Forgiveness After The Death of a Child

Mary Ewing Rixford, M.A., LMFT, LPC

To live is to grieve. Everyone has experienced many losses throughout a lifetime, some more traumatic than others. The experience of a child dying is intensely difficult. Comprehension of this trauma is nearly impossible for those who have all their children living. In fact, many people would prefer to not even attempt to understand because the fear of the loss of their child may be too great. As a result, to discuss “forgiveness” with those grieving their children, when I am not, may be presumptive. Instead, I present the difficulties I anticipate those in Compassionate Friends may encounter on the journey toward forgiveness. These difficulties are inherent in the very nature of grief, in the nature of what constitutes a credible apology and a societal conundrum.

Paraphrasing Sigmund Freud, grief is work. The work of grief is to re-invest the emotional energy once given to the lost loved one into other relationships. This very definition begins the problem. The love of a parent for a child is so unique and personal that no other love relationship could ever receive this exact emotional investment. Even with remaining children, the customized love invested in each child is as unrepeatable as a snowflake.

The work of grief has specific tasks: (1) Dealing with the reality of the loss; (2) Dealing with the pain; (3) Learning skills to deal with an environment that has changed; and (4) Reinvestment of emotional energy. The reality of the loss is far more than the facts (i.e., what where when & why something happened). The more intangible realities are that the loss is significant and it is irreversible. The significance or meaning of the loss of a child is, again, as varied as there are stars in the heavens. As a result, what a child’s death signifies in the remaining life of a parent is impossible to ever truly explain or have another comprehend. Human beings rationally know that a death is permanent and the lost loved one is not ever going to return to terrestrial life. This “fact” doesn’t interrupt the yearning to rejoin this loved one. Often, this yearning takes the form of reviewing all of the facts and events that lead to the death, combing through to find some place this terrible outcome could have been stopped. Instinctually, the searching for a lost child is hardwired into our psyche, soul and bodies at a very primitive level.

What constitutes a credible apology? After the horrific loss of a child, the need for someone to say “I’m sorry” and acknowledge culpability in the death is unavoidable. To simply say, “I apologize” out of fear of another’s anger or “getting in trouble” is not satisfying because it is self preserving for the one making the amends. A credible apology includes acknowledgement of the wrong doing, a statement of “why” it was wrong and an attempt to comprehend how the offender’s action affected the other. To say, “I lied, and I’m sorry I lied because I breeched your trust in me and that hurt you, leaving you feeling alone and uncertain about our relationship” is relatively concrete and simple to do. Given the infinitely unique significance of the loss of a child, even if a credible apology were offered, no one will ever completely comprehend the effect. Therefore, to wait for a credible apology to begin forgiving may bind a parent in unrelenting pain.

Society presents a dilemma about forgiveness. On the one hand, we are told by word and example that we “should forgive.” This act is highly valued both in secular and faith communities. So, the pressure is to forgive. Yet, on the other hand, the society also promises retribution or compensation for our loss. The legal justice system purports to “make it right” through placing criminals in prison or through monetary awards. Nothing can ever “make right” or compensate for the death of a child. Therefore, to forgive is to sacrifice such retribution. Beyond never being compensated for the loss, sacrifice includes of realities that are not quite as tangible as watching someone serve a jail term or pay money. When a survivor of suicide forgives whomever (i.e., themselves, the person who completed suicide or the entity blamed for the suicide), he or she may sacrifice the need to make sense of the senseless or feeling absolved of responsibility for the tragic ending to the loved ones life. Survivors of suicide can never know exactly “why” and withholding forgiveness often is a way of foregoing this sacrifice.

Loyalty to a beloved child might manifest itself in a promise to “do all I can to make this right.” Forgiveness sacrifices this vow in the name of impossibility. Deborah spungeon’s daughter, Susan, was brutally murdered by Cid Vicious, lead singer of the punk rock band, Sex Pistols. Her experience taught her that what is sacrificed in the name of forgiveness is very difficult to overcome. First, she concluded that “she will never get “closure.” So, the work of “making it right” will never end. In fact, the word “closure” frequently infuriates parents who know all to well the death of their child will never come to a close. The concept of “going on with your life” is also a myth. As grief theory prescribes, the goal is to re-invest in new relationships. After a tragic death, “normal” life ceases to exist. To invest in a world that is so devastatingly altered is impossible. If normal is gone and there is no going back, where does one invest emotional energy. Spungeon proposes this energy is spent in constructing a “new normal” that is forever defined as the “time after the death of our child.” Time is no longer marked` by birthdays or holidays but rather by the event that changed life forever. This event shattered all that is known about self, about the world and how to fit into that world. Unrealistic perceptions of the world are shattered and the “new normal” creates more realistic, though painful, ways of understanding how life, communities, people and even God work. Spungeon concludes that the wound of the actual death is not the last but rather the first of many “second wounds.” For her, Vicious never reached trial because he overdosed before he could be tried; her daughter was vilified in the press for her association with the drug infested punk rock world; reporters hounded her and wanted to make a “made for TV” movie about her daughter’s death (for their profit and her loss). Parents losing their child face these same second woundings plus all that “will never happen” (i.e., events such as a wedding, a grand child or comfort in old age). Therefore, if forgiveness is to happen, it is not a singular nor final act. It is a process that must be done again and again and again.

How, then, does forgiveness happen? First, forgiveness is a choice, not a requirement. In a world where you have no choice about what happened to your child, it is important to know you have a choice of how you respond to it. So, forgiveness begins with a willingness to embark on a journey of forgiving over and over until the forgiveness feels as complete as possible in a “no closure” world. Second, it is important to wrestle with the concept of randomness. As parents, the rule is that we are to protect our children, keep them from harm. To accept randomness is to sacrifice a mythical expectation that we can control much of anything except our response to the world around us. Embracing this powerlessness is particularly difficult, if a parent has surviving children. Third, it is important to acknowledge the sacrificial nature of forgiveness. Thus, in addition to grieving the loss of a child, grief is compounded by giving up what was once held dear (i.e., that I cud have prevented it, that the world is just, that someone must to be to blame because God just doesn’t allow bad things to happen). Fourth, an analysis of the cost and benefits of forgiving/not forgiving can reveal that forgiveness may be premature and must go on until all benefit is derived or that non-forgiveness is costing more through loss of health, loss of relationship or loss of connection to the world. Fifth, it is important to consider that forgiveness is not saying what happened is okay. Forgiveness benefits the forgiver more than the forgiven because it means what ever the wrong doing; it will no longer overshadow my view of my child. Forgiveness means “I will no longer allow myself to be emotionally devastated by what has happened … will give it no more free rent in my head.” In releasing the wrong doing one releases oneself. Finally, and perhaps most difficult, is to tell the story differently. The facts of the story can never change. However, the story I tell myself about those facts may need to change. For example, if the story is “I should have done more,” the unavoidable pain of the loss is intensified by a narrative that adds misery. Misery is optional and tied to how I give meaning to the events of a child’s death.

The preceding article is a summary of a talk given by the author to a meeting of Compassionate Friends at Christ United Methodist Church, Plano, Texas on May 27, 2008.


Copyright, Mary Ewing Rixford, M.A., LMFT, LPC May 2008.