'I Wasn't Sure If I Could Survive': What It's Like to Lose a Child

Three mothers who have lived through every parent's worst nightmare talk about grieving, trying to find meaning in the aftermath of senseless tragedy, and creating support networks after the death of a child.

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Mar 11 2016, 5:30pm

Image by Marcel / Stocksy

I recently read Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by death advocate, mortician, and writer Caitlin Doughty. The scenes of body disposal didn't bother me, even when she detailed spider-webbed mold on the faces of corpses. However, one scene from the book kept me up at night: As a child, Doughty witnessed a young girl fall to her death while playing on the second floor escalator of a mall. The girl's mother had to watch the entire thing.

As a 28-year-old woman, finally not totally freaked out by the idea of babies, that image hit me hard. "Death unfortunately is a part of life, but we don't learn about grief and loss and how to process it until we're in the midst of having the experience," Cadmona A. Hall, PhD, licensed marriage and family therapist told Broadly. "One of the biggest things that I do from the beginning is let people know that they are not going crazy and that their experiences are normal. That's huge. There's no right or wrong way to grieve," says Hall.

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Hall understands that losing a child is a very specific and cruel type of loss. "One of the unique features about losing a child is that there is always a sense of guilt there," she explains. "The role of being a parent is to keep your child present and on this earth and healthy and well, so regardless of the circumstances, mothers often feel like they failed. It's such a huge burden to carry." She added, "That's a myth that I think a lot of women hear: The fact that having children, and having healthy children, is just normal, natural. But people experience losses more often than we realize. They're just scared to talk about it, or feel a lot of shame around it."

Yet women are talking about it—in online communities, through blog posts, and in books. To learn about the experience of losing a child, I spoke to three women who have experienced this devastating loss and who are using the Internet to connect with others. "That's one of the gifts of technology: that you can blog your feelings," said Hall. "Being able to reach out to other people helps those who have a similar loss or opens you up to receive messages from people who say, 'Hey, I'm thinking of you, I'm sending you positive thoughts and wishes.' It's important to know you're not alone."

One of the unique features about losing a child is that there is always a sense of guilt there.

Mandy Hitchcock is a "writer, recovering lawyer, cancer survivor, and a person who thinks that knowing 'what you want to do when you grow up' might be a crock." After beating her own cancer and a painful divorce, she remarried, had a child, and was beginning to relax into family life when Hudson, her 17-month-old daughter, died from a sudden infection. She has shared her experience of loss for outlets like the Washington Post. Angela Miller is a writer, speaker, and grief advocate. She is the author of You Are the Mother of All Mothers: A Message of Hope for the Grieving Heart and the executive director and founder of the grief support community A Bed For My Heart. Her son died suddenly when he was a toddler. Kelly runs her own editing business, as well as the blog Chasing Dragonflies, where she talks about grief, family, and the death of her child Abigail (Abi), who died at age 12 following a sudden brain hemorrhage. They each spoke to us about the pain of losing a child, the importance of allowing one to grieve, and the healing they've found through writing and connecting with other mothers who too have lost a child.


BROADLY: When your daughter got sick, did it happen quickly?
Mandy Hitchcock: Yes, it was extremely fast and extremely unexpected. She was an average toddler with all her vaccinations and the occasional daycare virus. She developed a fever on a Sunday, was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis in the emergency room on Monday, and by Tuesday, she was in a coma from which she never woke up. Two days later she was declared brain dead and removed from the machines keeping her body alive.

You've been through so much. What does your life look like now?
I have two more children who are four and two years old. I work from home, with a very small part-time solo law practice that affords me the time to write and gives me the flexibility to spend more time with my kids. I publish essays about motherhood, grief, loss, and surviving cancer in large and small publications. In the meantime, I'm revising a memoir about my journey after my daughter's death and through my treatment for cancer two years later. It's not the life I ever imagined for myself, and there are so many things I wish were different, but I've learned to be grateful for what I do have even as I mourn my daughter's absence.

Will you tell me more about your writing career? How has it helped your grief process?
I began my writing journey in earnest after my daughter died, when I started a blog just to help me process everything that I was experiencing. I had no idea at the time how incredibly therapeutic that process would be for me, but an even greater surprise was learning that it was also helpful to so many others. I began to see my writing journey as another way to honor Hudson's memory; I also say often that the only thing that brings me any consolation after her death is knowing that her life can still have meaning, that she can still have an impact on others and the world even though she is no longer physically here. So if sharing my story helps someone else, I feel like that is the greatest way to honor her and to comfort myself.


