It has been a tragic Christmas for too many throughout Newfoundland and Labrador.
Residents of Bell Island recently laid to rest three children who died in a house fire just five days before Christmas and while the community of Upper Island Cove hasn't given up the search for two teenagers who went missing when their ATV went over a cliff into the water below, all that has been recovered thus far is the ATV the were riding and one boot.Then, on Boxing Day, an accident in St. John’s claimed the lives of two men in their 40's when one vehicle turned the wrong way into oncoming traffic. Tragic indeed. But the weeks leading up to the holiday’s weren’t much brighter. A 20 year old woman from Corner Brook was killed in a traffic accident on the Trans Canada Highway on Dec. 18th when a westbound car and an eastbound pickup truck collided near Goobies in the middle of the afternoon. And, on December 3, a hunter from Brooklyn, Bonavista Bay was reported missing after he failing to return home. Police and Search and Rescue converged on the small community in an effort to find the 28 year old, but those efforts failed.
That same week a French cargo vessel was lost just south of Marystown off the Burin Peninsula. Four men were killed after the Cap Blanc got into trouble in three-metre seas, as the winds gusted to 63 kms/hr.
And there was more tragic and heartbreaking headlines hailing from Afghanistan. Pte. Justin Peter Jones was killed after a roadside bomb destroyed the vehicle he and his platoon were travelling in. He was buried in his hometown of Baie Verte the day before Christmas Eve.
With each new headline Karen Coultas found facing the holiday’s with cheer and merriment more difficult. “I just know what the parents of every dear, precious child who is lost are going through. Every time I hear someone else’s child has died it brings me right back to the day Zachary died. The pain is indescribable,” she says.
Coultas lost her six year-old son, Zachary, when he was struck by a dump truck while out riding his bicycle in their Airport Heights neighbourhood.
Coultas says going through the experience of loosing any loved one is difficult enough, but loosing a child is something no one should ever have to go through, yet so many do.
“When someone become a parent, there is no denying it; life changes. From the very beginning children take on the highest priority and most parents go to great lengths to keep their children safe. We forgo sleep, energy and privacy, placing a child's needs ahead of our own. Our goal is to protect them from danger,” she says. “No one deserves to go through the pain of loosing a child. No one.”
Since Zachary’s death there are strong, powerful emotions Coultas says she deals with every day. Shock, check. Disbelief, check. Anger. “Oh, I’ve been in and out of that one, let me tell you,” she says. Anger at the truck driver, anger at herself for allowing her son out of her sight. The list of emotional up’s and down’s is endless, she says.
What Coultas is going through is heartbreakingly common for those grieving the loss of a child, explains Colleen Wells, a manager for pastoral care and ethics with Eastern Health. “When a child dies it’s quite natural for parents to experience an over-whelming sense of failure; their protective efforts failed. No matter what age a child is when they die parents feel the death was unfair for the natural order of things is for a parent to die first. Anything else is surely against nature,” she says.
Mary Steele, a grieving mother and local founder of Compassionate Friends agrees.
“Mothers care for young children both physical and emotionally. We’ve fed them, bathed them, changed and dressed them, cuddled them and held them in our arms,” she says. Whether family’s have been through a long, all consuming battle with an illness, or suffer from the trauma that a sudden death brings, the circumstances don‘t seem to matter more than the basic raw fact that a child is forever gone and each death brings its own particular burdens, she explains.
But there are things that family and friends of someone who has lost a child can do to help.
The first thing you must do is reach out. “When you loose a child you feel like a diseased person no one wants to be around. Everyone feels awkward. People are afraid to say or do anything that might make you cry, so sadly many just stay away and that’s definitely the wrong thing to do,” explains Coultas.
Steele agrees. “The best thing for anyone to do is just say whatever they feel emotionally. If you feel sorry, say so. If you feel sad, express that. Sometimes though just saying nothing is best. If your afraid something spoken might backfire, then just offer a hug and leave it at that,” she says.
There are certainly things you shouldn’t say in such circumstances. Steele lost her 15 year-old son, Danny to suicide just days before Christmas in 1988 and she says she could write a book on what not to say. “Some told me to be grateful for my other children. Others questioned the circumstances of the death, which wasn’t helpful to me at all at the time. But the worst was the people who just avoided me altogether. I needed to talk about Danny. I needed other people to talk about him, to say they missed him like I did. I still need people to talk about him today,” she says.
Never assume someone is over the death of a child, no matter how long ago it occurred, she advises.
That is something Coultas is finding particularly challenging as she faces her second year of grief. “All the firsts; the first birthday without Zachary, the first day of school when he wasn’t there and all the other children were, the first Halloween, the first Christmas, everyone reached out to me on those occassions, but now that all the firsts are over with its almost like I’m supposed to be cured and done with it,” she says. Coultas says she is far from done.
Kay Kennedy lost her son Kevin when he was killed in Afghanistan. “It will be two years this April and all my firsts were a blur,” she says. In fact Kennedy is finding her second Christmas without Kevin worst that the first. “That first year I was like on auto-pilot. I was on the ball. I had everything bought, wrapped and ready to go in November. This year I was lucky to get the tree up.”
Kennedy says sometimes shock and denial was all that got her through that first year. “That’s why having people reach out to me now is so important. I don’t want Kevin to be forgotten and to forget that I’m grieving is to forget that he was ever here if that makes sense,” she says.
Reaching out, mention his name, and see what happens, she says.
Kennedy has another tip; don’t criticize or question the response you get in return. “Many times memories of Kevin will make me cry, but other times they might make me laugh. Either is fine, don’t expect me to be always happy, but don’t expect to find me always sad and depressed either,” she says.
Steele has some advise for those who are dealing the loss of a loved one. “Always remember that person lived and its fine to remember them however you feel appropriate,” she advised. For some it might be a special ornament, or displaying a photo. For others creating a quiet spot in a garden might work best. “Grief and grieving is unique, even though there are things that are common in every case its important to recognize that grieving is almost an anything goes and expect anything emotion.”
“Bottom line is you do what you can do and do your own little thing to remember your child. If you want to veg out and go for a walk, by all means, do that. If you’d rather surround yourselves with friends and family, well, that’s fine also.”
Bottom line is to combine grieving into your life in whatever healthy way you can for however long it takes, she says.
There are no time limits on grief.
Impact of Loss: The Grieving ProcessWhen a loved one is dying or dies, there is a grieving process. Recovery is a slow and emotionally painful one. The grieving process can be less painful if you try to understand that loss and grief is a natural part of life. Try to believe in yourself. Believe that you can cope with tragic happenings. Let your experience be a personal growth process that will help you to deal with future stressful events.
The grieving process usually consists of the following stages. Note that not everyone goes through all these stages.
Denial and ShockAt first, it may be difficult for you to accept death of a loved. As a result you will deny the reality of death. However, this denial will gradually diminish as you begin to express and share your feelings about death and dying with other family member friends.
AngerDuring this stage the most common question asked is "why me? ". You are angry at what you perceive to be the unfairness of death and you may project and displace your anger unto others. When given some social support and respect, you will eventually become less angry and able to move into the next stage of grieving.
BargainingMany grieving individuals try to bargain with God. They probably try to bargain and offer to give up an enjoyable part of their lives in exchange for the return of health or the lost person.
GuiltYou may find yourself feeling guilty for things you did or didn't do prior to the loss. Accept your humanness. You accepted the humanness of the person who died. They would want you to do the same for you. Sometimes there can be indignities that your loved one went through. When you have a harsh flashback consider the huge challenge they faced and the courage they displayed.
DepressionYou have experienced a great loss. Mood fluctuations and feelings of isolation and withdrawal may follow. It takes time to become socially involved in what's going on around you.
Please note that encouragement and reassurance to the bereaved may or may not be helpful in this stage.
LonelinessAs you go through changes in your social life because of the loss, you may feel lonely and afraid. The more you are able to reach out to others and make new friends, the more this feeling lessens.
AcceptanceAcceptance does not mean happiness. Instead you accept and deal with the reality of the situation.
HopeEventually you will reach a point where remembering will be less painful and you can begin to look ahead to the future with hope, as your loved one would want you to.
Ways to Cope with Death and Dying
Discuss feelings such as loneliness, anger, and sadness openly and honestly with family and friends.
If your religious convictions are important to you, talk to a member of the clergy about your beliefs and feelings.
Join a support group.
Take good care of yourself. Eat well-balanced meals. Get moderate exercise and plenty of rest.
Be patient with yourself. It takes time to heal. Some days will be better than others.