Yesterday was the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, in which twenty children died.
Over the last ten months I have thought a lot about this question: what is worse, losing a child, spouse, or parent?
Of course it’s a silly question. All death is hard. There are no easy partings from a loved one. Plus, all deaths are different: the death of a parent when you’re 15 would be different from the death of your parent when you’re 70.
I had a conversation with a friend via email about this. She’d sent me an article that said a year was the normal grieving time for adults (for any kind of death) and it was normal for a child to grieve for six months. But, we both agreed, the nature of the relationship would have a great deal to do with the length of grieving. For example, if it was an abusive, alcoholic father who you hadn’t spoken to in years who had died, that’s going to be a very different period of grieving than for a gentle, loving father with whom you had dinner once a week for years. Or in the case of the death of a spouse, those who had an intensely close 34-year relationship like Arthur and me will have a grief very different from a couple who had grown indifferent after seven years and were thinking of divorce before one of them died.
Both of my parents are still alive. I didn’t have any children. So my only experience is with the loss of a spouse. But in my imagining, it seems to me that losing a child must be the hardest grief of all.
I have friends who have also lost spouses. For most of them it seems like the prevailing experience is one of profound loneliness. Our best friend, our life partner, is gone.
It seems to me the grief of losing a parent would be partly rooted in an existential crisis: your primary link to the ‘chain of being’ has been lost. These people were the source of your existence, the ones that brought you into being, your mother particularly, and losing them means you are suddenly cut adrift from that connection.
Arthur’s mother died when he was 60. He talked about feeling like you were next up. As long as your parents were alive there was a buffer between you and death. But when they’re gone, you realize it’s going to be your turn soon.
Last fall I was doing some video interviews that included driving with a woman I only knew slightly. We had time to talk in between appointments. Her mother died four years ago just two weeks before the birth of her first child. I asked her what it feels like to lose a parent, and she said, “You feel like an orphan, even when your mother dies when you’re 40.”
I asked my mother how she had felt losing her parents. Her mother died when my mom was in her early 20s and pregnant with her first child. She told me, “I didn’t feel that [existential anxiety] when my mother died, but there were so many other things going on then. Plus my dad was still alive. But when my father died I felt as if I had lost my foundation. I was cut loose from my roots. It’s hard to be in the world without your parents.” And her father died at age 93.
A friend of mine has lost both her parents; both were relatively old when they died. But even still, she told me, ‘when you lose a parent you lose your connection, you’re profoundly alone.’ She put an intense emphasis on ‘alone.’ My friend is a psychologist, so I said it seemed to me that losing a parent would be like an existential crisis. She nodded.
My friend’s husband said, “and I’ve lost a child. I lost my first-born son and it was devastating.” His child was less than a year old when he died. The emotional force with which he spoke the word ‘devastating’ took me aback. This death had happened sixty years ago but the emotional energy was still very strong.
I don’t know many people who have lost a child so I haven’t been able to get more personal responses to this question so far. But it seems like the existential problem goes in the other direction from a parent’s death: children are not ‘supposed’ to die before their parents. It just feels deeply wrong.
When you lose an aged parent you are losing your connection to the past. When you lose a spouse you lose your connection to the present. But when you lose a child you lose your connection to the future.
My heart goes out to all those who have lost a child.