Thursday, November 15 , 2018, 11:36 am | Mostly Cloudy 75º


Russell Collins: Reflections on the Death of a Child

There is nothing quite like the grief borne by parents of children who die unexpectedly and with no chance to say goodbye.

One evening in February, three years ago, I got a call from my wife as I was driving home from work.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

“I’ve got some very bad news, honey.” I felt my heart tighten up. “Karen is dead.”

I have a clear mental picture of the stretch of Highway 101 I was driving that afternoon, with the zoo and the bird refuge on the right, the green of the golf course sloping up on the left. The sky had been overcast all day, and it was just beginning to rain.

Karen was my niece, my brother’s shy, brilliant, beautiful 22-year-old daughter who had just returned to college in New York after a long visit with her family in Houston. I was stunned by the announcement, enough so that the moment is burned in my memory. But the far deeper sorrow I felt was for her dad.

Over the next year, I watched my brother suffer a searing ordeal, going through his personal hell of emotions. Guilt at having not having been the father he should have been. Anger at the gods for letting the chips fall as they did. Helplessness and despair alternating with sorrowful acceptance for several years after her death.

Of course, I thought of Karen and my brother this week when I heard that two Santa Barbara families had lost daughters, Adrianna Bachan and Lindsay Rose. Like Karen, they died unexpectedly, with no warning, no preparation, no time to say goodbye. There is a unique grief that visits the parents of children who die this way. They suffer not just from the loss itself, but at the senselessness of a universe in which this could happen. And at their own powerlessness: we would have done anything! We would give anything now, however painful or costly ... if we could just undo this tragedy.

“Bargaining” is what pioneering psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross calls this particular kind of pain that says “if only.” If only she’d stayed one more day at home. If only the light had been red ... or green. If she’d stopped to talk to a friend, or listened to her mother, or gone to bed with that cold. If only I’d been a better dad. If only he’d listened.

“Bargaining can be an important reprieve from the pain that occupies one’s grief,” Kübler-Ross said in her final writings before her own death from cancer in 2004. “It can be a way station that gives our psyche the time it may need to adjust. It allows us to believe that we can restore order to the chaos that has taken over.”

In fact, restoring order to the chaos of grief may be the signal contribution of Kübler-Ross’ life work. She saw that there was a pattern in the way people suffer in the face of a profound loss like the death of a loved one. And that pattern has proven to have a healing effect as a tiny anchor of sanity to balance the emotional chaos. While nothing can take away the crushing grief that a parent feels, by recognizing that we are participating in a uniquely human pattern of grief felt by everyone at some point in his life, our pain feels less senseless, or at least less intolerably lonely. And there can be great comfort in knowing that our grieving has not only a beginning and middle filled with shock, rage and despair, but an ending, too, where we accept our tragic loss and move on.

Equally important, Kübler-Ross’ five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, despair and acceptance — give the people around the griever a window into her experience, a way to understand the swirl of emotions that will batter her in the coming months like a canoe tumbling down the rapids over the rocks. Comprehending these patterns may inspire added patience and compassion for the grievers, especially as their suffering extends into months and even into years.

The grief of parents can be so vast that we feel powerless in the face of it — and to some extent we are. But understanding Kübler-Ross’ stages can not only make grief more tolerable for those in its grip, it can help the rest of us be better healers as well.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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