally important to be aware of the pressures that it puts on a marriage and to consider strategies on how to address these pressures.

In researching this section on marriage, I have read a couple of really good articles about the stress of grieving on couples and suggested coping mechanisms, and I will review them in another post.


One of the most difficult roles for a mother or father, when a child dies, is to continue being a parent to surviving offspring…Parenthood now becomes walking and talking and listening and hearing someone else at a time when it takes everything just to think for oneself.

Unfortunately, many surviving children suffer because their parents were unable to fulfill this responsibility, and the effects can be lifelong…A recurrent theme appears to be that the living children received precious little by way of comfort from their parents.

…Children who from infancy turned instinctively to their parents to ease hurts suddenly and in the worst possible light see another side of a mother or father…They expect solace from people who themselves need consoling.

…It requires enormous strength to deal with others’ hurts at such a time, but it is important not to allow a living child to feel alone. Use any reserve you have to take time through the initial grieving process to switch roles from the comforted to the comforter…Remember, your children are suffering just as you are suffering. They also fear the strength of their grief. (p. 83, 84, 91, 96)

In this particular chapter on Bereavement and Siblings, Ms. Schiff uses some of her personal experiences to explain the difficulties siblings go through following the death of a child. Even though she felt she and her husband had adequately supported their surviving children following the death of their son, she found out in interviews for this book that her surviving son, in particular, felt alone and unsupported in his grief. Their younger daughter had not been allowed to attend the funeral of her brother, and Ms. Schiff states her opinion that “nothing constructive can be gained by taking a child under seven to such a tragic rite.” (p. 95) As an adult, however, her daughter expressed anger at not being allowed to attend her brother’s funeral.

Entire books could be – and, since this book was written, have been – written on the subject of sibling grief. It’s difficult to cover this topic in just one chapter. Ms. Schiff gives some suggestions for talking to children of different ages and gives a list of do’s and don’ts, including asking leading questions to help children open up to talk about their grief and resisting making a deceased child into a saint, something impossible to live up to by surviving siblings.

Siblings are often called the “forgotten mourners.” Surviving siblings are asked by friends and family how the parents are doing, yet no one asks how they are doing. We were once again reminded of this recently on the anniversary of Jason’s death. Although I received some messages of support and remembrance, particularly in response to a Facebook posting, our daughter received no such messages of support or remembrance at all. This has been true from the very beginning since Jason died, and it just breaks my heart. Her grief at the death of her beloved brother was – and is – equal to ours, and she deserved – and still deserves – support that has been woefully lacking. This could be said of other surviving siblings, too, I would venture to say.

Functioning and the Rest of Your Life

The last two chapters of the book, “Bereavement and Functioning” and “Bereavement and the Rest of your Life,” are an encouragement to look beyond grief and into the future.

Functioning even at the simplest level is not easy after a child dies. In fact, it is a very frightening time. Suddenly, everyday things begin to loom large because your senses actually feel distorted…bereaved parents come to feel the whole world has come to a standstill during that initial period just after a child’s death. It is shocking to discover this is not the case. The world has gone on. Life has gone on. (p. 130-131)

She goes on to make some suggestions of how function in a world that has not stopped, starting with small tasks such as everyday chores, followed by small incremental steps “to bring something to life.”

When I began to accept the premise that functioning despite my sadness was like hiking with a heavy backpack that could not be removed, I underwent a marked change in attitude. I decided that I wanted to cope, to function, to walk through the forest, even though I was burdened by a great weight.

Mere survival, mere existence, is no longer enough for me and should not be for you.

Anyone can exist. But you have endured more pain than just anyone. You have undergone the ultimate tragedy. You owe yourself more than a shuffling-along existence. You owe yourself some surefooted living. (p. 139-140)

She concludes the book with an encouragement to not be concerned with what other people think you should do or not do, but rather to listen to your own instincts and to “concern yourself with functioning as best you can.” (p. 146)

Final Analysis

Although this book has some very good information, some of it felt a bit dated (i.e. Vietnam-era references, etc.) and the book feels like a bit like a product of its time, one when grief was thought that it needed to be “managed” as soon as possible. As I stated earlier, it’s as though the book is written as a mixture of “it’s okay to grieve” coupled with an encouragement “you have to find a way to move on.” While both of these are true, to be sure, they feel a bit too tightly compressed together in the book.

