Being a Bereaved Parent

Cruse Scotland volunteer, Lilian McDade, lost her 21-year-old son 19 years ago. In this blog article, she recounts her story and how she felt in the days, weeks, months and years after her son’s tragic death.

July 03, 2021

At the start of 2002, my life seemed to be in ‘recovery mode’ after a difficult period. In the previous 10 years I had divorced, moved to my first very own flat in central Glasgow with my three young adult children and started a new career as an English Teacher having completed an Honours degree in English and Psychology at the age of 44. I had also started a happy new relationship and my three children were doing well.

On the 12th of March that year, I attended the funeral of a friend’s mother and got home about 6pm. I found Daniel, my younger son, aged 21, lying in bed with his clothes on. He had been due to travel up to Glencoe that day with a friend to ski but something had obviously gone wrong. I tried speaking to him but he sounded incoherent so I called the doctor who sent for an ambulance.

Because Daniel’s temperature was sky high, it was decided to put him into an induced coma and he remained unconscious until his death six days later. He had been transferred to the Neurological Department as he had begun to have constant fits from the second day, but doctors could find nothing identifiable wrong with him and just kept pumping various drugs into him in the hope that something would work. On the evening of the fifth day, my daughter was walking our dog when she cried out to Daniel: “Please don’t leave us!”. She was startled when she heard his voice say in her mind: “I can’t stay. Would you want to go back to that body?”. On the sixth day, Daniel’s temperature was so high that they packed him in ice but, soon after, his blood pressure dropped to a dangerously low level and then the brain monitor flatlined. His young life was ended, just like that! His father, brother and sister along with other close family members and his girlfriend watched with myself from the door of the ICU ward as he died and we were only allowed in ten minutes later when the doctors had removed all the tubes and monitors. I clearly recall a young medic sitting on the edge of Daniel’s bed, his head in his hands, visibly upset at the loss of such a young, handsome man. Later, we were told that he had contracted a virus – a ‘smart virus’ the doctors said – which seemed to be targeting fit young men. He had had a wisdom tooth removed a few weeks earlier and they felt the virus could have entered there and migrated into his brain. He had so many fits in those 6 days that his brain would have been irrevocably damaged.

Scenes such as this are indelibly imprinted in the mind of a parent and the memories hold their own pain for ever after, although we have to try to learn to live in this new world where our child no longer exists. For me, as a mother, my main thoughts were for my two other children who were only 23 and 24, and for Daniel’s 20-year-old girlfriend. I never wanted any of them to have to suffer the cruel pains of losing such a young loved one and I probably put my own grief on hold to support them. Yes, I wanted to scream and cry in that ICU ward but there were other patients and I was scared the doctors might send me out if I made any noise so I asked my other son to lift Daniel into my arms and I sat beside him on the bed and watched as the colour swiftly drained from his skin until he looked like a marble statue – his lips and ears and fingertips became a pale lilac and I thought he looked like a prince or a god!

My heart felt broken that day and I couldn’t see a way forward. Many of you reading this will already know the shock, the horror, the excruciating anguish which rushes through you, not just on the day when the loved child passes out of this world but for many days, weeks and months thereafter. Trying to support others around you and not to give in to grief can be very draining and I did sometimes stay in bed for the whole of a Saturday and think about Daniel and cry!

I had many fears and lived in what seemed to be an unreal world: I thought that I might forget my son’s voice or what he looked like; I occasionally would follow a young man who seemed to look like him just in case he was actually still alive; I phoned his mobile phone praying he would answer; if I went out for a meal I couldn’t take my eyes off any young couple dining, knowing that I would never see Daniel doing that. Whenever I saw his lovely girlfriend, tears would well up in my eyes and I was angry at Life doing this to me – I decided I would never trust Life again! I wondered if it was some kind of punishment because I had divorced his father – if we had not moved away, would the virus not have been able to single him out? I would always be ready for another tragedy to strike but then I would veer into thinking my turn for tragedy was over and nothing bad could happen again. I got upset because some close relatives did not contact me after the funeral – were they embarrassed? Did they find it too difficult knowing what to say, how to act? A parent can feel very abandoned after the loss of a child. I wondered if they might feel that a similar thing might happen to them if they got too close to me. Thinking processes go haywire at such a time and you can truly feel you are going mad! I started to cut out news articles about young men and boys who had died and was shocked at the great number – I soon had a big file of reports of such deaths which probably made me feel less alone. I had collected Daniel’s ashes in a plastic urn from the Co-op undertaker’s office and carried them home in a carrier bag. How surreal – how could this be anything to do with my handsome hunky son of only two weeks earlier?

