Recovering from the Loss of a Childby Katherine Fair Donnelly
When a child dies, the pain and shock can seem unbearable. But in sharing, understanding, and accepting this tragic loss, emotional recovery is possible.
Katherine Fair Donnelly's groundbreaking book shows bereaved
Recovering from the Loss of a Child is the first book especially dedicated to the experiences of parents who have suffered the loss of a child.
When a child dies, the pain and shock can seem unbearable. But in sharing, understanding, and accepting this tragic loss, emotional recovery is possible.
Katherine Fair Donnelly's groundbreaking book shows bereaved parents, siblings, and others how to cope with one of life's cruelest blows. With inspiring firsthand accounts from others who have survived this heartbreaking experience, this compassionate and reassuring volume can help in healing the heartand learning to live again.
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Read an Excerpt
Recovering from the Loss of a Child
By Katherine Fair Donnelly
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 Katherine Fair Donnelly
All rights reserved.
A Child Dies
"It's six o'clock. If only I can make it until seven o'clock. Please, God, just help me make it to seven. I feel so numb. Yet I have this searing pain in my head. I know I am awake. There is this piercing hurt in my heart. I thought surely when I woke up this morning, I would tell myself what a terrible nightmare I'd had. And then I would be able to shake my head and say, 'This isn't real. My son is not dead.' But it wasn't a dream. Dear God, it wasn't a dream. If only I can make it until seven o'clock."
Judith Haimes, whose sixteen-year-old son, Michael, was killed in an automobile crash, was describing her initial responses to the loss of her son: the deep depression, the tightening feelings of the throat, the somatic distress lasting from ten minutes to hours at a time, the choking feeling with shortness of breath. Would she ever be able to make it to eight o'clock once she had gotten to seven?
The nightmare began on December 19, 1980. At four o'clock that afternoon Judith was preparing dinner. Her son Michael was getting ready to go to work. First, he had to drop some books off at the library. Michael kissed his mother goodbye and went out the door — never to return. At about the time Michael left the house, his father, Allen Haimes, left his dental practice early in order to pick up a younger son, Joshua, who had been visiting nearby with his grandmother. While Allen and Joshua were en route home, an ambulance raced by, its sirens blasting. Joshua turned to his father and made mention of it. Allen nodded. "Yes, Joshua, someone is hurt, and the ambulance is taking him to the hospital, where the doctors will make him better." Little did they know it was their Michael who was being rushed for help in the speeding ambulance.
A short time after Allen and Joshua arrived home, there was a knock at the door. It was a policeman who said that there had been an accident and Michael had been involved. The officer knew Michael and had wanted to come personally to tell the parents. He said the last time he had talked to their son, Michael had been bragging about what a great dad he had. "And I just felt it wouldn't be right for you folks to get a phone call about this."
Judith asked the officer if her son was all right. He replied, "Well, ma'am, he was still alive when I left him, at least for the moment." Judith felt a sensation that she had never felt before. She felt everything leaving from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet, almost a trancelike state. She sensed her son was already dead. A mother's instinct told her so. But the officer assured her that he had been there when the ambulance arrived and Michael was taken out of the car — still alive. The policeman suggested they get their car and follow him to the hospital.
As they drove behind the officer, Judith told Allen to be prepared that when they got to the hospital Michael would be dead. Allen asked her how she knew this. "Because my heart stopped a few minutes ago," Judith replied. At this point there were no tears, just shock and numbness. Allen tried to reassure his wife. "You're just upset. Everything is going to be all right."
They parked at the hospital's emergency entrance. As Judith got out of the car, she urged Allen to listen to her. "Please understand that Michael is dead. I know he is dead."
Allen became a little annoyed and replied, "He is not dead. I'm sure he's not dead. God wouldn't let that happen to us."
When they entered the hospital, a nurse sat them down quietly and told them the medics were working on their son. Judith asked, "How can they still be working on him?" The nurse advised them that Michael was still alive.
As Judith and Allen sat in a quiet room, pandemonium broke out nearby. They heard the loudspeaker urgently paging the thoractic surgeon, then paging the neurosurgeon, everybody shouting orders, everyone deeply involved with Michael. Allen was holding Judith, repeating over and over that everything would be all right. "Nothing is going to happen to Michael, not to our Michael," he assured her. After what seemed like an eternity, Judith began thinking like a human being again, the way a mother would think. She heard the doctors and nurses talking, ordering blood, and she thought: My God, maybe they can save him. Maybe they can bring him back. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe what I felt wasn't my heart stopping. Maybe he really is alive and is just very seriously hurt and, oh, everything is going to be all right.
The door kept opening. People were coming in and out. Judith suddenly realized when more people entered the room that perhaps one of them was going to tell her Michael was dead. And she didn't want to know that. She asked no one be allowed in except the staff physicians, Dr. Borota or Dr. Heller, both of whom were friends of the Haimeses. Judith didn't want to see strange faces, and she certainly didn't want a strange face to tell her that her son was dead. After a while Dr. Borota walked into the room. Judith looked at him — a very strong man, a man who faces death a dozen times a week, being a specialist in head and neck cancer. Dr. Borota was also the godfather of the Haimeses' youngest child, Ian. "When Dr. Borota came in, he didn't say anything. Then he began to cry. And when he cried, we knew." Michael Steven Haimes, age sixteen, was dead.