It’s important to remember, however, that at that time the generally accepted time period for grief was a few weeks to a few months after death.* Also worth noting, in my opinion, is that Ms. Schiff’s son died 1968 and that the Kubler-Ross book on the five stages of grief was written 1969, a book that took on a life of its own as the “norm” of how people should grieve or be expected to grieve. It is no small feat that Ms. Schiff wrote this book challenging some of the accepted norms of the day and speaking of her experiences as a bereaved parent. Kudos to her for tackling such a difficult subject at that time and writing this “groundbreaking” book. I feel it may have opened the door for many that followed.

As with all literature on grieving, it’s important to read this book through the prism of when the book was written and the author’s experience and point of view, taking from the text what is helpful to your life and letting the rest go. This also applies to whatever I write.


© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

*Rogers, Catherine H et al. “Long-term effects of the death of a child on parents’ adjustment in midlife.” Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43) vol. 22,2 (2008): 203-11. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.22.2.203


Question about Non-Profits for Helping Bereaved Parents

I have had a project in my mind for a long time – a non-profit for helping and supporting bereaved parents. I don’t want to duplicate what others have done, but I have wanted to do something to help. Whatever I do, I want it to be entirely relevant and workable.

What I have in mind is something that’s very ambitious – or at least could be in the long run – so I’m not sure if I have the wherewithal to do anything that ambitious, and I don’t think I can do it alone. My heart is telling me that now may be the time. I say that out loud with fear and trepidation, as I haven’t said those words to hardly anyone and I’ve never outlined what I have in mind to anyone.

So, my question is this: Do you know of any non-profit organizations that specifically help and provide resources for bereaved parents? If so, what is their focus, size, any other specifics? Could you please also provide a web link, if one is available? If you have started a non-profit, what has been your process/experience? If you don’t want to put anything public on this site, you can email me at

Thank you.


© 2017 Rebecca R. Carney

My Life in Boxes

Last fall, we went to Oklahoma to get the last of our things out of storage and to move them to North Carolina where we now live. They’ve been in storage for seven years since we moved from Oklahoma. We spent two days repacking things into smaller, uniform moving boxes and and once again whittling down our earthly possessions. Again. Deciding what’s important to keep and what’s replaceable. Again. Taking boxes and boxes and boxes of household goods, kitchen items and clothes to Goodwill. Again. I’ve done this process too many times and it’s hard on me every time. If I never again hear the words “we need to get rid of” or the phrase “Are you really keeping that???,” it will be too soon. It seems I always feel pushed into giving away something that really was important to me or that I later wished I had kept.

The last remaining things of our life in Seattle. The last remaining physical items I have that connect me to Jason. The history of our lives. Photographs. Scrapbooks. Christmas ornaments. Momentos of our lives when the kids were little. Jason’s chess set. A few books. A couple of my dad’s Bibles. Tax records. Important papers.

Less than 50 12″ x 12″ x 18″ boxes. Less than 50 boxes is all we moved. That’s all we have left. Seriously, that’s all we have left that we can call our own (since moving from Oklahoma seven years ago, we have lived in rented, fully-furnished one bedroom apartments in both Florida and North Carolina, so we don’t have any furniture, etc.). Less than 50 boxes. It seems like such a small amount of things that reflect the busy, fun, full life we had before Jason died and the big house and home that was so filled with love and activity. Sometimes it feels like my life has shrunk so small since then.

But, those items in those boxes also are a reminder that physical things are just that – things. They are just things. I lived without seeing or physically touching those things for seven years. Although those things may remind us of Jason and the time he was alive, there is no way those flat, one-dimensional items can truly reflect the real Jason – the awesome person he was, his intelligence and humor, his beautiful blue eyes, the many facets of his wonderful and Godly character, and his truly kind and loving nature. Those are things that can only be held closely and fully in our hearts and memories.

Holding you close in my heart and in my memories today, my precious boy. I miss you and I love you more than words can say. I look forward to the day I can see you and hug the real you once again.


© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

Trust, Once Broken, is Not Easily Mended

When the kids were little, I tried to teach them the incredible value of trust. Miriam-Webster dictionary gives one definition of trust as “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; one in which confidence is placed (my emphasis on words in italics).” Trust is the basis of our close, meaningful friendships and relationships. Trust is the basis of a successful relationship between employer and employee.Trust is imperative in the relationship between spouses and between family members.

imagesAs a way of communicating this intangible concept to the kids, I used a couple of visual examples to show the consequences of breaking someone’s trust. We set up a pattern with dominos on the dining room table, the kind where you touch the first one to knock it over and that starts a chain reaction of the rest falling over. I wanted to show them that one action could affect many things. One action can lead to broken trust and can create an series of unintended consequences, much like the falling dominos.

481000578I also showed them one of my glass flower vases and asked them what they thought would happen if I smashed it on the ground. We talked about whether or not it could ever be put back together again. Even if we were able to find all the pieces and put them back together (which would be highly unlikely), it would never look or function the same. Once broken, not easily mended.

