Self-Disclosure and Identity Management by Bereaved Parents
Hastings, Sally O., Communication Studies
I had always considered myself a lucky person. In retrospect, much of my life seemed to epitomize normalcy. I was the fourth of four children, born to a mother, father, and siblings who loved me. During my years in public school, my grades were neither outstanding nor abysmal. My family lived in a middle-class home in the Midwest. (Yes, even my accent is average!) My dreams for the future were pretty typical. Although I had some strong career aspirations for a future in academe, my visions for a home life were of a smaller replica of what I had enjoyed in my own household. I wanted a happy marriage and a couple of children.
Due to the demands of my studies, marriage and children were postponed until after completing the Ph.D. I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, Evan, on May 25, 1997. I welcomed the role of mother, and expected the same kind of future for my son that my parents had provided for me. He thrived as I lavished love upon him. I was at work when Evan was fatally injured. Evan died in my arms on October 3, 1997. Nothing in my normal existence prepared me for this change in my life. I questioned aspects of my identity: If your only child dies, are you still a mother? Does God hate me? What am I supposed to do with my life? Agonizing, repetitive thoughts made it hard to live with myself: Good parents do not let their children die. I was not there when my child needed me. I failed. I failed. I failed.
I no longer knew who I was or how I was going to "use up" the rest of my time on earth. My world was destroyed. In my disoriented haze, conversations became surreal to me. Some people expressed sympathies. Others never acknowledged that anything had happened. Conversationally, people seemed to expect a rapid return to "normal." "Normal," as I knew it before, no longer exists for me. I suspect it never will. Although most people wanted to treat me as though I was the same person I was before my son's death, I was not the same person. I did not have the same life history, sense of security, sense of competence, understanding of God, or expectations for the future. I thought I was going crazy. I later came to the realization that although my experience of the death of my child is not normal, my response to it was.
The loss of a child has profound, reverberating effects on a parent. Once normal expectations for watching a child grow and outlive the parent have been breached, life becomes a more complex search for understanding and acceptance of a world which no longer makes sense. Klass (1992-93) interviewed bereaved parents to learn about their world view, and found:
The parents in this study say the death of their child is a greater trauma than any they have ever faced. The death indicates a potentially chaotic universe. Many report that God, who had once seemed close and active, now seems far away and impotent. Their competence has been challenged by their inability to protect their child from death. They often are estranged from friends and family who cannot integrate the tragedy into the social reality. The death of a child can bring the loss of predictability, mastery, and social validation. Parents need to rebuild a meaningful world, a world in which they can live with some degree of comfort. (pp. 269-270)
As Klass notes, the death of the child has rippling effects on one's understanding of how the universe works, perceptions of God, perceptions of one's own competence as a parent, loss or weakening of relationships, and loss of comfort with one's self.
Bereaved parents differ in many regards depending upon factors such as cause of death, age of child at the time of death, religious orientation before the loss, personality factors, differing perspectives on the role of talk in the recovery process, and differing strategies for coping with grief. Despite variations, I suggest that many bereaved parents have a shared cultural identity. The term "culture" is used herein to apply to populations of people sharing specific communicative resources. …