What is the worst thing you can imagine happening to you as a parent?
Your child’s death. Absolutely.
I remember, when I was a young parent, getting up to look at my kids in the middle of the night just to make sure that they were breathing. I bet you parents out there did that, too. Clearly I am a parent first, doctor second. We, parents, are hard-wired to think about our kids with the mantra: “You shall not die before me.”
That’s why the loss of a child breaks your heart, and recent research shows that literally happens.
The study from the journal BMJ Supportive and Palliative Care shows that a parent who loses a child during the child’s first 12 months of life is at an increased risk for their own death. A child’s death can be the death of a parent. Bereaved moms were four times more likely to die in the 15 years after an infant’s death. It affected dads too – they were twice as likely to die.
Going out from here, the broken heart still affected their health 25 years later.
What did the moms and dads die from? We’re not sure. Certainly suicide, alcoholism and accidents played a role, but so did heart disease and stroke. Other studies have shown that bereavement has a biological legacy, it damps down the immune system, making us more likely to have serious infections. This probably played a role, too.
I think we can extrapolate: A broken heart can break all of us if we don’t work on it. So what are we to do?
My spin: If you have a traumatic loss, it may mean getting counseling, from your doctor, psychologist, friend, relative, mentor or minister.
If you know someone who has suffered a horrible loss, encourage them to talk. It helps. But too often when we give our condolences, it’s a one-time thing. You need to hug the bereaved more than once. Be proactive. If you love that person, it means showing that love time and time again.
You never get over losing a child. Never. Ever. It’s a different normal. Always. Always.
Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist. He also hosts a popular radio call-in program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WBFO-FM 88.7.