In my last post, I wrote about secondary losses. Following the death of a child, one of these secondary losses can be the loss of friendship, either immediately following the death of the child or as times goes by. The saying ” grief changes your address book” is true.  Initially, people may not know what to do or say, so they stay away. As time goes by, people may get tired of how long it takes to “get over” the death of a child and decide to move on. Either way, it’s fairly common to lose friends following the death of a child. (The online magazine, Still Standing, has an excellent article on this topic.)

I’ve also written about the loss of friendship after Jason died. Losing friends following the death of a child is hard. I recently read an article about the psychology behind people leaving alone people in crisis. The article quotes Barbara M. Sourkes, associate professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine: “When you’re confronted by someone else’s horror, there’s a sense that it’s close to home.” Too close to home, I would add. The article also lists reasons people may disappear – people don’t like to feel helpless, awkwardness around crises, feeling too much empathy in picturing that it could happen to them or their children, or creating distance so that it doesn’t seem real (out of sight/out of mind), feeling guilty that they’re so glad its not them, or feeling like if they stay away from the crisis that it won’t happen to them. Whatever the reason is or whenever the reason people disappear doesn’t make the loss any easier.

In some ways, I think people were waiting until we were “better,” waiting until enough time passed until…what??…until we weren’t so sad? I don’t know. There really is no such thing as “getting better.” One gal told me she wanted to make sure we had enough family time. Christmas 2002, nearly 10 months after Jason died, we had a few more people that usual call. At the time, I felt like people felt like it was safe to try to reconnect, but we weren’t the same people they used to know. Those relationships just weren’t the same.

When people walked away from us, I lost a lot of respect for them. It was hard feeling abandoned by those we expected to support us. Trust was broken. Our confidence in their ability to be true, kind, compassionate friends was broken. Those relationships were broken because of the broken trust. It was hard to feel like they really wanted to be in our lives, that they really wanted to be true friends again. If they really wanted to be our friends, why would they have abandoned us? As I said in my “toolbox” post, I am very guarded. I keep my shield close at hand, ready to put it up to protect my heart. That makes it really hard to let people in and trust that they really do care. It’s a hard thing to start trusting again.

I’ve really tried recently to be more open and trusting. I’ve tried to remove bricks from the walls I’ve put up around myself over the years – walls of protection and self-preservation. I’ve tried to allow people into my life. I’ve tried to be friendly and open to new friendships. It’s a really hard thing to do, this allowing people to be close to me. I’m really guarded. I don’t know if they can handle the brokenness in my life. I don’t know if they will think enough time has passed since Jason died that it shouldn’t bother me any more. I don’t want to be judged or to become a project to be “made better.” I don’t know if they will accept me for who I am. I don’t know if I can trust them to be there for me. It’s just so dang hard for me to do.

I recently confided something in a gal I thought to be a friend. She immediately passed it on to someone else, who came to talk to me about it. It was a trust-shattering moment. I continue to try to forgive that breach of trust, but I no longer look at that friendship the same. I no longer feel that relationship is worthy of my trust.

Trust is a huge issue for me. I want to be trustworthy – worthy of people entrusting things to me, knowing I will handle that trust with care. I want to have people around me that are trustworthy – worthy of entrusting them with my brokenness and fragile heart, knowing they will handle my trust with care.

Things are no longer simple following the death of a child. Navigating this life is more like canoeing down rapids than paddling on a calm lake. We have to be diligent and careful moving down this life-path. It’s like our radar always is on, scanning for things that might rock our boat. For example, Jason’s birthday is coming up, and I have learned that things that don’t normally bother me might make me sad. I have to be aware of that. I have to be aware of emotional triggers.

I have to read what’s the content of movies or TV shows. After Jason died, I couldn’t watch movies or TV shows that had car crashes in them. I couldn’t watch loud movies. I couldn’t watch movies about children dying (still can’t). I can’t watch high stress movies or TV shows. When scenes are particularly tense, I still have to close my eyes and breathe deeply until the scene is over.

I have to determine if I can trust someone. I have to judge conversations with people I have just met as to whether or not I should mention Jason. When someone asks me about how many children I have, can they handle the fact that I have a child who died? Is this a passing conversation with someone who moves on or is this someone who might stick around a while? If I do talk about Jason’s death, will they disappear like people did just after Jason died? Can I trust this person enough with my heart to believe that they won’t inflict further hurt? Will they not shatter my trust? Who can I trust?

