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Losing a Child: A Parent's Worst Nightmare

Three southeast Michigan families share their stories of facing the unthinkable – death of their kid – fighting through the grief and continuing to live and love and, yes, even laugh

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Separate paths to healing

In the best of times, it has been said that "men are from Mars and women are from Venus." Add the nightmare of losing a child to the dynamic, and the sexes can seem galaxies apart.

"Women tend to get more support, and men are socialized not to cry," Hinson explains. "Men typically have to go back to work sooner. Sometimes that can lead to resentment."

Friedman notes that in their effort to be strong, men may harden their feelings.

"The wife may see this and feel like her husband didn't love their baby," Friedman explains. "In reality, he's acting on training. In their effort to be strong, men may appear unemotional. But I tell people you can be strong, or you can be human. You pick."

Jamerino encourages the couples she counsels to see her together – especially in the beginning.

"It was their child, but they will deal differently," she says. "Often the mother will keep going over what happened. The husband may go to work to cope. It's important to remember that each parent had a different relationship with that child. It's only natural then that they will grieve differently."

Anne Vachon explains her and her husband's grief process as taking two roads to get to the same place.

"We're so different in how we parent and react," she says. "One way is not better than the other. You have to let each other get there. You can arrive before or long after. That's OK.

"People get so discouraged, saying, 'We're not grieving together.' Well, you don't parent as one person. He is not me. I am not him. We're different in every way. We let each other be in how we are going to get there."

When Cliff Patton of Clinton Township first joined Hinson's bereavement group after the death of his infant daughter, Erin, he asked Hinson what he felt was a valid question at the time.

"I asked Sister Beverly if my wife Tammy and I would be together when this was done," he recalls. "She said she couldn't guarantee it, but that she would do whatever she could to help."

While statistics for the divorce rate among grieving parents vary widely, informal reports cite it as high as 80 percent.

Cliff and Tammy came up with a system to help support each other on the especially difficult days following the death of their only daughter. A candle bearing Erin's photo would sit on a table in their home. If one or the other was having a more difficult day, he or she would light it.

"If I came home and the candle was lit, it was a cue for me to give Tammy some space," Cliff recalls. "At first that candle was lit all the time. Ultimately, we knew that when that candle was lit, we needed to be extra supportive of the other."

Caring for yourself

Around the two-year mark after Timmy's death, Anne Vachon recalls visiting her doctor to request an EKG. "My heart was doing all this crazy stuff. It ached," she recalls. "He assured me there was nothing physically wrong with me. It was grief – my heart was broken."

It was this physical manifestation of grief that made Anne realize she needed to take better care of herself. "I've taken that really seriously," she says. "I try to work out and do all the things I can to stay in one piece.

"I always tell other grieving parents, if you have a penchant for drugs, alcohol, gambling – whatever, steer clear from those things. You can't put yourself in jeopardy."

Taking care of themselves in the aftermath of the most profound bereavement there is can be an almost insurmountable challenge for many grieving parents.

Dr. Wolfelt explains that a parent's feelings of loss and sadness will likely leave them fatigued. He encourages them to respect what their bodies are telling them.

"Nurture yourself. Get daily rest. Eat balanced meals. Lighten your schedule as much as possible," he advises. "Caring for yourself doesn't mean you are feeling sorry for yourself. It means you are using survival skills."

Hinson notes that many bereaved parents she meets seek out medication at some point or another to help with their pain.

Dealing with holidays

For grieving parents, there are perhaps few harder times of year than holidays, their child's birthday or the anniversary of their child's death.

"You never have any idea how many holidays there are until you have to celebrate them without your child," Wolvin says.

Hinson counsels the parents she works with to develop a plan for the day.

"This gives parents control," she explains. "You can't let the day take over. Anticipation of the birthday or holiday is often worse than the day itself. Plan for it. You may not want to celebrate holidays the same way you have in the past, and that's OK."

Cliff and Tammy Patton celebrate their daughter Erin's birthday with a balloon launch each year, inviting family and friends to come over for cake and ice cream before releasing balloons into the air.

Erin died at 16 days old from cardiac failure stemming from cushion canal disease and pulmonary atresia – with which she was diagnosed while still in utero.

"She died in my arms," Tammy recalls. "Even so, she was still our miracle."

To honor Erin on the anniversary of her death, each year, the Pattons organize a stuffed animal drive. They deliver the hundreds of stuffed animals they collect to St. John Hospital in Detroit and the cardiac department at Children's Hospital.

"When Erin was in the hospital, she was given a little panda bear," Tammy recalls. "We hold dear to it."

Mindie and Ken Wolvin mark the anniversary of Jake's death – his "Angel Day" – by celebrating what they refer to as "Jake's Lovefest." For three days, they encourage family and friends to join them in undertaking three separate acts of kindness.

"We try to make something positive out of a horrible time," Mindie explains.

Anne and Marc Vachon recognize the anniversary of Timmy's death with a mass.

"The mass is a celebration of his life," she explains. "God has been the answer to everything for us. It's Thanksgiving. It's a way to celebrate with our community. These people have been so good to us. The mass is a way to say thank you."

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