When you lose a child

No one prepared me for the moment my eldest son became a father. Where did it come from, this mixture of tenderness and strength with which he held our first grandchild? Just months before, the uncle this little girl would never know, became one of 2007’s summer drowning statistics. The presence of a precious new family member filled our broken hearts with love, and yet, watching my son bend to lift the tiny bundle from the bassinet, I felt a silent cry – Oh, now you too are so vulnerable! To be a parent, to love deeply, is to open the door to wonder and joy, but also grief and pain.

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Grief, the pursuing shadow of change, is a constant companion throughout all of our lives. Whether we realise it or not, becoming a parent means letting go of life as it was. It closes off certain options and requires a relinquishing of so many freedoms we often take for granted. Watching my eldest son hold his daughter, I remembered so clearly the vulnerability I felt when he was born. How would I protect him in a future I could not predict? What challenges would he face in a world of risk and inevitable pain?

Johneen and I were fortunate to have a relatively smooth path in the years that followed the birth of our first child, and it wasn’t long before our home and our hearts were filled with the presence of four sons. Our four lively boys stretched the budget, emptied the fridge and filled the house with noise – ‘fooling and fighting’, we used to say. So often though, life does not work out according to ‘normal’ expectations.


The Atkinsons – Nathan, David, Peter, Evan, Johneen, Andrew

Around the time our youngest sons, identical twins Andrew and David, entered their teenage years, Andrew was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease – an incurable illness that would inflict debilitating pain on the rest of his life. While watching Andrew process the difficulty of living with a chronic illness, two students in a course I was teaching on human relationships shared their stories of grief with me too. One shared her story of being unable to conceive, and the other spoke of the pain of losing an only child at the age of 16. I could not have known it then, but they were the teachers and I the student.

As a therapist, I worked with many forms of grief and for some time, I facilitated a support group for parents who had lost children to illness, accidental death and suicide. It was their stories that helped me find a way through the dark landscape of parental bereavement in the days following that midsummer afternoon when the swift waters of the Waikato claimed the life of our own courageous son, Andrew.

Friends and family did their best. Some just said, with simple honesty that touched our hearts, “We don’t know what to say, but we are here.” To some, it seemed we had become part of that other group – those unfortunates to whom the unthinkable had happened. Physically or emotionally they withdrew. Perhaps getting close meant they could not escape the fact that they too were vulnerable to such loss. Others sought refuge in simplistic explanations of how this could have happened to us and to our son.

Talk of higher mysterious purposes may offer some reassurance to onlookers, but is rarely helpful to those in pain. Yes, faith may reassure us that the son or daughter we grieve is safely ‘home’ with God. Yet the pain of separation, of letting go of the hopes and future expectations that steady us through all the stresses and demands of parenting, remains.


It takes a special kind of friend to wait with those silenced by grief and, when words begin to come, to listen with patient quietness, resisting the need to fix. The struggle to recover any sense of wholeness and to rebuild a shattered world has its own timetable and is never neat or orderly. The people who helped us most were those who put no time limits on our grief and did not try to fit our experience into popular standardised models of ‘the grief process’.

Whatever condition they found us in, they simply accepted our pain without hinting it was time we moved on or become our old selves again. Somehow they understood that life for us had changed – irreversibly. There would be no way back to life as it was and, for us, no closure. As someone said, “When you lose a loved one, you have to relearn the world.”

In one sense, time does not heal, but it does give you space to grow. In the early days, grief felt like a thick, heavy fog sapping all of our energy and joy. We were, no doubt, not much fun to be around at times. There was just no motivation to put on a brave face for the sake of others. Gradually though, everyday tasks became easier to manage. The grief contracted, withdrawing deeper into the emotional substrata of our lives. Yet it was always there, coming to the surface occasionally – often with unpredictable severity.

A familiar piece of music would see Johneen abandon her trolley and rush from the supermarket to hide a flood of tears. A silhouette, glimpsed out of the corner of my eye, would take my breath away and leave me searching for a place to pull over before I could continue driving. Now, these experiences are more likely to make us pause and smile, but nine years on there are still times when an overwhelming weariness passes through me. For some reason it seems time momentarily collapses and I am reminded of the weight of sadness I have learned to carry.


Grief can also lead us to richer ways of living the time we have left – time denied to those we grieve. It is, of course, a terrible cruelty for anyone to demand this of those who are overwhelmed by the apparent pointlessness of life after the death of a loved one. What a ‘richer way of living’ means, each person must discover for themselves.

For me, it started to come during that first difficult year when, one by one, birthdays, anniversaries and annual celebrations had to be negotiated in Andrew’s absence. Tucked in a drawer, I discovered the previous year’s Father’s Day card I received from him. Opening it, I found a gift voucher for art supplies and remembered Andrew bouncing (as only he could) into the house shouting, “Dad! Are you doing what you really want to do?”

22 years was far too short a time for Andrew to realise the huge dreams he had. Every parent who buries a child is left with the question, “Why am I the one still here?” It seemed to me that I could best answer that question by pursuing the dreams that remained unrealised in me. Now, with three solo art exhibitions and numerous group shows under my belt, I can imagine the sparkle in Andrew’s eyes as he says, “My dad’s an artist!” And sometimes, I pause and say, “Yes, Andrew, I am doing what I really want to do.”

People often ask how Andrew’s death has impacted us, as a family. Are we still together? How have his brothers coped? Our home and our family both look very different now. My sons have had to learn to live and grow as three instead of four, and all our relationships have, in some way, been renegotiated. Johneen and I, very early on, had to accept that we grieved in different ways at different times. Sometime during that first year Johneen said, “I feel like a tree that had four branches. Now ripped open to the elements, I am left lopsided with a gaping wound.”

I think we would both say now, that as a family we have slowly grown to find a new balance. It did not happen overnight, nor did Andrew’s death insure our family from further grief. Having faced the unfathomable loss of his identical twin, David and his wife have also walked through the pain of infertility. Now joyful parents of an adopted son, that story is theirs to tell. With seven grandchildren, our tree has a new, though sometimes still untidy, beauty. These, and no doubt other scars of grief yet to be endured, will always remain at its heart, but that Andrew-shaped hole is not as gaping as it was.

The remaining branches have grown differently to how they might have, but they will continue to be shaped by his absence and by his memory, perhaps as much as they would have been by his presence. As time goes on we understand more and more the truth behind those often too easily said words, that death can never take those we love from our hearts.

And if you want to know how to help soothe the scars of those who grieve, don’t be afraid of tears. Instead, ask, “What was she like?” Or take a deep breath and say, “Tell me about your son.”

Written by Peter Atkinson