BROADLY: Will you tell me about your experience with loss and grief?
Angela Miller: Seven years ago, I experienced every parent's worst nightmare: the death of my son. There is nothing that prepares a parent for the horror that is child loss. My life became forever divided into before and after. For as long as I breathe, I will grieve and ache and love my son with all my heart and soul. There will never come a time I won't think about who my son would be, what he would look like, and how he would be woven perfectly into the tapestry of my family. I wish people could understand that grief lasts forever, because love lasts forever; that the loss of a child is not one finite event—it is a continuous loss that unfolds minute by minute, over the course of a lifetime.

Learning how to live without my son is a kind of torture I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. There will always be a hole in my heart the size and shape of my son. Nothing will ever change that. Both the love and the pain I will always carry for him is immeasurable. I've had to learn how to survive, and how to live again—both for myself and in honor of my son. I hope to live in a way that makes him proud, and leaves a lasting legacy in his honor.

The loss of a child is not one finite event—it is a continuous loss that unfolds minute by minute, over the course of a lifetime.

How has connecting with others, and creating a safe haven to discuss this experience, helped you with your own grief?
Connecting with others who have experienced child loss saved my life. I didn't have much support during the early years of my grief. Those years were the most horrific years of my life. I had never felt more alone. I wasn't sure if I could or would survive. The pain was excruciating. Breathing felt impossible. My whole world as I knew it was obliterated. There truly aren't words to describe it. Once I was finally able to claw my way from the depths of despair, I knew I wanted to create a safe haven for others, so no one would suffer alone like I did. Hence, A Bed For My Heart was born. In helping others, it has helped my own heart heal in ways I never imagined.

What advice would you give to other mothers who experience loss of a child to help them move on and not lose faith or hope in the world?
Give yourself permission to wail and grieve and scream. For as long as you need. There is no timeline for grief, no roadmap, no right or wrong way to grieve. You, and only you, get to decide how you'll survive this. Give yourself permission to remember and honor your child in ways that are meaningful to you. And whenever you're ready, give yourself permission to find your purpose, a reason worth living again.


BROADLY: Will you tell me about your family?
Kelly: I'm married to Mark, have been for 17 years. We married in 1999 and had our first child, Abi, in 2000. She has a sister, now age 13, a brother, now eight, and a baby brother, now age two. We are expecting a baby girl in May.

What was Abi like?
Abi was a happy and energetic child. She was always keen to get involved in stuff and really showed us how to get the most out of life. Losing her had a big impact on our family. As well as being bright, she was a strong swimmer and had just achieved her black belt in Kung Fu when she died. She was fit and hardly ever [sick], so her collapse was a complete shock to us. She was a caring soul and loved her sister and little brother very much. She had been at secondary school for six months when she died. She fell into a coma quite suddenly at home and never woke up. They said it was very rare to have a hemorrhage at this age and in the place it was (her brain stem).

How has your life changed since Abi's passing?
Our life, in practical terms, hasn't actually changed a great deal considering what happened. We continue to live in the same house, our children go to the same schools, we do the same jobs. This might sound simple, but I know a number of bereaved parents have found these things changing after loss. We have changed in ourselves more. We are more patient and aware of our children's needs, we live in fear of it happening again—or, in fact, anything happening again. We take life at a slower pace and enjoy the small things. Having a baby a year after Abi's death was a big change, and he has been a blessing to our household. We have all found joy in him and he is similar to Abi in many ways. However, I wrote only recently that even though our house is busy, with three children at home, we still miss Abi and her presence. She was our firstborn child so has always been with us. My hubby and I have stuck together and become stronger since losing her. Although we've had our challenges, we've worked through them. Also, my personal faith has grown since Abi's death, which is something I also write about. It took me by surprise, but has been hugely beneficial to me.

How has your family, and connecting with others, help you through the grief process?
My family has been great. They support me and I them. I connected with lots of bereaved moms initially through my blog, and some I keep in touch with fairly regularly. I have met up with a couple of them in person. Knowing you are not alone is vital, and writing about my grief and the situations that arise out of it is vital to recovery. We don't actually talk about Abi's death that much anymore, we don't cry often, and we are getting on with life, but also it means we bottle up a lot of the grief and anxiety. Both mine and my [husband's] anxiety has grown significantly since Abi died, and also my two older children are wary of death [and] doctors. Writing helps me share those hidden feelings and prompts discussion with either family or close friends, or from strangers across the pond going through the same thing. It helps you feel a little less crazy.