Feelings of denial, anger at Life or God, feeling ‘singled out for suffering’, feeling abandoned and misunderstood are all common after bereavement. I also felt strange surges of euphoria, probably due to the adrenalin that floods through you at such a time, and that felt very strange and inappropriate somehow. I was actually glad that I was divorced from Daniel’s father as he was handling everything in a totally different way from me and he was utterly torn by anger and disbelief – I know that we could not have gone through that experience together in any kind of positive way and from my counselling work, I know that couples sometimes pull (or drift) apart following the death of a child. If one partner believes in life after death and the other definitely does not, that can be a stumbling block, or if one wants to talk about the whole experience while the other does not want it to be mentioned, we can imagine how difficult that could be.

When I was 20, I was engaged to a young man whose 12-year-old brother was killed on a railway line. His parents immediately began to sleep in separate rooms and put away every photograph of their son and disposed of all his possessions – they were trying to keep the pain at bay by acting as if he had never existed. The suffering is so intense it can lead us into strange behaviours and thought patterns. In our culture, we do not give enough care and thought to the bereaved and finding a counsellor to pour out one’s thoughts and pain to can be such a relief – someone who can help you to understand that you are not going mad and that you will eventually manage to assimilate the loss into your daily life and pick up the threads of life again.

Losing a child certainly changes us forever. I came to a point about a year after Daniel’s passing when I had to think long and hard. I overheard a shop keeper saying about a customer: “Oh, she’s a poor soul now. She never recovered after her daughter died and she took to drink”. I suddenly realised that I didn’t want to be a figure of pity, the woman whose son died, someone who ‘fell apart’ through grief, and I began to make a determined effort to pick up my life again. A few weeks before Daniel became ill, he had said: “Mum, don’t become a couch potato! Remember you use to do that Reiki stuff? Well, I think you should do that again!”. So I did. I also decided to make his death meaningful by training to be a counsellor a few years later as I felt I could now look bereaved people in the eye having gone through it myself.

The pain of being a bereaved parent does very gradually diminish but even now, 19 years later, despite believing that I will meet my son again in some other life, I can still be gripped by a sudden pang of loss. Grieving parents are mourning their own loss but also the loss of the future of their child who will never experience all the things that normally come to us in life, so we grieve for their losses too. We learn to smile when other people’s children reach all the milestones in life: career, having a partner and perhaps children, sharing experiences and holidays with friends etc. When Daniel’s girlfriend, six years after his death, phoned to tell me that she had married a lovely man and was expecting her first child it was such a shock and it was very difficult to sound happy for her at that moment, although I knew she couldn’t mourn him forever. Life goes irrevocably on!

To be a bereaved parent requires strength, courage, good acting skills! It can change us for the better in strange ways – making us more resilient, more empathic and even more wise! But… we need help to accomplish this, and having the support of a bereavement counsellor can be the first and very important step in the gradual progress back to a new normal.

If you need support with a bereavement, find out more about our services here.

Being a Bereaved Parent

About the Author

Lilian McDade - Cruse Scotland Volunteer

Lilian is a Person Centred Counsellor/Therapist who completed her Post Graduate Diploma in Counselling in 2002. She had previously counselled with Cruse in the 1990's and later at the Tom Allan Centre and the Marie Curie Hospice, returning to Cruse in 2017.

In 2002, Lilian's son Daniel suddenly died, aged 21, from a virus and through that loss and the aftermath, she decided that she wanted to concentrate on Bereavement Counselling. Lilian has always been interested in the 'mysteries' of life and death and wrote her dissertation at University (in her 40's) on "Western Attitudes to death" - being aware that, in our Scottish culture, the rituals of grieving have been lost with the general decline in religion, leaving many bereaved people trying to deal with a loved one's death without the background support and comfort of a belief system. Having been through the devastation of the loss of a child, Lilian believes that she can understand and support those who are in the throes of finding their way through grief.