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Mona Ackerman

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Dealing With The Death Of A Child

Posted: 01/08/09 09:20 AM ET

Q: I feel bad asking about this, but I have to. It's about the death of Jett Travolta. I have three children of my own, so I relate strongly to the pain the Travoltas must feel. I cannot even imagine what they're going through. I don't know how I could deal with it, and yet I find myself obsessed with the tragedy, looking for every picture or story I can find about it. That makes me feel bad and conflicted because I feel that it's disrespectful to the Travoltas. They should be allowed to mourn in private. But, here I am, buying the magazines, listening to the stories, and trying to find as much information as I possibly can.

I certainly don't want to judge the family, but I do wonder if they weren't in some way not being helpful to their son. Did they actually keep medication from him? Did their need to follow the tenets of a certain religious -- what should I call it? --cult, keep them from taking care of their son in the best way? Don't parents want to do everything they can for their children? Doesn't every lifestyle or belief have to take a back seat when it comes to children? Why did they let something else take precedence over the welfare of their child?

Then, another horrible thought comes to my mind. If Jett was so sick, isn't this ending, as horrible as it was, a relief for the Travoltas? How could they have continued to care for him? How could they have continued to watch him not fully engaged in life? How could they have told him, as any parent would, that things would get better? How could they have dealt with the constant pain of having a sick child?

I have a friend who just lost her elderly mother after a prolonged and debilitating illness. When she says she is happy that the struggle is over, we all just nod our heads. We understand. Our society accepts the passing of the elderly --
even sees it as a form of relief for the living. But a child's passing, no matter how painful the path has been, is a tragedy. Why can't we sometimes see the death of the young as we do the death of the old? Sometimes, both bring relief.

I am so glad this is an anonymous question.

A: The death of a child is so profoundly shocking - so contrary to the natural order of things - that anyone with a child is likely to find themselves dealing with their own pain and fear. There is no single correct way to handle the situation. There is no response that is the correct response. There is no single truth here except, of course, that no one can pass judgment on what another person feels. The only certainty I find when dealing with my own traumas and with the traumas of others is that no one wants to hear the words "I understand." In fact, you don't understand. You can't understand. Everyone responds differently. Everyone has a unique construct of emotions and experiences that they have to deal with when confronting a hard time. You may think you understand. You may want to understand. But you do not understand. So please, no general truths and no judgments. Just empathize and listen.

Now, let's deal with you and what your question reveals about yourself. If we cannot judge or understand the victims of immense tragedy we nevertheless can begin to understand ourselves. What issues or fears emerge for us? What are we sensitive to? What arises for us as we observe the pain of others? What are our values, our priorities, and our ways of coping with painful situations?

You talk about finding yourself obsessing about the tragedy and wanting to get as much information as you can about it. This is natural. People sometimes obsess about a tragedy because it enables them to distance themselves from it. The natural tendency is to try and find what distinguished this particular tragedy from your own life - how those differences ensure that this tragedy could not befall you. In your case, you wonder about the Travlotas' religious beliefs. They are unconventional and yours, I take it, are not. So maybe you think they failed to do something -- something that you would do. In your mind, they did not put their children first. In this way, you are basically saying that this could not happen to you. You have a different approach to child care. You put your children first. You can breathe a sigh of relief. You are safe. This tragedy will not befall you.

But for you, the really tough issue here is the thought that sometimes that death of a child - no matter how tragic - brings relief. Can the death be seen, in fact, as putting an end to a tragic life -- one that brought no joy to the child and was a painful burden to the parents? As you suggested, society does not accept that response. We expect emotional devastation to come from a child's death. We know it is not the normal path of life. A child should never predecease a parent. But, isn't it logical to think that a parent may nevertheless feel relief? Why would we judge a person as being deficient as a parent just because they are not fully destroyed by the loss? There are several things to consider.

Mainly, no judgments! Who knows how we would respond to a similar situation. There is no way to know and so there is no way to judge. Furthermore, there is no such thing as a standard way to love a child. What that means is that every parent has a different idea - a sincere idea - of what loving a child entails. Of course, I am not referring here to abhorrent behaviors or inflicting abuse on a child supposedly for their own good. I am talking about different approaches to parenting, approaches based on belief that you and I may not share but which do not, by themselves, suggest some kind of negligence. At the same time, any parent can understand an honest sigh of relief that one's child - one's beloved child - is no longer suffering. Somehow that makes sense. Somehow to some, that too, is love.

Many of us strongly support the right of a woman to abort a pregnancy that will result in the birth of a severely damaged child, especially if what follows is a life of pain. Many of us would object to bringing a child into a world if they cannot expect to have all the advantages of health, intelligence, and possibilities. So, how do we explain then the strong beliefs of a large portion of the population that a fetus is considered a human being, a person, from the moment of conception? Even if it is discovered that the child is afflicted with an abnormality and will result in a life of pain, abortion is not allowed. No matter what the expense, no matter what pain the future may hold, or for how short that path may be, that abnormal child is considered a gift and a joy. Therefore, it has to be accepted that not all parents want to relieve themselves or their children of a difficult path.

Most of us, though, would not have a clear feeling one way or the other. We probably have both feelings, but we do not reveal the feeling of relief because it may not be understood and accepted. I have always found that one of the truths of therapy is that the resolution of the problem is never absolutely clear. It sometimes involves accepting opposite poles of feelings. For instance, we can love and hate our parents at the same time. In other words, we can probably feel enormous pain and great relief at the same time.

Man always hopes for the best. With a sick child, a cure is always over the horizon - or so we pray. Even with a sick child, there may be moments of joy that offset the pain, and for some of us, maybe many of us, we firmly believe that the child's life comes first, no matter what the cost. That would be my response. No matter what. No matter how painful.

But I withhold judgment of those who feel or think or act differently. I don't question. I just listen. This tragedy, the one over which you obsess, teaches you something about yourself. You have understandably conflicted feelings. Both feelings are correct.