The loss of a child

Even though I worry about losing one of my children and I occasionally have nightmares about it, I have never experienced the death of a child. I hope I never do. Sometimes in my dark imaginations, I try to picture what it would feel like, how I would react, how people around me would react, and I speculate about what I could and could not handle.

I recently finished reading a book called In His Hands: A Mother’s Journey through the Grief of Sudden Loss by Jenny Hess. She explains in great detail her experience with grief after the tragic death of her 4-year old son, Russell, just a few short years ago. I hurt for her, I admired her, in some ways I understood her, and I definitely learned a lot from her story. Here is a description:

With the sudden loss of a loved one comes an unavoidable fork in the road. Some succumb to anger and despair, while others seek strength in the healing power of Jesus Christ. When faced with paralyzing sorrow, how can one truly find peace and perspective? In His Hands offers a candid portrait of grief in which one family fights to find a way out of the black hole of grief and into the arms of the Savior. Author Jenny Hess invites readers on her journey from heartache to healing, from the shattering loss of her young son to her personal quest for hope. With grace and wisdom, the heavenly insights gained by one woman navigating through her darkest hours demonstrate that though grief is achingly painful, there are tender mercies to be found along the path.

In His Hands

I cried through most of the first three chapters. This book made me think deeply about two things– 1) Would I grieve the same way she did? I don’t think I would, but I’m sure there would be many similarities, and yet, I simply do not know. I can’t possibly understand what it’s really like unless I’ve experienced a related loss myself. And I don’t want to. Her experience confirmed that for me–it is a dark and ugly path that I hope to God to never have to tread. Her story taught me a lot about all of the many ways that a person and her relationships can be affected by grief. There were so many more emotional, spiritual, mental and even physical levels to it than I ever imagined. I hope that if I ever found myself facing the death of a child… well, I hope I could come through it like Jenny did, and still is. With faith and trust despite the hot pain.

The second thing I thought about was this: 2) How can I help people who experience grief on any level? The scriptures teach us to mourn with those that mourn and to comfort those that need comfort. Her story taught me a great deal about things to do and say and not do and not say when someone is grieving a deep loss. I ate up her examples about things that were helpful and thoughtful to her. People brought meals, ran her errands, made and gave gifts reminiscent of her son, offered gifts and letters and encouragement to her living children, visited her, called her and checked on her, asked her how she was doing and really wanted to know, and were not afraid of her or afraid to talk about her son. People also did and said well-intentioned things that hurt her. I realized that there needs to be some balance between moving on with normal life and also acknowledging the loss and identity of the deceased. I know that people mourn differently, and things that were helpful to her may have been hard for someone else, so I see the value of listening the Spirit and acting and not being afraid to ask questions about what might really be the most helpful or what is hurting the most.

I hope that I will be a better comforter and succorer after reading Jenny and Russell’s story. I think she is incredibly brave. Having written a book myself, I know something of the vulnerability that comes with the territory, and she was very honest and raw with the things she experienced and felt. I know that–although cathartic–it must have been incredibly difficult to do and I’m sure there were fears about how it would be received.

I do not know if Jenny will see this review, but thank you, Jenny, for sharing your journey. It seems that one of your fears is that Russell will be forgotten, but having read your story, I now know Russell even though I never met him. I will remember him, and I think everyone that reads will think about him and continue to keep his memory alive. And thank you for your beautiful testimony of God’s love and plan for His children.

To any of you who have experienced loss or had a front row seat to the loss of a loved one, what are some things that people did or said that was helpful to you? Or meaningful? I would love to have an army of ideas to add to those that Jenny shared in her book because I learned that the healing process is a long and painful road. I want to be someone who makes it better any way I can.


12 thoughts on “The loss of a child

  1. I lost my first daughter, my first child at 8 weeks of age to SIDS and then 13 years ago my husband passed away while I was 6 months pregnant with a very unexpected blessing and 3 other children at home.

    I don’t think I will ever stop grieving the lost of my daughter. Suddenly the saddness comes upon me now even 32 years later. Interestingly though, I feel my husband’s presence quite frequently. My son serving a mission says he’s been aware of his father at times. We went on a family vacation to Florida, my husband’s favorite destination. The kids remarked through the entire week that they knew dad was along for the fun and it was the best vacation ever.

    I think we need to realize everyone needs something different as they grieve. I am a private individual. I shoulder on with the work I have to do. I needed peace and quiet to grieve when my husban died and it was very difficult because I didn’t get it. I just had a hard struggle when my daughter passed. I was so distraught and I don’t know how to explain it but there was such and emptiness in my life. I think it was just hard and I don’t think anything would have helped much but eventually the pain dulled and life was more bearable.

    I think it would have helped me immensely when my husband died if people would have taken a greater interest in helping my kids. I didn’t need another casserole but I would have loved for people to invite my kids to a movie or swimming or just occupied them while I sorted things out. It was so difficult to be pregnant (and 41) with a 16, 12, 9 year old, a newly formed business to worry about and my own grief. It was almost overwhelming but once again we managed to get through it.

    I ask people, “If someone could do something to help you right now what would it be?” If I can’t do it I try to find someone who can.

    Just remember people grieve differently and we should never judge them or tell them “it’s time to move on.” It just doesn’t work that way.

  2. Wow…today is the 8th “anniversary” of our son’s death, his Angel Day. Interesting timing. It is hard. We do all grieve differently. I used to avoid people at the store because that was not a convenient place to break down and cry. You don’t want people to forget them. I have a brother that lost his daughter over 20 years ago when she was 6 months old. I still don’t know what to say to him. I have friends that have lost children–one lost two, a 4 month old and a 14 year old. Saying things like, “I understand what you are going through” doesn’t really work, even when you have been through it, because it’s so different for everyone. But there are similarities, all the same. To this day, I don’t know what I want to hear from people. I think the most comforting thing is to hear others’ memories of him. Sometimes I hear something new, even years later.

    I am so grateful to know that I have one child of my 12 that has made the celestial kingdom. It has made some of us want to work harder to get there. It has created a situation with my 16 year old, who was only 8 then, to be inactive and not sure she believes in God. Another child turned to drugs to deal with it. It’s really hard to be grieving yourself, your eternal companion is grieving with you, and to have 8 other children to try to figure out how to grieve and work through it. I don’t think I did a very good job at that. I think it would have been helpful to have someone else that was close to my children to help us through that. Counseling didn’t help us. We don’t have many close friends that could step into that role, either. I’m grateful for the atonement that will heal all wounds, even if not in this life, and make it all right for each of us.

    My advice on how to help? Follow the spirit! Pray for guidance. One day the person grieving needs one thing and the next day that wouldn’t help…so just follow the guidance of the spirit to know how to help.

    Now to have the courage to read this book. It sounds good….something I’ve thought of doing myself, but haven’t had the courage to.

  3. I too would love some ideas of what to do to help others.

    I just wanted to comment about what you said about what you could and could not handle. I think we are all stronger than we think. When a situation comes up that we never thought would happen and that we don’t want- we deal with it and learn from it. It’s hard and sad and awful, but somehow (with lots of help from HF) we make it through. He gives us the strength we need, Others step up and mourn with us and comfort us and we grow. The pain is often unbearable. But we are strong.

  4. My son’s 10th angelversary is in November. He passed away in my arms when he was 5 months old. The biggest help for me is when people remember him. I feel loved an honored when he is acknowledged. I know that sounds silly but often I feel that he is forgotten. My sister is one of my biggest supporters. On his birthday and angelversary she always calls and says, “I remember him!” IT’s such a small act but one that makes me feel good and makes me feel she loves my little David. We all love for our children to be loved and remembered, it’s true for our deceased children. Sometimes a topic will make me bring him up and when people willingly talk about him instead of saying, “Will you please not talk about him? That’s too sad.” but acting interested and perhaps asking questions like they really want to hear and not just faking the kindness is so refreshing. I am wary of bringing him up because of the large number of people who ask me not to speak of him because it makes them sad. It’s like they have forgotten that I think of him constantly. Oh well! Their loss not to hear about my son’s amazing little spirit! 🙂 So, I guess my only advice is just to acknowledge the existence of another child and not pretending that child never existed. Apparently I was very long-winded in that explanation. LOL! 🙂

