When a child dies, the shock and pain reverberate throughout the community, sometimes further. As the parents try to get their heads around their loss and how it could be that their child is dead, outsiders are asking this, too – why did your child die?
As a bereaved mother, the cause of death is often the first thing we’re asked and, particularly in the early days and weeks, it’s one of the hardest things to hear.
It’s only natural to want to understand why someone died. Throughout the centuries we have used this knowledge to help prevent similar deaths, to develop vaccines that can guard against horrible illnesses, or to implement new safety practices that keep others safe from harm.
Before Abi, my 12-year-old daughter died, I was a “typical” viewer of tragedy. I’d want to know a cause of death, but in the main, this didn’t affect me or skew my perspective on my family’s mortality. After her death, with the focus on the sudden and unexpected way she died, I went over the top, feeling compelled to know the cause of pretty much every death I read about on social media or in the news.
I’d click countless links and scroll straight to the part about why the person died. I was driven by a morbid fear of something happening again. Now that I had become part of the news, a statistic, my daughter’s death triggered an alarm that, yes, for a while, drove me crazy.
It can feel like judgment
At first, I couldn’t quite understand why I was irritated when someone asked me why my child died, as they inevitably would when a general conversation about my children would kickstart the whole chain of explanation that my daughter died.
Some people were more courteous and waited until I offered the information. Others prompted an answer with something like, “Was she very ill?“ Then there were those who asked me outright, “Why did she die?”
I realised that it implies (unintentionally of course) that the reason is all that matters and hints that there could have been a way to prevent it because, after all, it’s not the natural order of things. Through unspoken words and glances, I feel as though the cause of death should have a rational answer.
Illness—but didn’t you see a doctor?
Accident—but why weren’t you looking after them?
Miscarriage or stillbirth—is there something wrong with you?
The anxiety and guilt that I already feel trebles if I think I’m being judged by others, as well as myself.
It can lead to gossip
I remember a few weeks after Abi died, I needed to post a parcel. As I stood in the small queue, the woman in front of me glanced around, as you do. She then realised who I was and glanced more “discreetly” again. Then she turned to her husband, stood next to her, and ‘whispered,’ “That’s the mother whose daughter died from…”
I was too shocked to react. I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I’d never been the subject of attention before, and at that moment I realised how much I was being talked about. I felt exposed, vulnerable, judged. I wanted to shout. She didn’t have all the facts. I wasn’t just a bit of village gossip! I barely went into my village for two years after that, driving miles out of town to shop in anonymity.
Telling someone why means they will go on to tell someone else. We have to live with that.
It denies my grief
Focusing on the “if only” aspect of the cause of death denies the death—and the grief—itself.
Don’t get me wrong. Daily, amazing causes and charities are borne out of someone’s death; the awareness campaigns are a vital part of prevention and are often the legacy of the person who has died. We all know that death is the surest thing in life.
There’s a quote that says “a mother’s heart is not designed to be broken by her child’s death.” I’ve lately been thinking, “Really? Why not?” Death is everywhere at every stage in life, just because it hurts us doesn’t change that. We are designed to adapt to significant losses. Otherwise, the world would have stopped turning long ago.
Every effort seems to be focused on prevention, awareness, fundraising, cures. I’m not for one second suggesting that this is invaluable or that we should have a morbid outlook, but the focus is so much on life as a society… on living longer, avoiding illness, keeping ourselves well… so that when death does happen it is a huge shock.
There’s a big gap in the “cause” market for people like me whose loss doesn’t fit into any “category” of death, along with the freak accidents and all those many small reasons why a body just stops working. In my case, Abi’s death—a brain haemorrhage, so you know—had no cause at all. Yes, her brain bleed killed her, but why her, why then?
There was no medical reason for it, and that leaves me in a very lonely place without a charity, without a campaign, without reason.
Learning the cause of death is not what’s most important
This is not to say that you shouldn’t ask bereaved parents what happened—when asked what my daughter died from, I am happy to say—but perhaps don’t make it the main focus and, especially in the early months, be guided by the grief-stricken parent in front of you. You can always find out in other ways.
Their child has died. It doesn’t matter why. They are dead. There are grief and pain to work through and a massive life adjustment. That is all you need to know.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash