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Answers When a Child Dies




Excerpted from
Finding Hope When a Child Dies: What Other Cultures Can Teach Us
By Sukie Miller, Ph.D.

It's not that we blame God for the death of our children, exactly. Its more that we blame God for His refusal to answer our questions about their deaths, questions that haunt us from the moment the child dies and continue to do so through all our subsequent years. Because of this, in the course of our grieving, it is not uncommon for some people to feel resentment toward God or to reject Him or to take it as the ultimate evidence that He doesn't exist at all.

Then those most difficult questions that come to all bereaved families at some point boil to the surface, often long after the death of the child. Sometimes, tentatively, we whisper them, maybe only to ourselves or to our minister or therapist or to the "expert" on a late-night radio show. And sometimes in our despair, we cry them out loud.

Why did my child die?

Where is my child now?

Will I ever see her again?

And how do we answer such questions when they are asked of us? How do we talk to the friend who grieves her miscarried fetus? What meaning can she ascribe to her loss, and what happens to the souls of the unborn?

What can we say to the neighbor who confides that she speaks to her son every night? She seems relieved to be "talking" to him this way, but is it a good thing or a sign that she's in trouble?

The questions formed from our pain and the magnitude of our loss are not sensible questions, and we know it. They embarrass us and even scare us, and we're pretty sure they'll embarrass and frighten any friend we might ask them of.

Because of our limited language and because we suspect that our questions have no answers anyway, most of us don't dare to ask. Even if we were daring enough to ask an intimate friend or therapist or minister our "unreasonable" and persistent questions-"Will we be reunited when I die?" "Can I help her where she's gone?"-we wouldn't really expect an answer. They don't know; how could they know?

This lack of dialogue is peculiarly Western. In other cultures in which there is a broader language for the death of a child, there are answers to all these questions. They just may not be "sensible" or logical answers-at least not to us.

But logic isn't everything. Our children's deaths defy logic. When they die, the sensible part of ourselves isn't able to fathom what's happened. It may cry out its questions, but it cannot hear the answers, and if it hears, it will not comprehend. We are more than simply logical people, and our questions come from parts of ourselves other than our logical minds. They are generated out of our emotional sides, our intuitive selves, and most especially, out of our imaginations. And to these parts the answers to our urgent questions may well ring "true" and find a home beyond logic.

Of all these parts, the imagination may hold the greatest power. It can frighten and hurt us, and even strong, healthy people like Winnie are susceptible. When she imagined her grandson's violent death, she was both physically and psychologically sickened. It took her years to "get over" it, and she succeeded for the most part by avoiding the thought and, when it refused to be avoided, by forcefully, consciously turning her mind from it. She would leave her house, take a walk, grocery-shop, turn on the television, or call one of her sons or daughters or a friend.

But the same imagination that can frighten us also has the power to help us heal. Carl Simonton, M.D., Stephanie Simonton, and Martin Rossman, M.D., demonstrated this in their vanguard work with "active imagination," in which people with cancer imagined their healthy cells attacking and beating back their cancer cells. Dr. Rossman has taken this approach further by successfully applying it to other diseases. These programs and many others adopted all over the United States, as well as in Europe and Latin America, have proved to be statistically significant in the treatment of various diseases and problems.

Active imagination became "visualization" and has grown to be used for everything from reducing stress to fulfilling specific goals and desires. Its effects are beneficial. I believe that opening our mind's eyes and our hearts to the power of our imagination will also affect us kindly when the subject is our children's death. This is how it works in many other cultures in which bereaved friends and family of a child who has died ask the same profound questions that our minds and our hearts and our spirits insist on asking when our children die.

In Brazil, Bali, Sulawesi, West Africa, and India, the answers, sometimes soothing, sometime evocative, sometimes challenging, have one thing in common: they each turn the attention from the ones who have lost a child to the child who has departed. In these places when parents ask, "Why did our child die?" they are asking for information about the child's fate, his destiny, his time, and sometimes his choice. When we cry out for the same information, we are more often really wondering what went wrong and, in many cases, what we did wrong.

While the details in these foreign places concerning the fate of children after death are various and sometimes contradictory, they address many of the same issues and questions that we care about here. And except in the rarest of cases, they do not allow for such feelings as the seventh guilt - parents and siblings and closest friends do not assume responsibility for the death of a child.

These are social systems, belief systems, religious systems, and cultures in which the people do not identify with God as we do. Although the relationship with spirits or gods-and there are many-is one of respect, appeasement, fear, love, and worship, the people do not confuse themselves with their gods. The lines between human beings and the miraculous powers of the immortals are deeply drawn. In such societies, while the death of a child is still tragic, it is not accompanied by the seventh guilt, the unutterable possibility or feeling that those who loved the child most are in some ineffable way responsible for that child's death.

When the identification with God is absent or broken, questions we could not answer become answerable, and possibilities we could not imagine become imaginable, and these are what we look at in Part Two.

Many of the world views we explore in Part Two will require that we "suspend disbelief," as American philosopher and psychologist William James asked us to do when examining new possibilities. As you read on, try not to weigh the foreign customs and beliefs you'll meet against the measure of logic; allow them instead to engage your feelings, your intuition, and your imagination. For these are all healing stories for the broken heart, not for the logical mind. Look for those possibilities that resonate with you and ask only, "What if these were my beliefs?" and "What if it were true?"



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