Happy New Year 2023

Another year in the books. As a parent whose child has died, I think I look at the year ahead differently than most people. Since Jason died, I feel like I always have somewhere in the back of my mind a dread, a feeling like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something else to go wrong. I used to be naive and believe I was protected or immune from such disaster and trauma. Now I know the most horrible thing I could think about can happen.

The last year has been difficult, much more difficult than I ever could have anticipated. We started off the year with my husband coming down with COVID on New Year’s Eve. Having had a heart attack, he was considered one of the high risk groups and I was really worried when that COVID test came back positive. Thankfully, he recovered very quickly and, after having one day of fever, was out sweeping the patio the following day.

The year proceeded with me losing one of my jobs and accompanying financial adjustments, Joe being required at his job to work outside in really hot weather and getting really sick from being overheated, watching difficult relationship struggles that broke our hearts and feeling unable to help, ongoing health issues. We still haven’t seen our son and his family in nearly four years. Our grandchildren continue to treat us as irrelevant and we are lucky to get a grunt “hello” when we talk to them.

In recent months, I have lost my older half brother and two cousins. Although I wasn’t really close to any of them, it’s still sobering to have those family connections gone. Death brings such a finality to relationships, no matter how close or not you are. The similarities between the death of my brother and the death of my mom were eery and mind boggling. It made me realize that, having died in the shadow of Jason’s death and the deep, traumatic grief I was experiencing, I really have not dealt with Mom’s death. On and on it goes.

As the year proceeded, we were so excited and looking forward to finally having a home of our own. It represented hope, something to look forward to, a place to settle and put down roots for now. It’s been a mixed bag of good and frustration, a process that has been super glitchy and a punch list – six months in – that still is not completed with no end in sight and words/concerns mostly falling on deaf ears. My expectations were not realistic. I guess needed this to be easy and it hasn’t been. I think I wanted someone to be able to see the great pain inside of us of the things we have walked through and help create a place where I can sort through the physical mementos I have had in storage from Jason’s life and put together some things to honor him, a haven where we could possibly heal a bit. No one can actually do that for another person. No one can heal your grief for you. Life doesn’t work like that.

I am thankful for what we have. I like our house and I am thankful for it. I know that there are people struggling and hurting so much more than we are. Although I struggle at times with feeling hopeful, I know there are those who feel like they have no hope whatsoever.

It took me a while took me a while to get into the Christmas spirit. Christmas always hurts my heart. We ordered a new Christmas tree for our new house. It was missing the wall plug when it arrived. They sent a new plug which was the wrong size. Then they sent an entire new tree. We pulled out Christmas decorations and ornaments that we haven’t seen in so many years. I’m not going to lie – putting the angel on top of the tree that was always Jason’s job reduced me to tears. By the time we got the new tree and got it set up, Christmas was almost here and we barely got it decorated in time for our daughter to arrive for a few days to celebrate with us. It ended up being a good Christmas together.

On this last day of 2022, I peer over the edge into the new year with some trepidation. It’s always difficult to think of starting a new year without Jason. It’s easy to sit and reflect, looking back over the years at broken dreams and how our lives would have been so much different had Jason lived. I’ve always been a hopeful, positive person but feel like I’m running out of years and experiencing diminishing hope.

We’re going to spend today taking the Christmas tree and decorations down. We want to set up a small in-home gym area in the garage and will work on that today, too. Organizing, planning and doing the best we can planning for a healthy, good year ahead and hoping for the best.

As always, missing you, my precious boy, with all my heart. Another year without you, but another year closer to seeing you again.


© 2022 Rebecca R. Carney

Between a Rock and a Hard Place – After the Death of a Child: Trying to figure out how keep on living

I originally wrote this post two years ago on July 12, 2018. It is a post that recently has been viewed a lot, more than many posts I’ve written so far, so I thought I would share it again. On the advice of a fellow bereaved mom, I have changed my original terminology in this post from “committed suicide” to “died by suicide.”

To end stigma of suicide we prefer it be “died by suicide” rather than “committed” which makes it a crime. It was a cry for help unheard.