"On the first anniversary of Cassandra's death the realization that it had been one full year since I had seen my child was utterly devastating." Angela Purpura was describing the anguish she and her husband, Peter, felt during the difficult period one year after their eight-year-old daughter had died of an inoperable brain stem tumor.
Angela's thoughts went back to a bright, sunny day in May, when her two daughters were making what they called Purple Cows, an unholy combination of milk and grape juice. It sounded like a ghastly concoction, but the girls loved it. However, Cassandra vomited. That was the beginning of Cassandra's illness. It was her primary symptom. It was also the beginning of a time of great frustration for Angela and Peter. The doctors could find nothing wrong with their daughter and dismissed it as a virus — a virus that never went away because Cassandra never stopped vomiting. Later the doctors attributed her problem to a urinary tract infection. But a test proved negative. Any parent who has lost a child to a terminal illness will readily understand the anxieties and feelings of helplessness Angela and Peter Purpura experienced at this time. The doctors kept coming up with blanks. However, Angela knew her child was sick. She sensed that Cassandra was terribly ill. Nothing the pediatricians told her could alter her opinion. The doctors asked Angela what she thought was wrong with Cassandra. Angela replied she was fearful of leukemia. The doctors assured her the blood tests were negative. Nonetheless, Angela insisted that her daughter be hospitalized because of dehydration. Against their wishes, the doctors did so. However, they found nothing wrong with Cassandra, and she was again returned home. Angela was beside herself. "You can't just send her home this way. She is going to continue vomiting. You have to do something for her."
In desperation, Angela took Cassandra to a physician near her home. The doctor saw a problem in Cassandra's eyes and discovered it was a neurological disorder. The child was taken to the emergency room of a local hospital, which Angela felt by far was the most positive hospital experience they had. "They were very caring, very responsive, and very kind." The neurologist recommended that a CAT scan be done. But it proved negative. Although a brain tumor was initially suspected, it was ruled out after the test had been run. Cassandra continued vomiting. At this point she was transferred to a larger hospital. It was more than a month before her illness was diagnosed. What was not visible on the initial CAT scan was very visible three weeks later. By that time the brain tumor was far advanced. When the Purpuras discovered this, they chose not to leave Cassandra in the hospital because the pediatric neurologists offered them no hope. Radiation to inhibit the growth of the tumor was suggested. But Angela and Peter felt that while it might give their daughter a couple of more months at the most, it was a big price to pay for what Cassandra would have to endure. Angela told the neurologists, "Cassandra cannot afford to vomit one more time." The doctors wanted Cassandra in the hospital on an inpatient basis for three to six weeks. But Cassandra did not have that much time left. Peter and Angela chose to keep their small daughter at home — in a comfortable, loving, caring environment no hospital could possibly have given her. Because they wanted to make sure that her last days were in a familiar surrounding, they turned their large family room into a hospice to care for their dying child.
In preparing her daughter for receiving last rites, Angela didn't know what to say to the child since theirs was not a religious family. It had been some time since Cassandra had last spoken. Angela had no way of knowing if her daughter could hear her, as she had learned that hearing tends to be the last sense to go. But Angela held her child's hand and softly said to her, "Cassandra, honey, Mommy just called St. Boniface, and a young priest is going to be coming here to the house, and he will be saying some prayers over you." Angela paused. She didn't know what else to say. There was no book she had ever read, but somehow she had to prepare her child for death. Suddenly Angela was taken aback. "I can't tell you the shock I experienced when Cassandra replied. She said to me, very clearly, 'When is he coming?' Now you have to understand she had a brain tumor and toward the end could not speak well. But her words 'When is he coming?' were spoken so clearly, I was astonished. So not only did she hear me, but she was able to respond to what I said. I comforted her and told her he would be here in a little while."
Cassandra Purpura was both baptized and given last rites on August 31, 1979. She died the next day — on her mother's thirty-eighth birthday.
Alan Hollender's father died when he was nine years old. Having idolized his dad, the boy became a lost soul. His grades began to fall. He became resentful, restless, and soon fell into the drug scene at his local school. His father's two brothers developed close relationships with the boy. But this was to be short-lived, too. Both uncles died at early ages of heart conditions, a congenital health problem in their family. Lost again at age fifteen, and looking for a male image in his life, Alan turned to his grandfather. But the boy again experienced the trauma and heartache of death. His grandfather died soon thereafter.
