"TURN MY EYES away from what my human weakness cannot as yet understand and therefore cannot bear to think about," wrote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
The death of a child is one of the most incomprehensible events that ever occurs, so devastating that it spills over onto those of us who are not even in the immediate family. And we do turn our eyes away. What do you say to someone whose child has died? Have you ever ducked around a corner as he or she came down the hall just to avoid having to say anything at all?
On Death and Dying, written in 1969 by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, brought to our attention the emotional needs of dying people. Since that time there has also been increasing interest in the needs of the families they leave behind, reflected in a growing number of books.
Recovering from the Loss of a Child, by Katherine Fair Donnelly, is about the problems faced by many families who have endured the death of a child. Their stories, movingly told, are interwoven throughout the book. The Haimes' 16-year-old son was killed in an auto crash. The Uhl's teen-ager died following emergency surgery for an aortic aneurysm. After a frantic all-night search for their 8-year-old son the Young's were informed by the police that his body had been found in the Hudson River. Other families in this book lose children to cancer, murder, congenital disease or sudden infant death syndrome.
The reactions of the parents, siblings, friends and professionals are described over an extended period of time. The families speak for themselves as they tell how they came to grips with what happened, and survived. There is much sound advice that will be of help to anyone facing a similar tragedy. Especially useful are chapters on the reactions and needs of the siblings of a child who dies, the effect that such a death can have upon a marriage, and special problems that men may encounter.
The last section of the book includes an annotated list and descriptions of many organizations devoted to helping families recover from the loss of a child, which will be of immediate and practical help to those in need.
Kubler-Ross described five stages that a dying person goes through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Families of those who die go through the same stages as they face their loss. Anger is a point that some people never get past.
The First Year of Forever, by B.D. Van Vechten, is an angry book. Van Vechten had good reason to be angry even before his 17-year-old stepson, Peter, died in a moped accident. Peter had been "doping," as Van Vechten puts it, stealing his mother's car and going out for joy rides before he had a driver's license, and calling his stepfather a "flabby old fart." One night Peter had failed to come home and was found the next day "sleeping off his first drunk" at a friend's house. He promised never to do that again.
When a traffic court judge place Peter on probation for running a stop sign and engaging in a high-speed chase with police officers, Van Vechten writes, "and we subsequently had the uplifting experience of being visited by a probation officer, who came to check on the reformation of Little Caesar. I think I was more enraged at Peter for causing an outsider to stick his nose into our family affairs than I was alarmed at his irresponsible behavior."
At 4 a.m. the morning of the fatal accident Van Vechten awakened suddenly to discover that Peter was not home, nor was his moped in the garage. Van Vechten's anger almost overrode his concern as his wife phoned the homes of Peter's friends. He then called the police, who told him there had been an accident nearby. He drove to the scene of the accident feeling terrible pangs of anxiety but exhorting himself to "hang tough." After identifying Peter's body he returned home and told Peter's mother, "Well, it's all over, Lovey. We'll never have to worry about him again."
As he recalls the year following Peter's death Van Vechten writes about his guilt and anger. Scornfully dismissing well-meaning religious homilies he says, " 'Your child was only loaned to you.' What in the world does a bereaved parent do with that? It sounds as though the child were repossessed by the Heavenly Finance Corporation because the parents had fallen into celestial arrears."
It is certainly necessary for a writer to expose his innermost feelings and thoughts, but editing is essential to delete the tasteless and inappropriate. Here is Van Vechten right after Peter's funeral service: "Time was passing and the crowd began thinning. I got more coffee and sat outside again. A young woman was sitting on the grass near me. As she rose, her dress rode up, exposing a fair amount of leg. Very nice leg. I felt a tiny flutter in my loins and realized I hadn't had a sexual thought in three days."
Books on the subject of grieving and dying are usually written to help others by sharing experiences. Why was this book written? As a catharsis? Perhaps. Van Vechten, however, tells us that for years he wanted to write. Some friends suggested he write about losing Peter. "They pointed out that the subject of death and grieving was not a fully exhausted one in the book trade, and, as an unpublished writer in today's market, I would stand a better chance beginning with a work of nonfiction."
This book, written in slangy, choppy language, is exploitive of a tragic situation. In his next to the last paragraph Van Vechten writes: "Our tragedy was such a pedestrian affair that what we experienced might be beneficial to others to hear about, be they bereaved parents or not. There were none of those great melodramatic incidents so beloved by the writers of popular fiction. Nor are we celebrities who employ a ghost writer to inform a panting public how we laughed-on-the-outside- while-we-cried-on-the-inside. The ordinariness of our tragedy suggests that our story might be helpful to others."
I think not.
Almost as difficult as facing the fact that a child has a terminal illness is the decision about whether to tell him what is happening to him.
Each Day a Gift, by Wayne G. Johnson and Richard P. Olson, chronicles the last 11 months in the life of an irrespressible 10-year-old, Shawn, who has a malignant tumor.
Shawn was a very bright and verbal child. In his family, honesty had always been the order of the day. When he became ill this tradition was continued.
Before the exact diagnosis of his cancer was known, when it was still being referred to as a "growth," Shawn and his father Ron discussed possible treatment: surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. Shawn asked, " 'What if none of those work, Dad?' Ron struggled for a response. 'Well, Shawn, what if they don't work? Can you think of any other alternatives?' Shawn thought again for a few moments. Then, with almost clinical detachment, he dropped the word: 'I suppose there's always death. I suppose I could die.' 'What does death mean to you, Shawn?' his father asked. Again the matter-of-fact response: 'Well, death means that I would go to live with God; and that wouldn't be so bad.' "
As the disease progresses it is Shawn's mature strength and courage, but above all his religious faith, that support the adults around him. In the authors' reconstructed conversations between Shawn and his family and friends, Shawn becomes the little child who shall lead us. In his articulation of his faith he continually takes on that role. But on very rare occasions a natural 10-year-old is revealed. A note by a nurse from his hospital chart reads, "Patient states, 'I don't want them to take my blood test tomorrow--it hurts!' Mom and Dad here. Got weepy when parents left. Crying on the phone with his parents."
When I finished this book I felt the need to review some of the published research about what a child experiences and expresses as he faces death. Children take their beliefs from the adults close to them and when ill they are especially anxious to please those on whom their care depends. In his brilliant book Facing Death (Penguin, 1977), Robert Kavanaugh tells of 9-year-old Tildy who succeeds in keeping from her parents the fact that she knows she is dying; for this is what Tildy's parents unconsciously need from her. He writes, "Children will play the mechanical dying game as readily as they adapted to routine confession, if adults so demand. Any game a child is taught will be played if necessary to buy endorsement and acceptance. And yet, inside his conscience the sensitive child will wrestle with unasked questions and guilt galore for what he sees happening in his own little world."
Guilt, as well as unasked and unanswered questions, is not part of Each Day a Gift. Consequently the picture of what is happening to Shawn and his family lacks depth and realism. Their problems are detailed, but their essence is neither felt nor exposed.
This a stiffly written account of a precocious child who did his very best to live up to the expectations of the adults around him. He almost succeeded.