  5. This a great review. Jenny is a very good friend of mine and watching her bear this burden and suffer this kind of grief still brings tears to my eyes. I’ll make sure she sees this because I know she’ll appreciate it, but you may want to change the parts where you call her Julie first. 😊

  6. The saddest funerals I have ever been to were the 3 for infants. It just rips your heart out.

    My brother lost his first child at 9 weeks to SIDS. I was a senior in high school and remember how devastated he was. (Our whole family was.) It’s been 23 years and he says the same things some other commenters have–he loves to hear that Katie is remembered. Last year he asked all of our siblings to write what remembrances they had of her and her passing. It was a good exercise to reflect and remember all the love that was poured out on that little girl during her short life. One of my memories was the testimony my brother bore to our family at her graveside. That was the experience that made the Plan of Salvation very real to me.

  7. Pingback: Book Review | In His Hands

  8. Definitely pray for guidance because depending on what stage of grief the griever is going though at that moment will affect what they may need at that time. For example, when I lost my dad 3 years ago, I had many people give me a mini-lesson on The Plan of Salvation. While I understood and appreciated their intentions, I only wanted to yell back at them that my dad was dead and it was going to be a long time before I saw him again. In other words, don’t talk about The Plan of Salvation if you suspect the griever may be experiencing the angry stage of grief. It only makes them angrier. 🙂

    Really the best thing to do is tell them how sorry you are for their loss. DO NOT say “let me know If there is anything I can do”. Pray for guidance and just do it . Also, don’t avoid talking about the one that has passed. They want to talk about and remember their loved-one.

  9. Stephanie,
    Thank you for that very nice review. I wrote the book mainly for me and my family, but felt that the things that I learned through the grief of losing a child might be helpful to others. From all the other commenters we can see that there are far too many people out there who have lost loved ones. And while we all grieve differently, we all seem to experience many similar emotions. I understand sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, and the beauty of the Atonement so much more personally and deeply now after losing Russell.

    Two simple things that were life saving to me: 1. A basket for the cards-we got so many, and I couldn’t read them right away. I collected them in the basket, safe and sound, until I had the courage and strength to go through them. And 2. A small, purse-sized notebook to write things down in. I was in such a fog for a long time. I couldn’t remember things, and memories of Russell would pop up in my head. That notebook was a place I could write down everything (instead of scraps of paper that would inevitably get lost!) and know I could find them later.

    And just like the rest of your commenters have said, a simple message of, “I’m thinking of you” or “I remember” are always nice to hear.

    Father’s Day is coming up, do you know anyone (like the first commenter, Regan Butler) who could use some kind words? Remember, special days (I LOVE that “angelversary” Ziff130-I’m going to have to use it!) are especially hard for those of us who are missing someone.

  10. Grief is an interesting and difficult emotion. We lost my grandparents suddenly when I was 13. I would in no way compare that to the loss of a child or spouse, though it was difficult. Our first child had an emergency surgery at 1 month old. We weren’t sure for about a week if he would live or join Heavenly Father, and though he remained here in mortality, (with two years of surgeries and a colostomy) I do remember that fog of not knowing what to do or what I needed. I think that may be true of others who are grieving….sometimes you just don’t even know what you need, the fog is so thick. You are reminding yourself to breathe and eat and change your clothes and get out of bed. I was so very grateful for those who just jumped in and did something…things I didn’t know I needed. Someone stocked the refrigerator with easy to eat things. Someone paid our rent. Someone else did my laundry. Some just came over and let me cry on their shoulder and held me. I didn’t have other children, but taking some of the motherhood burdens over would have been a definite help…especially helping them to sort through their own emotions if as the mother, I couldn’t do it.

    I love your ideas of remembering them on their special days. I will add that to my list of helpful suggestions. And I find most people, after a little time, do want to talk about their loved one and the memories they have. And even though things do improve with time, there will still be days where memories come forward or dreams and wishes pass by unfulfilled in which grief will be relived and that’s OK, no matter how much time has passed.

  11. A family that we did not know very well. It was the parents of one of my daughters friends came and prayed and cried with us. They stepped out and were vulnerable and true even though they never lost a child. It is something I follow…I go and pray with strangers who have lost children. It has become intertwined with my own healing.

    God bless,

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