When Alan started being absent from school, his mother, Leonora, was summoned. He had gotten in with a bad crowd and was now deeply into drugs. Earlier his mother had found pot while cleaning his room. When Alan discovered this, he became furious and put a lock on his door. He began to berate his mother and threaten her. He wanted money from her. Leonora worked for a doctor nearby but did not have the amount of money Alan demanded of her. One morning Leonora received a telephone call telling her that her son had been apprehended in a theft at her employer's office. Unknown to Leonora, Alan had taken the keys from her bag and gone to rob the doctor's office. However, police saw the lights on and captured Alan during the burglary attempt. Leonora engaged an attorney. Alan was only seventeen. He was sent to Rikers Island for several days, as the attorney desired. In the hope that it would discourage any future thought of criminal activity, he wanted Alan to get a brief taste of what it was like to be imprisoned. Alan was put on probation. But he was still into drugs. His mother didn't know how to handle the problem and sought aid at a neighborhood agency where there was an encounter group. She tried to discuss the problem but was asked to bring her son. When she told the group Alan refused to come, she was advised to turn him in to the authorities. Leonora felt she could not do this.
"Alan grew up in the worst era of drugs in the schools. He was lonely, and from the day his father died, he appeared completely lost. No matter how I tried to reach him, he was never able to accept his father's death. Once when I came home, I found him spaced out in his room, so completely abnormal in his reactions I knew it was more than pot. At other times he fought with me on almost every issue. He didn't seem to really know what he wanted. No one seemed to be able to penetrate that shell of loneliness, even though he had a lot of friends." He wanted to get an apartment of his own. Leonora encouraged the move, and he found a small basement apartment nearby. But when the arrangements fell through, he became despondent. "He began to lie around in his room a great deal of the time and play his stereo." Now nineteen, tall, handsome, and with a couple of girl friends, Alan was also moody and often retreated to his bedroom to hear his music.
So, when Leonora returned home one Friday evening in 1974, after a game of canasta with friends, she did not consider it unusual to hear her son's stereo set playing. Not surprised, she undressed and went to bed around 11:30 P.M. At midnight the telephone rang. It was one of Alan's girl friends. Leonora remembers the phone call vividly. "She was very excited and was screaming. She said Alan had brought over his bankbook and some of his personal effects, and she thought he might have been thinking of suicide. The girl had already called the police, and they arrived just as I put the phone down. The door to Alan's room was locked, and the police broke it down. They found Alan sprawled over the bed. He had overdosed himself. I fell completely apart. The police called the ambulance because he was unconscious." Leonora saw them take her son into the ambulance but could not accompany them. She felt like jelly. Nothing would move. Her arms, her legs were immobile. A friend came to stay with her. The police called Leonora from the hospital and said they thought Alan was going to be all right, that they were pumping out his stomach. She couldn't believe this was happening. She began to drink scotch. Then the police called and told her she had better come to the hospital. When Leonora got there, her son was dead. A note was found later among his belongings, addressed to no one in particular, just a statement. A statement of a nineteen-year-old boy against the unknown face of death, now known to him only too well.
Danny Uhl, age sixteen, wasn't feeling well. He had a cold and was home that week, taking the usual cold medications. It was nothing startling. He returned to school right after the Christmas holidays. The first day back, he stayed late and went to basketball practice in the evening. Instead of coming home at 7:00 P.M., he came home at 9:00 P.M. He ate, took a shower, and went to bed. The next morning Danny awoke with chest pains. When she learned this, his mother, Ellen, immediately telephoned the doctor. As Danny headed back toward his bedroom, he screamed out, "My leg went dead." Ellen's other son, Michael, nineteen, began to massage his brother's leg in efforts to revive the circulation. Ellen called the doctor again, and an ambulance was summoned. Later the doctor advised Ellen that the diagnosis was a dissected aneurysm of the aorta, and a ten-hour operation was performed. During this time the doctors had to freeze the boy's body for twenty-five minutes. Fortunately no brain damage resulted. Danny was placed in an intensive care unit for five days. He seemed to be rallying, teasing the nurses that he wanted a beer — a beer he was never to have. Danny died on January 14, 1981, five days after surgery.
In the early afternoon of July 28, Norman Davis, age twenty, was brutally stabbed and died on the lawn in front of his parents' house. Young Norman, who was working for a swimming pool company, had finished early that day and decided to head home. Hours later his mother, Barbara Davis, was returning from the supermarket and found the street blocked. Police cars were everywhere. When they learned her identity, the police took Barbara to a neighbor's house and told her there had been a terrible tragedy. Barbara's first thought was that a friend of her son's, who had been helping him with some painting, had fallen off a scaffold. The police advised Barbara it was not her son's friend, but her own son, who had been killed. Stunned, Barbara asked if her son had been shot and was informed he had been stabbed. An hour later Sidney Davis learned the devastating news of his son's death. The details were too agonizing to comprehend.
Excerpted from Recovering from the Loss of a Child by Katherine Fair Donnelly. Copyright © 2001 Katherine Fair Donnelly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Author of over nine books published in various languages, including her Recovery series, Katherine Fair Donnelly also co-wrote a “Recovering” column, which was syndicated alongside Dear Abby and Ann Landers in publications such as the Dallas Morning News. She lectured at numerous colleges and appeared on the Today Show, Sally Jessy Raphael show, and Canada AM, as well in People magazine and The Wall Street Journal for her extensive grief work. Donnelly died in 2014.
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