~from fellow bereaved parent Kathy


Originally posted 7/12/2018


I recently got a text from a friend whose co-worker’s daughter died by suicide. When I told my husband about it, he said, “I don’t understand why anyone would [die by] suicide. Why would someone not want to live? Why would they want to die?” Joe is a very black and white person, while I have always been a person who sees both sides of a coin. When Joe was a young boy, his grandfather (the person for whom Joe was named) died by suicide. Suicide has never been something that he could get his head around.

After sitting there for just a moment, I told him that I could understand why someone wouldn’t want to live any more. Sometimes the pain is so great that it reaches a point where it seems no longer bearable. I told him that, right after Jason died, there were a few times when I just wanted to drive in front of a semi truck to end the extreme, crushing pain in my broken heart. I told him there were also a few times when I had to specifically and determinedly take just one sleeping pill that the doctor had prescribed and intentionally put the pill bottle away, because, when the pain and agony of losing Jason were so great and so overwhelming, I really wanted to take the whole bottle. I could hardly stand the pain of Jason’s death. It just crushed me. I had to specifically, determinedly, intentionally choose to live when the pain was so great that I just wanted to die. I realized that dying was not an option for me. Dying may have ended my pain, but I would have passed it on exponentially to those I loved and that was one thing I could not do.

I had to focus on living. There were days when remembering Jason, the wonderful, beautiful person he was and his love of life were the only things that got me through. There were days when only the thought of our daughter, Jenna, got me through. There were days when I had to find something of beauty to focus on. There were some days when I struggled to find something to focus on, but I kept on trying.

When I told these things to Joe, he said, “I didn’t know that. Why didn’t you tell me?” I didn’t tell him because I didn’t want to add to the burden of grief he was already carrying. I don’t like feeling like I’m a burden. It’s taken me 16 years to actually say these things out loud to him.

I know that I am not the only bereaved parent who has had the thought of wishing to die following the death of their child cross their mind, whether it’s just a passing thought or actually becomes a struggle to choose to live.  It’s just not something we talk about.

No one tells you that you may want to die. No one tells you that you may lie in bed and pray for your heart to stop. That even your most cherished and beloved children and husband may not be able to rouse you from the depths of your sorrow. That even the breathtaking sunrises and majestic shooting stars above won’t give you pause.

No one tells you this.

(Although written about the death of a sibling, this is equally true – if not more so – about a parent whose child has died.)




Parents of children and adolescents who die are found to suffer a broad range of difficult mental and physical symptoms. As with many losses, depressed feelings are accompanied by intense feelings of sadness, despair, helplessness, loneliness, abandonment, and a wish to die [28]. Parents often experience physical symptoms such as insomnia or loss of appetite as well as confusion, inability to concentrate, and obsessive thinking [17]. Extreme feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, panic, and hyper-vigilance can also accompany the sadness and despair.



Research on the impact of bereavement as a trauma has emphasized significant negative psychological and health outcomes. For instance, Stroebe, Stroebe, and Abakoumkin (2005) found that bereaved persons, especially those with extreme emotional loneliness and severe depressive symptoms, are at risk for suicidal ideation. Li, Laursen, Precht, Olsen, and Mortensen (2005) found that bereaved parents, especially mothers, were at increased risk for a first psychiatric hospitalization as compared with nonbereaved parents. In fact, maternal risk of hospitalization remained significantly elevated 5 years or more after the death. Using Danish national registries, these investigators also found that mortality rates were higher among bereaved than nonbereaved parents, particularly for deaths due to unnatural causes (e.g., accidents and suicide) within the first 3 years after the child’s death (Li, Precht, Mortensen, & Olson, 2003). Bereavement was associated with long-term mortality due to illness (e.g., cancer) for the mothers, presumably because of stress, a weakened immune system, or poor health behaviors (e.g., smoking, alcohol consumption).


Now, I’m not saying that all bereaved parents (or even some) are going to want to die or will have to be committed to a mental hospital or anything like that. What I am saying is that it is not an easy thing to do, this figuring out how to keep on living and finding meaning in life when your child has died. Besides my own experience, I can give three examples from my own life of people I personally knew who struggled following the death of their child.

  • The first is a woman whose children were part of the homeschool group when our kids were in grade school. Among other things, they were in a grade-school choir with our children. I lost track of her after we moved to the north end of Seattle and our kids grew up. After Jason died, I heard that her son, as a young adult, died by suicide. Not long after his death, she chose to end her own life.
  • The second is a woman whose son died when he was struck by a train the year after Jason died. At the time, what I remember people talking about is how, in their opinion, she was drinking way too much alcohol. This was less than a year after Jason died, and I remember thinking it was so unfair to judge her for drinking and that, if I had been so inclined, I probably would have been drinking too much, too. I don’t remember hearing sympathy or discussions of ways to help; I only heard judgment.
  • The third is a woman from the homeschool group we were in when our kids were in junior and senior high. Her son was born the same year Jason was and was in some homeschool classes and activities with our kids. He came down with aggressive pancreatic cancer as a young man – 21 years old, married with two small children – and died after a short, horrific illness. Going to his funeral was so incredibly hard for me. I sat in the back row in case I needed to leave in a hurry. Four and a half years after he died, his mom came down with a similar and equally aggressive cancer, dying within a few months after diagnosis. Both of them are buried a stone’s throw from where Jason and Alina are buried. (Because I had written the earlier article following the death of the young man hit by a train, after this young man died of cancer, I heard from several people how helpful a resource it was in their efforts to support his mom.)

The loss of a child is widely accepted as one of the most profoundly painful, intense, and devastating types of bereavement. It has been associated with heightened risk for various poor psychosocial and physical health outcomes, including psychiatric illness, existential suffering, marital problems, and even mortality…Grief also tends to persist longer among bereaved parents than for other bereaved populations, often lasting in some intensity for the remaining duration of the parent’s life…This longevity of suffering largely may be due to the struggle parents frequently encounter in making meaning of their untimely loss. Prior studies have in fact demonstrated that parents’ difficulties with finding meaning often persist for years, and for those who initiate a search for understanding but fail in their quest, the risk for poor adjustment increases considerably…

Following the loss of a loved one, individuals are often driven to search for meaning in both the loss and their lives…The loss of a child can be especially disruptive to one’s meaning structures; it is often perceived as “senseless” …and can rattle a parent’s sense of understanding about the way the world works and his or her purpose in life. Forced to transform their identity as a “parent,” a bereaved mother or father frequently faces a unique existential crisis…A large proportion of these parents must somehow reconcile an event that challenges the expected order of life events and threatens their sense of identity, purpose, and legacy as well as the very meaning of their child’s life…

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3745996/ – Please see original for citations; removed for readability purposes.

The fact of the matter is that every day we have to find a way to choose to keep on living. We may struggle to try to find some sense in the senseless act of our child’s death. Perhaps we find that elusive “meaning” or “purpose.” Perhaps we simply do the best we can with what we have and live our lives as best we can.

No matter what the circumstance, if you are struggling with finding a reason to go on, I hope and pray that you realize that you are not alone. Talk to someone – a pastor, a friend, a counselor. Call the national suicide prevention line (1-800-273-8255).

If the first or second or third person doesn’t really hear you, keep on trying. There are a lot of uninformed/misinformed, fearful (of deep grief) people out there, professionals included. I talked to a counselor (no idea how to deal with deep grief, not every counselor can be an expert on everything), I tried to talk to friends (yeah, a lot I could say there). I went to a Compassionate Friends meeting (awful experience, never went back). I called and left a voicemail for Jason’s soccer coach (who had lost two children in a fire, no reply). I eventually stopped trying, although I really wish I hadn’t. It’s a very lonely walk when you feel like no one wants to walk with you.

If you are one of those people who a bereaved parent reaches out to, don’t be “that person” who turns a blind eye or deaf ear or just disappears. Read books or articles on how to help. You may not be equipped or know how to respond or help. Be honest. Ask how you can help. Listen. Don’t give advise! Listen! Do something! If the bereaved parent doesn’t respond right away, try again later. And then try again later. And then try again. Don’t give up. And if the parent asks for help, do what you can to actually help or try to find someone who can help. If you say you are going to do something, then actually do it.

You have no idea how much effort it takes for a bereaved parent to actually reach out and ask for help. No matter how scared you are, the bereaved parent is afraid of this journey, too. No matter how exhausted you are, the bereaved parent is exponentially more exhausted. No matter how much you are affected by the death, the bereaved parent is affected more than you could ever imagine. It’s a long, difficult, lonely, scary walk. Don’t let them feel like they are going it alone.

You are in my thoughts and prayers. You are not alone.


© 2020 Rebecca R. Carney


Marriage following the death of a child

As I wrote in an earlier post, in 1977, Harriet Sarnoff Schiff wrote a book entitled The Bereaved Parent, and it was considered at the time to be groundbreakingIn the chapter “Bereavement and Marriage,” Ms. Schiff states, “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).” This singular statement and sentiment took on a life of its own (with no research shown to back it), and it became accepted as a fact that many marriages end after the death of a child. It was quoted over and over until it became regarded as the gospel truth – if your child dies, you more than likely will have serious problems in your marriage that may end in divorce. It is still a generally-accepted fact to this day.

After I read this statement in the book, since books and research I had read over the years questioned or refuted this “accepted fact,” I performed an Internet search on “peer-reviewed articles bereaved parents and divorce.” I found some very good information and thought I would pass it along.

The death of a child creates stress on marriage

So many research articles and books are prefaced with a statement along the lines that the death of a child is catastrophic, devastating, traumatic, stressful, shattering, and is generally considered the most painful loss a person could ever experience. Any parent who has buried a child would agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments – and could probably add many more.

The death of a child adds so much stress to every part of life – emotions, finances, relationships, worldview, faith. The list goes on and on, and marriage is one of them. That being said, just the fact that a child has died doesn’t mean the marriage will end nor does it mean it becomes stronger. The possibility is there for one or the other, though.

It’s important to remember, generally speaking, that whatever shape your marriage was in and whatever “tools you had in your toolbox” and resources available to you in the “before” moment your child died are generally the same or similar tools and resources in the “after” moment, except they may be somewhat more exaggerated or diminished. If your marriage was on shaky ground before, the death of a child could emphasize those cracks even more or it could bring you closer together.

While it’s true that bereaved parents are no longer the same person after a child dies as they were before, if one partner was more rigid or less expressive or one partner is more sensitive or emotional, an entirely new person with different traits is not going to show up after a child dies. We have to learn how to navigate our way through the stresses in our marriage exacerbated by the death of our child as the person we are now (and who our spouse is now) and with the tools we have at our disposal, the same way we have to learn to navigate the world without our child.

Support from spouse

Just as a bereaved parent has expectations that friends and family will support them after a child dies, so we tend to expect our spouse to be able to support us in our deep grief. Neither of these expectations is very realistic. The fact of the matter, as Ms. Schiff states in her book, is that “it is impossible to give comfort when you feel an equal grief (p.6).”

When friends and family avoid us or don’t want to talk about our child, we tend to turn to our spouse for support and comfort. Because a spouse is also grieving the same loss and may not be able to provide the needed support – and because spouses don’t usually grieve in the same manner – it’s easy for one or both spouses to feel alone and unsupported in their grief, in turn creating additional marital tensions and/or stress. This situation is also complicated by many other factors – to name a few: lack of energy, overwhelming emotions, unrealistic expectations, and wanting to protect ourselves AND our spouse from further grief and pain.

In their article, “Grieving Together and Apart: Bereaved Parents’ Contradictions of Marital Interaction,” authors Toller and Braithwaite write about what they call “grieving together-grieving apart.”

Bereaved parents expressed a desire to grieve with their spouse in order to provide each other with comfort and support. At the same time, parents indicated they sometimes needed to grieve on their own as their experience of grief was unique from that of their partner…We labeled this grieving together-grieving apart (p. 263).

For parents,…being able to grieve and share the pain of their child’s death with their spouse was of utmost importance. At the same time, parents recognized that their own unique and individual response to their child’s death meant working through the grieving process on their own. Although [they] wanted to grieve together, both acknowledged that they each had to honor their individual grief as well.

Although parents wanted to grieve together and also honor their own individual needs, parents reported that grieving together was difficult due to the differing ways in which they and their partners approached and even expressed their grief…In addition to differing approaches to grief, parents reported that they and their partners also expressed grief in disparate ways, which influenced their ability to grieve together with their spouse and increased their perception that they were grieving more apart…This created conflict for many couples and left them believing they were alone in their experience of grief (p. 264).

There are some steps that can be taken to reduce some of these tensions. In their article, Toller and Braithwaite gave the following suggestions – accept individual differences in grieving, compromise, find alternative ways to communicate, and seeking outside help.

Accepting individual differences in grieving

One important issue for a grieving parent is to feel like their grief is important, that it is validated and not diminished or overlooked. When friends or family say things like, “Your child wouldn’t want you to be sad,” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” or the myriad of other unhelpful and hurtful comments we hear or read, a bereaved parent is made to feel that their grief is diminished or unimportant. We can write off these comments as uninformed or spoken by someone not really knowing what to say, but within our immediate families – our spouses, in particular – it’s particularly important to feel that our grief is validated and understood.

For some bereaved parents, managing the tensions of grieving together-grieving apart meant viewing each other’s way of grieving as inherent to the very nature of grief. Understanding and accepting one another’s grieving style allowed parents to honor their individual grieving needs. At the same time, accepting their individual needs resulted in parents feeling validated by one another, which in turn helped them to be more connected as a couple, consequently making it easier for parents to grieve together as well…Accepting one another’s grieving needs was not easy, but many parents believed it necessary in order to keep their marital relationship intact (p. 266).

Another important thing to realize is that, although you may both have been parents to the singular child who died, your relationships with that child were different and that will affect your grief. Your hopes and dreams and expectations for your child may have looked different than your spouse’s. Your experiences may have been different.

For my husband and I, I spent different hours of the day with Jason than Joe did. I homeschooled the kids, so the things we did during the day were different than the things Joe did with the kids when he got home from work. Yes, we shared some similar connections and activities together at times. But, there were a lot of things I did with the kids while Joe was at work, and so I have different connections and memories. I hear a song on the radio, one that Jason and I listened to as I took him to catch the bus to college, and I am flooded with memories of both of us singing at the top of our lungs as we drove along. The memory brings tears to my eyes whenever that song plays, but Joe doesn’t really have a connection to that song. Joe has memories of teaching Jason to swim and ride a bike. While I have memories of watching Joe play football in the backyard with the kids, Joe has memories of actually playing with them. Different experiences with the same child; different memories and relationships. Different grief.


This is exactly what it sounds like. In relationships, we compromise all the time, finding ways to do something together that is important to the other person (that may not be our favorite thing to do) in order connect and show that person how much they mean to us.

The same is true with grief. Although effort may be hampered by lack of interest or energy, there are ways to find areas to do things together or to honor each other’s grief. They don’t have to be huge. It could be going to the cemetery together or going for a walk or looking at photos. Whatever is important to one person or the other for validating their grief.

One example from our lives was church. After Jason died, I experienced some bad PTSD symptoms. I could hardly sit in church (or any place that felt restrictive to me) without feeling trapped and panic-y – a flight or fight reaction. Because it was important to Joe to continue going to church consistently, I made the best effort possible to go when I felt like I could. Joe, on his part, had no problem with us sitting in the very back row closest to the door so we could leave whenever I needed to. He also was very understanding when I just couldn’t bring myself to go.

I would add one word of caution here, though, and that would be the word “mutual.” Sometimes, one partner has a stronger personality and may inadvertently be more dominant in the compromise arena, causing a partner with a less strong or more giving personality to be mowed over a bit. Joe is a much more opinionated, black-and-white person that I am, and I am a giving person who sees both sides of the coin. I would have to say that this combination did affect my grieving process in a not-so-good way for me, in particular, and there are some things I wish I had done differently instead of giving in to his wishes and putting his needs above my own. It’s really important to listen carefully to each other and actually hear and understand what the other person is saying regarding their grieving needs.

Finding alternative ways to connect and communicate

Communication doesn’t necessarily always happen verbally. In their article, Toller and Braithwaite cover some alternative ways to communicate and connect with a spouse when talking doesn’t seem to be an option.

…A number of parents found it difficult to be verbally open with each other about their child’s death. As a result, parents were closed with each other verbally, but shared thoughts and feelings non-verbally (270).

Some of the alternative ways of communicating are letter writing, holding hands and hugging, and other forms of touch.

For my husband and I, it seemed at the beginning we tended to rush to each other and hold each other as we cried. Those first days and weeks, I would hear Joe start to sob and I would just run to him to hold him as he cried. He did the same for me. We are still much more hand holders than we used to be and take time to hug and encourage each other with non-verbal communication.

Seeking outside help

“Outside help” is a pretty broad term. It could take the form of friend or family member with a listening ear who may walk beside us when our spouse is unable to do so. It could be a clergy or pastor. It could also be a licensed professional, either meeting individually or as a couple. It could also be a support group such as Compassionate Friends.

Regarding support from someone who has walked the walk, Gordon Riches and Pamela Dawson write in their article, “‘An intimate loneliness’: evaluating the impact of a child’s death on parental self-identity and marital relationships”:

Daily life is predicated on the minute detail of route tasks, family rituals and recognizable features of domestic living. The death of a child destroys this mental landscape as profoundly as an earthquake shakes one’s belief in the physical landscape. Research evidence suggests that support from others who have survived similar catastrophes can be of value for both parties. The supporter continues in the lifelong project of re-creating a lost certainty, and the newly bereaved has a model and potential guide through this unfamiliar landscape (p. 12).

For me, this was one area I wish I had pursued further. With our extended families living so far away and nearly everybody we knew disappearing, I really needed some outside support. I needed support, period!

I did try. I attended a Compassionate Friends group for mothers – with disastrous results. I reached out to Jason’s soccer coach and his wife who had lost two children in a fire, thinking they could give me some pointers on how to walk this horrible walk without my precious boy, but got no response at all to my voicemails. I reached out to church people we knew and told them how lonely we were in our grief, with very, very limited results. I tried to communicate to our homeschool group that we were dealing with this deep grief all alone, but felt like it fell on deaf ears. Our daughter and I went to a counselor once, but felt like this person really had a disconnect and lack of understanding for people who deeply grieve. The only person who I felt really heard my grief was my physician, and he gave me sleeping pills and antidepressants. I eventually gave up and figured I had to handle it on my own. Looking back, though, I wish I had found a counselor who could help me deal with some of the issues I encountered in my grief. I think it would have helped me.


Much more research has been done since Harriet Sarnoff Schiff wrote the book The Bereaved Parenting in 1977. If this is a subject that interests or is affecting you, please take time to read the articles linked below. If you know of any other good books or articles on the subject, please feel free to comment.

~ Becky

P.S. For simplification in writing, I have written in terms of a married couple, although this could apply to other relationship connections.

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney


Toller, Paige & Braithwaite, Dawn. (2009). Grieving Together and Apart: Bereaved Parents’ Contradictions of Marital Interaction. Journal of Applied Communication Research – J APPL COMMUN RES. 37. 257-277. 10.1080/00909880903025887. https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1014&context=commfacpub

W. Toller. “Using Communication to Cope with Loss” Communication Currents Vol. 4 Iss. 4 (2009) https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=commfacpub

This is a study commissioned by the Compassionate Friends in 1996: Riches, G. and Dawson, P. (1996), ‘An intimate loneliness’: evaluating the impact of a child’s death on parental self‐identity and marital relationships. Journal of Family Therapy, 18: 1-22. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1467-6427.1996.tb00031.x


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.


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


“It Never Becomes Okay”

A recent article stated that legendary actress Vanessa Redgrave is “still coping with the loss of her daughter Natasha Richardson.” Her daughter, Natasha Richardson, died in a skiing accident ten years ago. The article goes on to quote Ms. Redgrave as saying, “Time does not heal; that would seem to me to say that suddenly it’s OK, and it’s not…It never becomes OK.”

Any parent who has lost a child would agree that “it never becomes okay.”


© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

‘Tis a Fearful Thing

‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch

A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –

to be,
And oh, to lose.

A thing for fools, this,

And a holy thing,

a holy thing
to love.

For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.

To remember this brings painful joy.

‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.”

Judah Halevi

For a parent whose child has died, the awareness that death CAN touch the people you love at any time is greatly enhanced. Before Jason died, I innocently was unaware of the ravages and searing grief the death of a child can leave in its wake. I guess I felt immune. I felt that God heard my fervent prayers and protected my family. My life had a plan. My kids were going to grow up, go to college, get married, have grandkids for us to love and spoil.

It never dawned on my that one of my children would die – at least not before me, not as a healthy, wonderful, handsome 19-year old with the whole world before him. I was so excited for Jason as he was ready to enter the next phase of his life – finish and graduate from college, get a job, get married, have kids. I couldn’t wait to hold Jason’s kids. I was looking forward to rejoicing with him on the various aspects of his life. He was my sunshine, my joy, my precious boy. I didn’t expect him to die. I didn’t expect to outlive him. I didn’t expect death to touch him.

For a long time after Jason died, panic and fear gripped my heart with each siren I heard.  I tend to worry about things concerning my family, anyway – Joe climbing on the roof to clean the gutters, Jenna driving a long distance, stuff like that – but now, there’s an understanding of stark reality behind the worry.

In some respects, I suppose it’s like anything traumatic – you don’t know the walk until you’ve actually walked the walk. We all know on some level of subconscious understanding that people we love will die. We know to some extent that it will be hard to lose someone we love and that we will grieve their death. We assume we will outlive our parents, our grandparents, but know that at some point they will die before we do. We just don’t expect our children to die.

I love my family so much. It is a fearful thing to realize that I am not immune from death’s reach, that they are not immune, that death can reach out and touch the ones I so dearly love. I don’t live in fear, but sometimes the window cracks open to that fear, because I truly know beyond a shadow of a doubt that death can reach out and touch any of those I love at any time. We are frail human beings. Jason worked out at the school gym and played various sports. He took care of himself. He was smart and wise beyond his years. He was physically strong. But he was physically no match for a speeding car driven by a drunk driver.

As I sat across from my husband in the Wild Wing Cafe yesterday, watching the Carolina Panther football game on the big screen TV’s, I felt a huge rush of overwhelming love for Joe. He is such a wonderful man and I love him so much. He is kind, thoughtful, fun. That rush of love was followed by the thought, “I don’t know what I’d do without him.” I seriously don’t know what I would do without him, and the thought of that gripped my heart with anguish. It is a fearful thing to think of a life without him. It is a fearful thing to think about living without any of my family.

Because Joe is retired and I am still working, Joe will call me quite often when he is close by to see if I would like to have lunch. I say Joe is retired, but he has never been one to sit still. He helps our older neighbor around his house and yard, he drives for Uber and Lyft, he helps out around the office with whatever may need done in the maintenance area. He likes to stay busy. I’m sure it seems odd to the people in the office that I go to lunch with Joe as much as I do, but I truly appreciate every moment I have with Joe.

In the whole scheme of things, we are rather frail, fragile creatures. No matter what precautions we take, there are a lot of things beyond our control. We and the people we love are given only a certain number of days. Our days are finite. We are given only a certain number of days with the people we love. I never, ever would have thought in my wildest nightmares that I would have only 7,157 days with Jason. We have to do our best to make each and every one of our days count, and to show the people in our lives how much we care for and appreciate them.

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12

Remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered–how fleeting my life is. Psalm 39:4


Oh, my boy. How I miss you. “Your life has lived in me, your laugh once lifted me, your word was gift to me. To remember this brings painful joy.” ‘Tis a painful thing that death reached out and took you from us. I love you yesterday, today, forever. ~Mom


as always,


© 2018 Rebecca R. Carney

Welcome Home

As a mother who has two children waiting for her in heaven, this made me cry. I look forward to that day when I will see Jason again and meet the baby we never knew. (By the way, just a reminder that this is not about politics. It’s about the death of a child and a joyful reunion.)


Credit: https://www.facebook.com/marshallramseyfanpage/posts/1665775960142290?hc_location=ufi

A death more painful than her own:


© 2018 Rebecca R. Carney