People make mistakes. I understand that. We are all human and need to extend grace to each other. I’ve worked really hard on forgiving those that have hurt us. But, I also understand that trust once broken is not easily mended. It’s hard to let people that have broken our trust back into our hearts and into our lives.  It’s just never quite the same. Once that glass vase drops, it’s hard to put the pieces back together.


© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney


Photo credits:

Domino photo –

Shattered glass photo –

Articles quoted:

miriam webster trust


The High Cost of Losing a Child

I think it’s safe to say that those who have not experienced the death of the child can understand, on some level, that it is a huge, incomprehensible loss. I’m not sure anyone outside the “club no one wants to join” – the “club” of parents whose children have died – can truly understand the impact of such loss, though. I would never wish that understanding on anyone, because that would mean they would have to walk this horrible walk of grief. But, I also think it is safe to say that there is even less understanding regarding secondary losses following the death of a child.

Before Jason died, I never could have imagined the walk we have had to walk. It’s been a rough one, and saying that is an understatement. Jason’s death has affected our family in so many ways. Our lives were shattered when Jason died. And then it seemed like so many other things have broken off and shattered, too, along the way. Friendships. Income. Loss of identity. So many additional losses. Secondary losses.

I think the whole secondary loss thing caught me by surprise. These additional losses were really hard to process. Friends who disappeared. People who avoided us. Questioning my faith. Too many losses to count. I’ve written about some of these secondary losses over the years. It’s difficult to understand how someone who has suffered such a huge loss would continue to have additional losses piled on top. Losses on top of more losses. It’s hard to comprehend and process so much loss. The secondary losses make the load of grief even heavier to bear.

I recently read a good article that talks about secondary losses. The author explains that secondary losses are a result of the primary loss. Our grief encompasses both the primary loss AND the secondary losses. The secondary losses are precipitated by the primary loss (the death of our child), but they become a part of our overall grief.


The author writes, “Though it is easy to think that our grief is solely the grief of losing the person we cared for so deeply, our grief is also the pain of the other losses that were a result of the death.” One grief, many  parts. Yes, I grieve Jason’s death. His death is the big, huge hole in our lives and is the main reason for my grief. But his death also created other losses that I grieve.  I miss friends I used to have. I miss our home. I miss the feeling of security. Had Jason not died, I would not have experienced these and many more losses. All of these secondary losses are interconnected to the primary loss to some degree.

The also author states, “Understanding the possibility of experiencing grief from these secondary losses can help build self-awareness and help identify complexities of our own grief.  Once we have identified these losses we are better equipped to face and mourn them.  We begin to understand that the whole of our grief is comprised of many parts, including the primary loss and the secondary losses.” (

I’m not sure I agree completely with this particular concept that we can build a self-awareness in order to be better prepared for secondary losses, especially right after the death of a child. And I’m not sure why there would be a reason to anticipate we would want to prepare for such losses if we didn’t know our child was going to die. Perhaps this would help in the event of a terminally ill child, but, wouldn’t the parent be dealing with enough anyway? I don’t know. Sometimes there’s just no way to prepare for certain things.

I don’t think it would have been helpful to me if someone had come up to me early on in this grief journey, right after Jason died, and said to me, “Just wanted you to be aware that you will probably experience additional losses in your life besides the loss/death of Jason, so you had better prepare your self for it.” I was so overwhelmed by Jason’s death, in and of itself, that I don’t think I could have handled it and probably would have rejected the concept of more loss. At some point, we all will deal with secondary losses; I guess it’s just a matter of timing. It didn’t help me, for example, when I went to a local Compassionate Friends group right after Jason died, to hear one gal say to me (after I had explained to the group why I had started to attend), “Oh, you’re just a baby (in your grief process).” I realize now that, at the time she said that to me, I was just a few steps into this journey and that I had (and still have) a long journey ahead of me. At the time, though, it was not a helpful comment and was poor timing. (I never went back to that group.)

But, I still think she has some good things to say about understanding and identifying secondary losses. I also think it’s important to understand that the primary loss of the death of a child can create secondary losses. Those secondary losses may be immediate or the may happen over time. For example, our loss of friendships was more or less immediate. Another mother told me that she had great support after the death of her daughter, but then nearly all of her friends disappeared over time as they got tired of hearing about her grief and felt like she was not “getting over it” quickly enough. No one will experience the same grief or the same losses, whether primary or secondary.

I hope you will take time to read the article: Secondary Loss – one loss isn’t enough??!! As always, I appreciate your input.


© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney


What’s in your toolbox?

