Helping parents to pick up the pieces after the shattering loss of a child
FirstLight provides therapy for what can be complicated grief after the death of a child
Fair City actor and FirstLight ambassador Una Crawford O’Brien, whose daughter Sorcha suffered a cot death 17 weeks after she was born. Photograph: Damien Eagers
The sudden death of a child upends the natural order of life, shattering the world of parents, siblings and the wider circle of family and friends.
“People can feel like they are going mad with that amount of pain,” says Georgia Howard, clinical services director with FirstLight. What sets the charity apart is the professional therapy it offers and also, as she explains, the complicated grief it deals with.
As soon as a family is referred, Howard will be in contact, ideally to arrange a home visit, which serves not only as a “crisis intervention” but also gives her a chance to assess what they are going to require. Not everybody needs therapy, but with something as traumatic as a child’s death “it can be very hard to rely on your own coping strategies” she says.
Some people are better off waiting a while before availing of counselling because “their defences may stay intact and it is not until they hit a wall that they need it. A lot of kids shut down initially and don’t want to speak about it because it is too overwhelming.”
Whether to go for counselling individually or as a couple is something parents need to decide, with Howard’s guidance. Couples may feel they need to look at their bereavement together and use the safe space of a counselling room to talk about it and understand each other in their grief.
“But when they go as a couple it is about the relationship, when they go individually it is about them,” she says. “Grief is a very personal process and, even if the pain is shared, generally you’re going to process it differently than anybody beside you.”
“Everybody mourns in a different way,” agrees Fair City actor Una Crawford O’Brien, whose daughter Sorcha suffered a cot death 17 weeks to the day after she was born. That was 31 years ago “but you never get away from it”.
It was her then husband, Brian O’Brien, who first contacted the Irish Sudden Infant Death Association (ISIDA), as FirstLight was known then, because he needed to join with people who had experience a similar loss. She preferred to try to cope on her own and threw herself back into work.
“For me, I needed to get up doing and back working.” Looking back she wonders how she did it “as I was going through the horrors and the terrors. For me, if I just kept busy, I might not have time to think. Whereas he didn’t want to work, it was a completely different way.
“He said to me it was as if we were both mourning the death of a child but it wasn’t the same child, which was very difficult.” In time Crawford O’Brien saw the value of being involved with ISIDA and is now ambassador for FirstLight.
“When somebody loses a child, their confidence in themselves and the world is shattered,” says Howard. We all have life structures and daily routines “that give us the illusion that everything is safe” but, when the unexpected happens, that is destroyed.
“All parents, especially mothers, have a constant dread of the next thing that is going to happen because the unthinkable happened.”
Her advice to friends and extended family who want to support bereaved parents is: “talk about it” and “don’t be afraid to hear the details of what happened”.
People who are experiencing the grief and the trauma of a child’s death “tend to tell a damage-control version to mind everyone around them. They’re walking around holding the horror of what happened and it has nowhere to go.”
The “false positivity” of public chit-chat is hard. While they may reply with a stock answer such as “taking it day by day” to inquiries about their wellbeing, what they really want to say, suggests Howard, is: “This is horrible, how do you expect me to be?”
When a loved one dies, the pain of grief is the only connection to loving them. Bereaved families have to try to find a balance between being able to love a lost child through memories yet not be in agony, she adds, “but that takes a really long time”.