Whether the child was an infant or an adult, a’a child is a child’

Professor Stephen Fleming, chair of the Atkinson College department of psychology at York University in Toronto, conducted a three-year study of more than 200 families who have experienced the death of a child. His work dispelled a number of the myths surrounding the grief that follows the death of a child. (See chart below.)

Dr. Fleming told The Interim that the trauma is so great after the death of a child, the body goes into shock. There is numbness and disbelief. “This didn’t really happen,” parents tell themselves.

Shock occurs not only after a sudden death, but also after an anticipated death following a long illness. As long as we can still touch the loved one, even if she is unconscious in hospital, we satisfy the human need for “skin hunger.” After the death, we will long for that time in hospital, even if it was horrific, because at least then the person was still touchable, still there.

Dr. Fleming says it is not worth suggesting a support group until the bereaved is experiencing “active grieving,” which may be after a few weeks or five years.

Grief counsellors no longer talk of the stages of grief, but of the four tasks of mourning: accepting the reality of the loss; experiencing the pain of grief; adjusting to the new environment without the deceased; and emotionally relocating the deceased and re-entering the mainstream of life strengthened by the legacy of the deceased.

Dr. Fleming says that over time, as we work through grief, there will be longer and longer moments of non-grieving, even though the pain will return occasionally with the intensity of the early aftermath.

What does go on forever is the legacy. What lessons in living and loving has the deceased taught us? What has knowing and loving that person meant to us?

Grief changes us as persons. We question our faith, our beliefs. We’re not the same. But the deceased has also changed us. We are different for having known them. How can we honour their memory?

No matter what our religious faith, Dr. Fleming says, we should make the ritual after the death meaningful, and take an active part in it. Even for those who have no faith, there is a need to do something symbolic to express the grief.

For friends who wish to comfort: bring food, visit, hang out, be there. Listen.

Close friends of the bereaved should pull out their calendars and note the deceased’s birthday, the anniversary of his death, the funeral, and all the social and religious holidays of significance to the family. In this way we can map out a psychological minefield for the bereaved.