I’ve always been a rather independent person. In junior high and high school (and even younger), I wasn’t one who longed to fit into the “in” crowd. I didn’t care particularly what people thought about me or whether I was popular or not. It’s not that I wasn’t friendly or didn’t have friends. I just didn’t live or die by the acceptance or rejection of other people. Besides, the fact that we lived 50 miles away from the junior and senior high schools I attended did not give me many opportunities to interact socially with my peers outside of school. For six years of my life, three hours a day were spent on a school bus, riding an hour and a half each way to and from school. I rarely had the opportunity to participate in after school activities or do things with friends after school. I read a lot of books, got all my homework done on the bus. I was a bit of a book worm, so, even during school hours, I would be found more often than not reading a good book in the loft of the library during free time instead of socializing. I participated in the things I liked (clubs, school musicals, yearbook staff, etc.) and didn’t sweat the things that didn’t work out for me to do. I was aware of being an outsider, but it really didn’t matter that much to me. Our church was 30 miles the opposite direction, so there were few activities outside of church, either. On top of that, until I was a junior in high school, we lived 2 miles outside of the closest town, which had a population of 200.

Both of my parents were school teachers in the same school I attended (my mom taught me in 3rd grade; my dad taught me in 5th, 6th and 12th grades). My dad was also the local Baptist preacher, so I grew up feeling like I had the word “example” stamped on my forehead. Preacher’s families had to look like they were perfect, you know. Teacher’s kids, too. As a teacher’s kid, especially in grade school, the expectation by others was that we should be good students and should do well in school. The funny thing is, when we did well in school, we would have people tell us, “You did well because your parents helped you.” When any of us didn’t do well, we would hear, “Why didn’t your parents help you do better?” Being both a teacher’s kid and a Baptist preacher’s kid in a state that has one of the highest Mormon populations (we lived 200 miles from Salt Lake City, UT) kind of set us apart a bit even further. So, growing up, we were pretty isolated and my closest friends and playmates were my brothers and sister. The day I graduated from high school, I was so glad to be DONE – done riding the bus so far, done driving to church so far, done having to always feel like an example, glad to be moving on to the next phase of my life, glad to be moving to a bigger city (Denver) with more people and more opportunities – that I literally walked out the door of the school after the graduation ceremony and never looked back.

As an adult, though, I realized that my independence in high school, coupled with the long distance from the social world of school and church, was a bit of a disadvantage in that it really had not taught me how to make close, lifetime friends. My problem was that, while I enjoyed having friends, they tended to be situational friendships rather than friendships that lasted a lifetime. Growing up, I had situational friends at school and I had situational friends at church. The friendships I had made operated within one or the other particular, isolated situation. That’s what I knew – situational friendships. I felt like I didn’t know how to make friends or how to be a really good friend outside of a particular situation. I decided to work on establishing deep and lasting friendships.

One of the problems with my “making deep and long-lasting friendship project” was that my independence and lack of proximity to social activities growing up had made me somewhat socially awkward. I’ve never wanted to be the center of attention or the life of the party. I tended to sit off to the side of groups, waiting for someone to befriend ME, to reach out to ME. I didn’t really know all the “rules” for making and keeping longterm friends. I tried all the typical friend-making things I could think of. I volunteered at church and in the homeschool groups. I served on the board of homeschool groups. I taught Sunday School classes. I set up play dates for the kids. I tried everything I could think of.

The thing about establishing a connection with some and becoming true friends is that it takes time. It takes a desire to be friends and a commitment on the part of both parties. Most importantly, I discovered, is that it takes room in the other person’s life for you. That’s a biggie. It has to be a two way street.

There was one gal in the church we attended that I really tried to become good friends with. Our kids were close in age, our husbands got along, she was a lot of fun and I really liked her. And so I pursued her friendship (not in a weird, stalking way; just tried to be available as a friend, hoping to develop a good friend). I babysat her kids whenever she asked me, we took her kids with us on outings, we invited them to do things with us. We became friends, yes, but it was definitely not an equal friendship. Have you ever felt like you were down the list a bit with someone when it comes to friendship? She already had a longstanding best friend…and a second best friend…and a third best friend…and none of them were me and never would be me. She already had a circle of close friends and really didn’t have room or the time commitment or the desire for another member. I was outside of that circle.

This really came to light when I invited her and her kids to dinner one night when her husband was out of town for several days. I went all out. I guess I wanted to show her that I could be a good friend when she needed one. I cooked a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, right down to homemade rolls and pies. It took me all afternoon to get ready. The time came for her to come to dinner…and we waited…and we waited…and we waited. She finally showed up two hours late with barely an apology. She had been at her BEST friend’s house and just didn’t bother to call me to let me know she would be late. I felt so unvalued and stupid for even trying. One other time she un-invited us at the last minute to her New Year’s Eve party (the one with all of the close circle friends, the “in” group at church) with an excuse that her oldest daughter didn’t feel like Eric liked to play board games and that really bothered her daughter. It was the first time we had been invited into the “in” group’s private activities. I just don’t think there was room for us.

