How do you absorb what is universally regarded as the worst pain in the world, which is the death of a child? Not easy. Not. Easy. But people do, remarkably, and how they do it is what Andy Steiner explores in chapter seven of her resiliency and mental health book How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People. In it Andy introduces us to a most courageous woman named Pat.
Unnatural: How to Survive the Death of a Child
When she was thirty-one, Ann, one of my closest childhood friends, died of bone cancer. She was buried in a quiet cemetery on a lake just outside the small town where she grew up, married, and raised her daughter. A few years ago, my elderly uncle died, and I was back at that same cemetery for his memorial service. Later, after the mourners had drifted away, I went off to look for Ann’s grave. It was right where I’d remembered it, a thick granite stone inscribed with Ann’s name and the years she was born and died. As I reached over to place my hand on the sun-warmed stone, I saw another, newer marker. The gravestone bore Ann’s mother’s name. She’d died eight years after her daughter. Those side-by-side gravestones, daughter and then mother, troubled me. I remember Ann’s mom, Joanne, as a hardworking, sassy wisecracker, a parent who’d decorated their small house for every holiday, who’d had a laugh like a barking seal, who’d doted on her only daughter.
On birthdays and Christmas, Ann’s mom bought her what looked to my young eyes like mountains of presents. While my busy mother thought one sweater was sufficient, Ann’s mom bought her three—in different colors, plus matching socks. Their modest house had two bedrooms and a partially finished attic. Ann and her parents occupied the bedrooms; her two brothers’ room was in the attic.
I still remember when Ann’s parents bought her a canopy bed. A grade-school girl’s dream, the white-and-blue beauty was purchased on something exciting called layaway; when the bed was finally delivered, Ann’s dad set it up in her room. It looked like a princess’s chamber.
Decades later, Ann died in that very same room. I visited her house on the day she passed; I can’t remember if Ann lay dying in her canopy bed or in a rented hospital one, but I do remember Joanne, her eyes red and tired. She was standing in the kitchen, by the sink, taking a break or getting a glass of water, when I came in the back door. As Ann grew sicker and weaker, visitors had been coming and going for days. I hadn’t seen Joanne since I’d graduated from high school and left for college, so I wasn’t sure if she remembered me, but I handed her two old photos of Ann I’d taken back in high school. In both, Ann was smiling her wide, goofy grin. She looked young, healthy, and vigorous.
In the other room, my old friend was in bed, her breathing slow and shallow. I sat next to her for fifteen or twenty minutes and thanked her for being my friend. I put my hand on hers, told her I’d miss her, that the world would be a sadder place without her.
Later, as I was leaving, Joanne looked at my pictures and sighed. “It’s so hard,” she said, gruffly, rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand. And that was all. I never talked to her again.
What happened? Ann’s dad, Don, is a quiet, soft-spoken man who still lives in the same house where his daughter died. He retired from his factory job years ago, and since his wife passed away, his life has been quiet. When I ask him about what happened to Joanne, Don’s answer is simple.
“She was never the same after Ann died,” he tells me. Joanne lived eight years longer than her daughter, but, Don adds, “after Ann, it was like she just kinda gave up.”
Ann’s cancer was cruel and painful, with chemotherapy, radiation, and, ultimately, major amputations. Joanne was there for her every moment of the ordeal. Because Ann could no longer climb the stairs to her bedroom in the home she shared with her husband and daughter, she moved the few blocks back to her childhood home when she entered hospice, taking up residence in her old room on the first floor.
On the day of my visit, Ann died several hours after I left. Her family was by her side. Joanne, who brought Ann into the world, was also there to help her leave it.
“That was a tough one to bear,” Don says, his voice faltering. “It’s heck watching a child die.”
Pat Loder understands more than anyone that the death of a child feels terribly, painfully wrong. In 1991, when her children were five and eight, they were killed in a car accident. Loder, who was driving the car, survived.
For months and years after the accident, Loder and her husband struggled to right their worlds. Nothing felt normal and it felt like it never would again.
“For a parent, having a child die is out of the natural order of things,” Loder tells me one quiet morning. “We expect that we are going to bury our grandparents or our parents. We even make plans for those events. We make a will and buy life insurance in case our spouse dies before us. But losing a child is such an unthinkable that your mind never goes there.”
Even after the accident, Loder continued to avoid such thoughts. The car was struck by a speeding motorcycle, and while she suffered only minor injuries, both of her children were trapped in the car. As she waited for the ambulance, Loder says, she never even thought that her children’s injuries could be fatal.
“Here I am bleeding and sitting on the side of the road,” she tells me. “I knew my children were unconscious in that car. I never, never thought they were going to die. My mind did just not go there. As a mother you just don’t think, ‘My child might die.’ You are the one that sits there and holds them during the night when they are sick. You don’t think, ‘My child could die.’ This was the unnatural order of things.”
But both of Loder’s children did die, her son at the scene, and her daughter in a hospital hours later. The experience was utterly devastating, and for weeks Loder and her husband, Wayne, could barely function.
“After the children died, my day was spent rolled up in a ball on my bed or on the floor in the living room,” Loder recalls. “I would just cry and cry.”
It was during this time that someone told Loder’s husband about Compassionate Friends, an international organization for grieving parents. The couple owned a hardware store, and a customer dropped off a “Dear Abby” clipping about the group. There was a chapter in a nearby town that met monthly.
Loder wasn’t interested. “My feeling at the time was ‘Take me anyplace but don’t take me there,’” she tells me, “because I felt that if I went to a meeting like that I was going to be asked to relive the worst day of my life. That was not a day that I wanted to share with anyone. I was a very private person and sharing the details of the worst day of my life, all of the thoughts, feelings, flashbacks I was having felt intimate and scary. I didn’t think there was anything that was ever going to help me get better.”
But eventually, after much discussion, the Loders decided to go to a Compassionate Friends meeting. At first, they weren’t sure they found any benefit.
“I had built a high wall around myself,” Loder says. She built the wall partly because she felt like the help that others were offering did nothing but hurt. Nobody understood what she was going through.
“After the death of a child, friends and family want to help you,” Loder tells me. “They want you to be the old you again. But you can’t be the old you anymore.”
Her life would never be the same, and other people didn’t want to accept that.
“The old me was the mom who built her life around her two children. When you are at work, you plan for when your children come home from school and day care, and all of a sudden a trip to the grocery store became a horrendous thing. You have to cook for two, no longer four. They are no longer there. You become this jumble of trying to find out who the new you is. At the same time, you are also trying to desperately hold on to the old you. When your children die, you think maybe you can get back the old you, but you can’t because your life is so different. And nobody understands.”
Excerpted from How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People. All rights reserved.