By Brenda Cox
My friends just lost their 23-year-old son. He died peacefully in his sleep, but his loss is no less grievous to them and to those who knew him than if the circumstances had been traumatic. We all know it is not the natural order of things for parents to outlive their children. We may believe the death of a young child is somehow more painful a loss than that of an older child, but grief is every bit as intense for his parents because he was their child.
Of course, parents are grateful for the years they had with a young adult child who dies, but his loss is no less an acute once he is gone whether he was 20, 30, 40 and so on. The questions are still the same: Why him? How could God have allowed this to happen? How could we have prevented it? What do we do now? How will we ever get over this?
Friends are often helpless to know what to do. We bring food and clean and send cards, but nothing can alleviate the terrible sense of loss the parents have to navigate their ways through. The heartbreak of a parent’s worst nightmare becomes their “new normal.”
My friend came to church about two and a half weeks after her son died, and when I saw her, I went over to give her a hug and welcome her back. She put her head on my shoulder and cried for what seemed like an eternity – a full body, convulsive cry, and I couldn’t say a word I was so overcome grieving with her. I realized that in that moment, that was all she needed – a shoulder to cry on and my arms around her. Another friend joined us, and she apologized for making a scene. I didn’t think before I spoke, but I said, “You can stand up and wail as loudly as you want, and we’ll be right here with you.”
It seems to me that that is what grieving parents need, to be held, to have their grief in whatever form it takes to be acknowledged and accepted without any judgment or qualifications and for as long as it takes. Everyone grieves differently, but everyone needs patience and understanding through a process that may never truly end. How could you ever “get over” the death of your child? You may come to terms with the fact of the event, and you might not cry as much in front of others as time passes, but part of your heart will always long for him.
As her husband came to sit with her, all I could say in leaving her side was, “You know we love you, and we are here for you.”
I can show that my continuing to send cards, especially at holidays and on significant dates; I can keep the hugs going; I can take her for walks; I can continue to take them meals; and I can invite them to dinner at my house. I can continue to love them knowing they still love their son and will always miss him terribly. And then I hug my thirty-five year old son as tightly as I did when he was ten.
About Brenda Cox
Brenda H. Cox is a life-long English educator at the high school and university levels. She earned a BA at The University of South Carolina, an MAT from The Citadel, and a PhD at The University of Georgia where she served as the Assistant Director of the Freshman English Program. She was affiliated with the National Writing Project site at Clemson University where she led a Writing in the Humanities Institute and is a member of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. She has taught numerous writing workshops and delivered papers at state and national conferences and directed The Young Writers Conference at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she was an Assistant Professor of English Education. She has published articles in English leadership and in 18th century rhetoric. In addition, she has served as a writing consultant in numerous school systems in the Southeast and in the American and International Schools in Kuwait. She also served as a Reader of Advanced Placement exams for The College Board, and her students have won numerous local, state, and national awards in writing. Brenda lives in Greensboro, N.C., and is married to Jim Cox. They have one son and daughter in-law and two perfect grandsons.