Another time, a ladies activity was organized for an evening out and we all were to meet at the church. I showed up, along with a couple of other gals, and we sat in the parking lot for a while. Finally, we realized no one else was going to show up and so we went home. Later, we found out the location to meet had been changed, but only the “inside” group members had been called. No one had even thought about calling the rest of us. (I know we weren’t the only ones in the church aware of the “inside” group…and then everybody else.) It wasn’t on purpose; it just never crossed their minds to call us. They all had a great evening out, we learned, while the rest of us just went home. We stayed friends, as did the rest of our families and the families in the group and other people in the church, but I always had a keen awareness of where I stood in the friendship hierarchy. I also learned that it doesn’t do any good to pursue friendships with someone who doesn’t equally value you.

All of those situations were bitter pills to swallow, but I swallowed them (along with my hurt), put on a good face, and carried on. That’s what I’d learned growing up as a preacher’s kid, wasn’t it? To hide whatever is wrong and put on a good face; be the perfect example of…whatever. I hadn’t learned how to problem-solve within interpersonal relationships. I had learned to suck it up, deal with it privately, get over it, smile, and keep going.

So, why am I telling these stories? Because whatever tools that are in your toolbox at the exact moment your child dies – emotional, spiritual, experiences, upbringing, support, family, mental health, physical health, whatever the tools may be that are available to you – those are the only tools you have available to you as you begin your walk into the “valley of the shadow of death.” When a child dies suddenly, there is no time to develop the tools needed to handle that horrendous loss. What you have in your toolbox is all you have in your toolbox to work with.

For me, most of my friendships were still situational. I realized this fact when the kids were all in college, I was done homeschooling, and I was transitioning into a new stage of my life. No matter how hard and how many years I had tried to rectify my tendency to develop situational friendships, I hadn’t entirely succeeded in breaking that pattern. It didn’t seem as though those friendships were carrying over into the next stage of my life, and it made me very sad. I felt very alone. I started going to the ladies Bible study at church (we were going to a very large church by then), trying to connect with people there. I went early, talked to people, made notes of what we had talked about so I wouldn’t forget. I reviewed my notes before going each time, in case I saw the same gal again. I invited someone now and then to have lunch with me afterward. Sounds pathetic, I know, but I didn’t want to live my life without friends. Once again, I found people have to have room in their lives for you and that it takes time. I decided I needed to put my energy into going back to school to prepare for the next stage of life…and then Jason died two months later.

So, when Jason died, my toolbox contained mostly situational friendships, biological family that all lived a long distance away, a large church we attended where we were not well connected. Nearly all of those people did not or could not walk with us after Jason died. They all disappeared. It contained an independent view of myself. It contained self-reliance. I was viewed as independent and self sufficient by others, too. It contained a helpful personality. I grew up in a family that never asked for help (we were taught to be very proud our stoic, independent Norwegian heritage), and so I didn’t see myself as needing help. I was a person who provided help and support – facilitating organizations and meetings, organizing study groups and field trips, helping out when someone needed assistance, teaching classes, etc.; I wasn’t the person who needed support or help.

Some tools I needed were definitely lacking. My toolbox lacked a strong support system. It lacked family that lived close by. It lacked the ability to know how to ask for help. (When I did ask for help, I failed miserably.) It lacked the ability  to know how to confront situations and resolve them, instead of swallowing the bitter pills and carrying on. It lacked any knowledge on how to handle such deep grief. My toolbox lacked a lot of the tools I needed for the walk of grief ahead of me.

Thankfully, my toolbox contained a strong relationship with my daughter and husband. It contained the connection to a gal who, although we were not close at the time of Jason’s death, became and still is my best friend. I don’t know what I would have done without them. It contained my intellect and my commitment to get an education to prepare for the next stage of my life, having started back to school two months before Jason died. It got me out of bed and out of the house.

Out of necessity, I have developed other tools that are now in my toolbox. Not all of them are particularly helpful, though. I carry a big shield that I keep at the ready. I hide behind it at times. I guard my heart with it. It keeps me from being open and vulnerable, especially with new people and those who have hurt me. It’s one I developed out of necessity – one I developed early on when my heart was so raw and hurting, and the people we counted on could not be there for us, deserted us, and hurt us so badly. It protects me from not being hurt like that again. It also keeps me alone and makes it difficult to make new friends. It also contains a lack of trust, a lack of belief that other people have the possibility of having our best interest at heart. And so, I hold people at arms’ length. I’m trying to change that one, but it’s not an easy thing to do.

