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The Death of a Child

          Over the years, I have encountered many multifaceted medical ailments that do not necessarily manifest in standard textbook presentations. Every day basic science researchers are uncovering complex hormone interactions of which most physicians will be unaware until the FDA approves a drug or a surgery for treatment. The reason why they are unaware is that continuing medical education programs are primarily drug commercials on steroids. The pharmaceutical industry claims the unchartered territory of post-training medical education as belonging to them except for surgically inserted devices or pumps of various genres: pain pumps, insulin pumps, defibrillators, pacemakers, hip joints, knee joints, ankle joints, elbow joints, cochlear implants, etc.
            No one trains physicians for the tasks of telling family members that a loved one has died. More importantly, no one prepares a physician for helping people through the emotional darkness of coping with the loss of a child.
            I have the honor of caring for patients who are part of the Stone Institute who have lost a son or daughter to death. I have patients who are sons and daughters who have died before their time. The reality of losing a child for any reason is harsh and devastating. All of us who are parents prepare for the day that we die and leave our children on the earth plane. When a child dies, regardless of their age, the roots of the future are ripped out of our hearts. I have witnessed fathers and mothers emotionally die when their child dies, regardless of the circumstances around their death.
            The recent wave of related opioid overdoses are examples of children dying too young. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers found a way to channel their tragedies into social change. I suspect there is no satisfying understanding related to a seemingly random drunk driving accident that claimed the life of their daughter or son. I fail to see the validity of the frequently spoken thought after a random tragedy that “it’s all in God’s plan.” I cannot wrap my hands around the idea that God has devised a plan that includes someone’s innocent son or daughter dying at the hands of a drunk driver. We might see the emergence of an organization called Mothers Against Opioid Abuse. Mothers tend to get things done when it comes to social change.
            Another example is the senseless mass shootings or drive-by killings that we all too often hear about on the news. Maybe Mothers Against Mass Shootings could move the needle toward research and legislation targeting the arrest of disturbed people before they decide to injure or murder innocent people for the murderer’s selfish reasons.
            Providing care to a distraught parent is most unsettling. I remember the dark gray world that existed after my wife died many years ago. No one’s words meant anything, life after her death was incredibly empty, and I could not see anything ahead of me in any way. I am much better now. I remarried to a beautiful woman, both inside and out. She is the apple of my eye. It took five years before I was open to the idea of having another fulfilling love relationship. I was lucky to meet Angie. I’ll never look back.
            I only remember the darkness when I need to access those feelings to help patients who are in that place due to a death that has destroyed their world. A catastrophic emotional loss does not heal fast — psychiatrists label the mental disturbance grief. Grief is a psychological nightmare that has more than a thousand faces of agony and suffering. Each day brings new challenges, no matter how small. Any problem is a mountain when someone loses a child and anguish overcomes them. Statistics show that parents seldom stay married after the death of their child. It is a tough road.
            What does a physician say to a father or mother after they reveal their child has died and they are in emotional agony? Find calm in their sea of turmoil. Television, radio, and social media all become disturbing. Silence the chatter of little minds. The other most crucial healer’s quality: Be nonjudgmental in all ways. People have all kinds of coping mechanisms. Some withdraw from everyone, finding a space for shelter from the constant questions from friends and family who surround them. Others seek information about the afterlife, heaven, God, spiritual energy, and several alternate ideas about the eternal. Everyone questions everything in every way possible. Why did this happen consumes the mind until it does not. The Why question ends when it ends. Minutes seem like an eternity; at the same time, days pass almost as fast as the speed of sound. Months give way to years, holidays pass without celebration, people come and go without warning. My grandmother wore a black outfit for five years after my grandfather died. She also kneeled at his casket for forty-eight hours straight without food. She left for bathroom breaks and an occasional water or tea break.
            Many times, death brings out the most insensitive statements from supposedly well-meaning people. Let the grieving person take the lead; they will let you know what they need to hear when they converse with you. Keep your advice to yourself. Giving anyone unsolicited advice is mere criticism. That is especially true to those trapped in a cage of mourning. Being present is all someone desires when tragedy strikes. They are alone in their journey of heartache. All we can do is wait until the dark clouds lift and the gray skies turn blue with sunshine again.
            And sadly, sometimes that never happens.