Michael Attas: Loss of child can deeply affect parent's health

Waco Tribune-Herald (TX) - Tuesday, May 1, 2012



The loss of a child brings us to the heart of our own darkness and despair that seems to be a special and unique form of grief that is virtually unbearable.

In 40 years of listening to stories of death and loss, I have found there is simply nothing that compares to hearing words of anguish from parents who lose a child.

Whether it is death from disease, accident or self-inflicted, it leads to a pain that most of us cannot get our heads and hearts around. The pain is a visceral, real form of heartache. It threatens our existence, faith, families and, in the final analysis, our own bodies and health.

Words of comfort often seem to fail and the desolation seems to rip apart everything that we know to be true about life, death and God.

So how do people survive tragedies that defy description?

How do people pick up pieces of their lives in the aftermath of the most devastating loss humans can experience?

I have seen patients who can trace the onset of their health issues to this most singular of human tragedies. Hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, cancer. the fraying of the family unit are common after the death of a son or daughter.

The enormity of the loss simply seems to place the human body in a vulnerable place and for many no words can suffice.

I have heard many pious platitudes that are surely said with good intentions, but that only serve to deepen the wound.

It is a disruption in the “normal” scheme of the universe, where youths are not supposed to pass away before their parents. And to be told that it must be what God wanted seems to me to be a form of verbal abuse to someone who already is in the depths of suffering.

What these stories tell me is that our bodies, minds, and spirits are somehow all “connected.” We are one and, as much as science and religion may try to break us down into components that make sense, for me it gets back to something I have come to believe strongly — we are more than the sum of various parts.

There is an immunologic component to grief and the failure to realize that only compounds the problem. When faced with this situation, we face our own finitude and brokenness.

So families often try to compartmentalize their experience, instead of respecting that something deep about their lives will never be the same.

We may fall back on familiar routines and patterns and in many ways, they eventually serve as our lifeline back to a life of meaning.

But it seems to me as a clinician that the more grief is sublimated and suppressed, the more it is likely to cause further damage in the future.

As healers, patients huan beings who care for each other and lose loved ones, what can we do?

First, it seems to me that we must be fully “present” to those in need. We don’t have to speak words. We don’t have to have an answer when there is none. We don’t have to reach for the prescription pad or order a test. We can’t fix the issue.

But we can listen, love and be still in the midst of the pain. We can give our friends and patients the freedom to grieve, to explore the depths of their pain and respond with acts of kindness.

People can find a beginning of healing after a tragedy. Yet a hole will be in their lives that will never be filled. A simple honoring of that absence is often the first step to a journey that will go on as long as family and friends live.

More than ever, what most need in times like this are to surround themselves with those who care enough to embrace their suffering with them — not to deny it through some Pollyanna version of a misplaced faith.

Community becomes not a concept or a doctrine, but the fabric of human continuity that allows life to flow back into broken bodies and souls.

Physicians often stand at a sort of crossroads in that journey. They don’t teach you in medical school words to say or how to act. We step out of our comfort zone as scientists and move into our own humanity and fears.

To me, that is the mosthonored place we may have with a patient or friend. It is what makes the pain of ongoing loss many of us see in our practices bearable.

Dr. Michael Attas is a Waco-based physician, a medical humanities professor and an Episcopal priest. Send email to Michael_Attas@baylor.edu.

Section: accesswaco
Record Number: 18546995
(c) 2012 Robinson Media Co. LLC - Waco Tribune-Herald

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Michael Attas: Loss of child can deeply affect parent's health

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