My toolbox now contains the tool of deflection. I learned early on that most people don’t know how to react to being told our son died. Some do not react very well. Some pretend like I didn’t even mention Jason. Some people get really awkward, and then start treating us like a pariah. Some people act like we are invisible and that they don’t see us.

The summer after Jason died, I ran into a clerk that I knew in our local Albertson’s. She only worked part of the year (summer), since she and her husband wintered in Arizona. As she helped me with my deli order, she was very friendly and chatted away. Then she asked, “How are the kids? What are they up to?” I hadn’t quite developed this tool of deflection yet and said, “I suppose you heard Jason was killed by a drunk driver earlier this year.” It was like someone slammed the door in my face. Her physical reaction was dramatic; she just sort of crumpled. She didn’t say another word, frantically finished my order, shoved it across the counter at me and tried to get away from me as quickly as she could. She was a mess!! I went behind the counter and gave her a hug. I didn’t know what else to do. She wasn’t being mean or anything; she just didn’t know what to do or say, I’m sure. I deflect talking about Jason’s death or steer conversations away from certain topics, not because I don’t want to talk about him or because I don’t care about him, but that I’d rather choose how and when I talk about the death of our precious boy. I don’t want to intentionally cause awkward situations. I guess I just need to make sure that Jason’s death matters to the person I’m talking to and that they can handle it. It hurts me too much to feel that someone doesn’t care that Jason died.

My toolbox also contains compassion. I no longer have the fear of talking to someone who has lost someone close. When I worked for a probate attorney in Oklahoma, I had no hesitation in expressing my condolences and asking how I could help. I could talk about the subject of death with the client. I’ve always been one who hugs people, but now I am no hesitant to step forward and hug someone who is hurting.

Although this certainly is nowhere near the complete list of the tools I had in my toolbox when Jason died, the tools I lacked when Jason died, or the tools I have developed since Jason died, I think you get the idea. We bring with us into deep grief – like tools in a toolbox – our upbringing, our personality, our experiences, our education, our emotional growth. We bring our attitudes, our strengths and weaknesses. We bring our connections to friends and family. Whoever we are to that point in our lives and whatever tools we have developed and have available to us at the exact moment our child dies, especially in the case of a sudden death, those are the only tools we have available to us at that exact starting point of our grief journey. It affects so much of how we grieve, how we react, how much support we have, how long it takes us to come to grips with who we are now and what the world around us now contains (or doesn’t contain). It affects whether or not we have PTSD.

It’s important to know that there are now (better than when Jason died) some really good resources out there, and some really good information for both the parent who child has died and those who know a parent whose child has died. I am so thankful for bereaved parents who write and talk about their experiences. By far, no two grieving parents have the same experience after the death of a child. We are all so different, our losses are different, and the available tools we have in our toolbox are different. We can learn from each other, though, and encourage each other. We can’t affect how other people treat us or whether or not they stick beside us. But we can talk about our experiences and what worked and didn’t work for us.

What’s in your toolbox? Would love to hear your input on this subject.


© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

Strong, Brave, Courageous

It’s fairly common for parents whose child has died to have someone tell them how strong they are. I think that perception comes from the fact that we are able to bury our children and still function. People see us greeting memorial or funeral attendees and wonder how we can stand up there and actually do that. They think we must be so strong. Initially, I think our instinct to behave as we have in the past takes over. We are numb, and so we instinctually try to act or react, at least for a little while, as we would have before our child died. It’s sort of like muscle memory.

Muscle memory is a term that means our muscles “remember” how to do something. It’s procedural memory, meaning we have repeated a procedure until our muscles automatically complete the task. For example, last May we went on vacation to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. One of the best ways to get around the island is by bicycle. Although we used to ride bikes a lot when I was a kid, I hadn’t been on a bicycle in nearly 40 years. I was nervous about riding a bike again after all those years, but I got on and rode as if I had never missed riding all those years. My body – my muscles – remembered how to ride a bike.

Muscle memory applies to a lot of activities we do – typing, skiing, writing, playing video games, playing an instrument, even walking. We don’t necessarily have to think about these activities, we just do them. I think it’s very interesting that Alzheimer’s patients may not even remember that they were musicians, but can sit down and play the piano or some other instrument.

At first, that’s what bereaved parents do. We try to act according to our previous patterns. We can’t keep doing that, because nothing is the same, but I think that’s how we start out.

