When grieving the loss of a child, 'feeling is healing'

Published: Monday, Feb. 27 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

The loss of a child is not like any other loss. For many, it is a void that cannot be filled. It is like the loss of a limb; it is the loss of the future.

Steve Havertz is a licensed clinical social worker, but his profession could not fully prepare him for the emotional and physical exhaustion he would experience when his daughter died.

Havertz and his wife, Kara, were devastated when they heard the heart-wrenching news that their 8-year-old daughter, Emmalee, had stage 3 liver cancer. Although her prognosis was not good, Havertz did not want to lose hope for a miracle.

“I didn’t want to have a lack of hope through the process,” Havertz said as tears welled up in his eyes. “It didn’t fit with who we were to be told that there was no chance for her to survive. I don’t think any doctor should go in and say, 'You don’t have a chance to live,' because they forget the human spirit.”

It was Emmalee’s fighting spirit that will long be remembered. Havertz recalled a particularly challenging night that still strengthens him. At 2:30 a.m., Emmalee awoke and told her dad she was in pain and asked if he would say a prayer with her.

“In her beautifully sincere prayer, she thanked Heavenly Father for her family and all those who were helping her,” Havertz recalled in his book “Dragonfly Wings for Emmalee,” which he began to write one week before Emmalee died. “She then started to cry. My heart started to break, but something very spiritual happened ... She asked Heavenly Father to help her get better and that, ‘No matter what happens, please help that we can all still have faith.’"

The 'spiritual damage' of loss

For some people, when a child dies, their very faith is shaken. Everything they believe is tested. Dennis Ashton, multi-area manager of compassionate resources for LDS Family Services, observed that it is not uncommon for people to be angry with God. The promise that one will be blessed through living a righteous life is questioned.

Ashton noted that it is important to remember that tragic things happen, but God does not cause them. Ashton and his wife Joyce have lost two children. When their son Cameron died, Ashton said that it was the only time in his life when he didn’t know if he could get up and go on.

“People are spiritually damaged when loss occurs,” Ashton said. “Quite often, that spiritual damage for some is overwhelming. It is very hard for them to talk about it.”

Specialized support helps parents grieve

The members of the palliative care team at Primary Children’s Medical Center are familiar with grief. The team offers care to those with chronic, life-threatening conditions beginning at the time of diagnosis. Many of the people they work with will visit the hospital many times.

David Pascoe is the hospital chaplain. It is his responsibility to provide a safe environment for people to explore what is going on spiritually in their life and to walk that path with them. When people ask those questions of, "Why me?" "What did I do wrong?" "Where is God?" "If only…," it is Pascoe and the palliative care team who provide a listening ear.

“I am often surprised at the strength of some people in the most horrendous circumstances,” Pascoe said. “I am often surprised at the quick abandoning of faith in other people.”

Whatever that person goes through, he noted, those who grieve often come out with a spiritual deepening, and they have been transformed in the process.

“It tempers your soul,” added Orley Bills, Rainbow Kids palliative care social worker at the hospital.

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