In decades of writing columns, I have taken risks but perhaps never one as big this: writing a column to and about parents who have lost a child. I can well imagine that the first reaction of any parent who has lost a child will be: Why does this guy, who hasn't gone through what I have, think he has something to say about the death of a child? What does he know about the unspeakable pain I live with?
Nevertheless, having talked to many parents who have lost children over the course of 40 years — on my radio show and in private consultations (largely because of my religious writings and talks) — and given the possibility that I might be able to say something that will help some parents, I feel it is a risk worth taking.
So, here are some thoughts in light of the latest massacre of students.
1. Most deaths of young people are what we normally label "senseless." When an old person dies, no one deems the death senseless. When a policeman, fireman or soldier dies, we don't label their deaths senseless. But when most young people die, it is obviously not because of old age, and it is relatively rarely a result of them having risked their lives for society. Rather, it is usually an accident — a car crash, a drunk driver, a drug overdose, a disease, a murder. All of those are indeed senseless, which adds to a parent's already immeasurable pain. The parent whose child died fighting the Taliban at least has some consolation.
2. As a believer in a just and good G od, I am thoroughly convinced that parents will indeed meet their child again. As I explained, while the existence of an afterlife is not provable, it is axiomatic that if there is a good G od, there is an afterlife. A good G od would not make this life — with all its unjust suffering — the only realm of existence. Moreover, there is a large body of convincing evidence for the existence of an afterlife.
3. Happiness is usually a choice, even for parents who have lost a child. Abraham Lincoln, who had a very difficult life — including the death of two of his sons, a psychologically troubled wife and the management of a horrific civil war — famously said, "Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be."
Parents who have lost a child must still try to choose to be happy, or at least allow themselves moments of happiness. As much as this seems impossible within a year or two or five of a child's death (a close friend who lost his 11-year-old son told me he "wept at least once a day for five years; after that, it quite abruptly seemed to get better"), and even though the hole left by a child's death is never filled, happiness is possible — if the parents give themselves permission to experience it.
If you do not, it is not only your child who has died but you as well. And if your child was murdered, the murderer has claimed yet another victim.
4. People who have lost a child find some comfort in myriad ways. For some it is through their other children — if they have any — their marriage or their religion; having a community or a life of service; immersion in a passion, friends or therapy; or some combination of these things. But I would be remiss if I did not relate what the father of a 21-year-old who died in a car accident told me. He said that nothing lessened his intense pain over losing his beloved son — not one of the aforementioned ways, for example — until he discovered support groups for parents who lost a child. Because they were the only ones who could empathize with his pain, he found listening and talking to them truly therapeutic. Two organizations that might help are The Compassionate Friends and the Forever Family Foundation
5. There is something that can be almost as painful as losing a child: losing a child who has not died. This is rarely addressed, yet I am convinced the phenomenon of adult children who have chosen to never speak to their parent has reached epidemic proportions. Whenever I raise this subject on my radio show, men (and, less frequently, women) call in and weep when they tell me that their child has not spoken to them in 10, 20 or more years. It is frequently, though certainly not always, the result of parental alienation brought about by an angry ex-spouse during and after a divorce.
It is true there is always hope that the child will return to the parent. But after a decade or two, and after the parents having been deprived of knowing their grandchildren, often there is no realistic hope. Their pain is permanent, and they do not have the loving memories that most parents whose child has died have.
6. Finally, don't blame G od. G od didn't kill your child. If anything, He grieves along with you. No one, whether a parent or anyone else, should stop believing in G od because of such terrible incidents. G od made a world in which people die at all ages and in many ways, a world in which people are free to do evil. The alternative would be a world consisting of humanlike robots who could never commit evil. But such a world would be meaningless and as devoid of joy as it is suffering. If you want to get angry at G od, definitely do so. But that is not the same as not believing in Him.
I hope some of this helped.