I tend to organize and plan things. I’m not as organized as some people, but I spent years organizing homeschool field trips, classes, school schedules, etc. So, when Jason died, my instinct was to take the steps necessary to do what needed to be done. Honestly, I don’t know how I did it.

I went home and started calling people. Who else was going to call them? I had called Eric from the accident site, making sure he had someone else who drive him to our house. I called my sister. I called my mom. I called some of Jason’s friends. I called church people I thought of as extended family. I answered the phone when one of Jason’s tutoring students called and had to tell him Jason had died. I hugged and comforted people who came by the house. I ran to tightly hug Joe or Jenna when they collapsed and sobbed uncontrollably. They did the same for me. The rest of that day was mostly a blur. I was a mess. I had such horrible headache from crying. The next day, though, there were things we needed to do.

It’s strange. Think about planning an event – a party or wedding – and how much time and effort goes into such an event. Weeks, months of planning. Bereaved parents have only a few days to plan their child’s funeral or memorial service.

There is so much to do and so many decisions to make after a child dies. Choosing a place to bury your child. Choosing a casket. Choosing a headstone and what to put on it. Flowers. Visitation or no visititation. Open or closed casket. Funeral or memorial service. Private family graveside service, or open attendance memorial or funeral. Location, date, time of service. Officiant. Music to be played before and during the service. Asking people to participate in speaking or playing an instrument or singing. Choosing photographs for the video montage and music to accompany it. Picking out photographs or memorabilia to display at the service. Picking out what your child should wear. Picking out what you will wear. Trying to figure out where out of town guests would stay and who would get them from the airport. Talking to the officiant to plan the order of service. Deciding which newspapers to put notices in and what to say in the notices. On and on it goes. It’s overwhelming. We had a private graveside service and a open attendance memorial, so we had to plan two events. We made all of these decisions in a matter of a day or two. We had help with some things, but most of the plans and decisions were only ours to make. It’s just crazy for me to think about, even now.

While we were doing all of this, Alina’s parents were doing the same thing. After we made all of our plans, we found out (without any prior knowledge for any of us) that we had chosen the exact same casket as Alina’s family and a burial plot one space away from where Alina would be buried. The odd thing to me – and it has always seemed so odd – is that a person named Henderson is buried between them, and Jesse Henderson (don’t know if any relation) is the person who killed Jason and Alina.

Were we strong or were we just acting on instinct? Perhaps some of each.

I recently read a post on Mother’s Day that talked about how brave mothers are who have lost a child. I’ve never thought of myself as strong or brave. I see myself as broken. I shattered when Jason died, and I feel like I still have so many pieces missing. I’m still such a mess sometimes. I struggle and have lots of scars from Jason’s death and all that happened afterward.  But that post started me thinking of the paths bereaved parents journey after their child dies and some of the situations we encounter that are unique to our journey, and I just have to say that I have changed my mind. Bereaved parents: We ARE brave. We ARE strong. We ARE courageous.

We bury our children and keep on going. We try to find a reason to keep on living. We go back to school. We go back to work. We have to learn how to help others deal with our loss when we don’t even know how to help ourselves. We comfort others when we are are the ones in desperate need of comfort and understanding. We educate ourselves on the process of grieving. At times, we have to put on a mask to hide our grief or find ways to make our grief palatable to those around us. We deal with friends who disappear, either initially or after a while when we don’t “recover” quickly enough for their comfort. We endure people telling us what to do and how we should grieve when they have no idea what they’re talking about. We deal with the hurt when people pretend they don’t see us and choose a getaway down another grocery aisle. We forgive those who hurt us even when no one has asked forgiveness. We have to figure out how to find a new normal. We keep working on rebuilding our lives. We take care of our remaining families.

We deal with people judging us for how we grieve. We deal with people telling us we should “move on” or giving us a time limit of when “we should be over it.” We make allowances for inconsiderate people who don’t understand what it’s like to lose a child. We rejoice at the weddings or graduations of others, knowing our children will never have the same opportunities. We find ways to honor the memory of our children. We make new traditions for holidays while embracing memories of ones gone by. We write and speak and try to educate people on how to help others whose children have died. We live our lives, day in and day out, with broken hearts and a burden of grief we hope no one else will ever have to carry. We cry until we can’t cry any more, and then dry our tears to start a new day. We have walked such difficult paths when it seems others have walked easier ones. We may not do it perfectly, but we keep on going. We deal with so many hard things, but keep on trying. We get knocked down and get back up. We live. We love.

I would just like to say bravo to all of you bereaved parents out there. Most people don’t have to do what we have had to do. Keep trying. Keep walking. Keep writing. Keep speaking about your children and your love for them.

Hugs to each of you,


© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney