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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Loss of a Child

Most lives are filled with love and wonderful memories, that are unfortunately punctuated by periods of grief and sadness. For many, the highest joy we can feel is that of having a child; loving, and being loved, so unconditionally. It may be obvious then, the deepest pain we can feel is when as a parent, we lose a child.

Part of this pain stems from our belief the natural order of life is that parents precede their children in death much in the way parents have preceded children in the other stages of life. A friend of mine, who has lost three children, made several beautiful, poignant, observations to me as I prepared to write this column. The first of these observations is, “When you bury your children you bury your future.”

Another observation is, “To bury your children is not normal no matter their age or yours!” While I do not wish to put words in her mouth I believe she is telling parents who have lost a child, they are not going crazy; life has been turned on its head, but eventually, as one expert put it, “you will find a new normal.”

However, my friend also provides us gentle wisdom, “Don't obsess on the moment of their death, focus on their life instead or else you will be defining them by their death instead of their life.” Another parent who lost her 21 year old son to a drunk driver, passed on something I have written in the past in other circumstances, but in this context carry more power, “I am so glad I told him I loved him before he left. It is true be careful of what you say to someone. It may be the last words you speak.”

Both of these parents talked about enjoying talking about their children, the deceased and the living; however, they know that sometimes people are cautious or uncomfortable knowing how to go about it.

I feel the same inadequacy writing this column as one might have in talking to a parent who has lost a child. My advice is limited to the following: if you have lost a child, please seek out a support group. There are many out there, some faith based, others that are strictly secular.

Every parent I talked to that went to a support group found it helpful. Grieving is different for each person, and as such, takes its own path and its own time. There is no “right” way to grieve as long as the bereaved does not engage in destructive behaviors. If you have such concerns, address your concerns openly and honestly with the person and suggest they get professional help through their grieving process.

If you know someone who has lost a child, providing meals for a time and listening to the bereaved parents talk is very helpful. Encourage the remembrance of happy memories and share some of your own. Be aware of milestones, such as graduations, birthdays and anniversaries. A phone call or card can mean so much during these times. If the parents have other children, offer to spend time babysitting or just spending time with those children to give the parents a chance to grieve without the constant worry of taking care of other children.

In the end, the most important advice I have applies to all of us at all times. Love those around you; tell them constantly and unequivocally you love them with your words, and show them with your actions. Life is always too short for anything less.

Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. He is available for speaking events and workshops on goal setting, leadership, team building and romance, and is the author of Leadership For All the Mountains You Climb. He can be reached at

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