Death of a Child – a story told by a Swiss Nun

Many people have visited my convent over the past forty years. Most of them are looking for solace of one kind or another. Some have lost their parents, some their brother or their sister. Many wives who have lost husbands have come and not so many husbands who have lost wives. Probably the most frequent cause of grief that we need to console is that of a mother who has lost a child. That is a particular kind of grief which breaks the heartstrings and is therefore impossible to mend, but not impossible to come to terms with.

A mother and child have such a bond that even across continents and across the years, the separation of death is very painful.

When a child dies before it has grown to maturity the grief is of a particular sort. It is the grief of lost hopes and dreams. The future which will now never happen has been torn away.

My story is of a woman who had three children. Her eldest child who was then six had died of leukemia. Two younger children remained. The woman was inconsolable. Her husband brought her to visit the convent six months after the child had died. The woman had become very thin and pale. She could hardly look after the remaining children, so deep was her grief that her energy had drained away. Her husband told us that he thought that she herself might become ill and die because she had lost all interest in her life.

The woman stayed with us for a month. Fortunately she was able to leave her other children in the care of her husband’s mother.

At first whenever we tried to get her to speak of her grief, all she could do was to weep. Gradually as she became more rested in the quiet atmosphere of the convent she began to relax and to tell us something of the son that she had lost.

A clever boy, very much like her own father in appearance, he had shown abilities and interests that she had never had. He was artistic and musical and she and her husband had bought him a little violin to play. The noise was terrible, but they encouraged him and sent him to a teacher and though he only ever played simple tunes, his mother had visualised him up on a stage, a child prodigy at perhaps ten years of age, playing to an audience.

When his sisters came along, the boy who was called Robin, used to entertain them even as small babies, with his antics. They loved their big brother and their mother had taken on their grief as well – their loss of a brother who was going to be a shining star to them, as she foresaw it.

The mother began to want to know about how others had come to terms with the loss of their children. She had a huge appetite for information about real life stories of child deaths. We were able to tell her about the different ways in which people who had come to us had coped. The pain of the loss will be similar in every case, but the circumstances around the death are always very different. Some people cope by shutting out all thoughts and memories of the child. Others cope by keeping the child very much alive in their thoughts, almost as if he or she were still there, perhaps in the next room. Many people seek the company of others who have had similar experiences of the death of a child, through self-help support groups. Talking about ones pain gradually releases it, until through repetition one comes to a point where the need to talk recedes and the necessity of moving on comes to the fore. We put our young mother, Sophie, in touch with a group of bereaved parents. In her case it helped a great deal and over time she began to accept her situation and to turn her attention to the little girls who so needed their mother’s love.

Sophie came back to us two years after the death of her son. She looked healthy and happy and was able to speak of her experience with gratitude for the years of joy she had had with her son. The family had recovered from their loss. They spoke of Robin now and again, and had his picture on the mantlepiece, but they were able to live in the ‘Now’, rather than in the ‘What might have been’. To us in the convent that is what we try to achieve on a daily basis – to live in the ‘Now’.