The orbaparent is by definition experiencing complex mourning. (I coin the word “orbaparent” from the Latin “orba,” to be bereaved – we have words in English for children who lose parents – “orphans,” and for spouses who lose spouses – “widows,” but no word for parents or siblings who lose a child, sister or brother.) The death of a child is unnatural. Our children are supposed to bury us, not the other way around. The death of a child leaves a life unlived and therefore unfulfilled. The death of child tears at the very fabric of soul, filling the heart with not only sadness and sorrow, but also with episodic rage, guilt, fear, even panic. The emptiness and loss are irreversible; the heartbreak remains permanently unassuaged. There is nothing harder than the loss of a child.
Unless it would be the loss of a child by suicide. Cancer is a respectable death; death by natural means elicits understanding, sympathy and therefore solace. Death by suicide elicits blame, guilt, shame, ignominy. If the suicidal child was clearly psychotic, that’s one thing, but if she seemed whole and sane, orbaparents are left with insuperable questions – Why? How could I have prevented this? What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my family? How could he do this to us? Orbaparents who have lost a child by suicide search desperately for something to hang on to – a mental disorder, drug addiction – something to make some sense out of that which is senseless, irrational, contrary to basic instinct.
But regardless of the circumstances surrounding the death of a child, all orbaparents and orbasiblings need us – you and me. They need us to listen. They need us to not offer solutions. They need us to stop quoting the Bible. They need us to hold them, cry with them. They need us to, without being asked, do practical things to ease daily life – laundry, groceries, meals, lawn-mowing, snow shoveling, oil-changing, babysitting. And they need us to do these things for months and months and months because this is wound not readily healed.