Most children grow into adulthood aware they will likely experience the death of a parent. But parents are rarely prepared for the death of an adult child — yet it becomes increasingly common as people age.
According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 9 percent of Americans experience the death of a child by age 60. That rate grows to 15 percent by age 70 and 18 percent by age 80. Loss of children disproportionately affects Black families — 29%, nearly 1 in 3, will lose a child. For Hispanic families the rate of loss is 20%, while it’s 17% for white families.
“The death of a child is the death of the future,” said Luke Helmuth, pastor at Calvary Chapel in Hutchinson and a grief counselor at Traditions Hospice in Wichita.
Every holiday, birthday and life milestone leaves a big hole where that person should have been. “It’s like being a curator in an art museum after a piece of art is stolen,” Helmuth said. “That piece is unique. The place on the wall is now empty.”
But because so many people experience it, there are people prepared to help the grieving cope.
Helmuth recommends a technique called “companioning,” the act of just walking with people through their grief, taught at the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado.
“They can heal through their journey, rather than treat grief like a disease to be cured.” He has observed that people who have a strong belief system, who have a hope in a purpose greater than themselves, tend to heal more quickly.
He said, “Grief is the price we pay for love. If you know nothing else about your grief, recognize it’s love. Tears are simply liquid love.”
Wichita couple found comfort in sharing loss with others
This method worked well for Gail Haywood-Tucker and Greg Tucker, a Wichita couple whose 29-year-old son, K.C. Haywood, died of a tragic accident in 2008.
“He was a rock star,” Gail said of her son who was a singer/songwriter, artist and writer who made friends wherever he went.
K.C. was a graduate of Northeast Magnet High School and attended Wichita State and University of Kansas. His obituary describes him as “charismatic, adventurous, intelligent, traveled, talented and hilarious.”
His parents took K.C. to the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield in September each year, known for its bluegrass musicians, overnight camping and all-night jams around campfires. When he was older, K.C. played on Stage 7 there, where his name appears among the memorials. Haywood became a volunteer firefighter in Taos, New Mexico, where he met his fiancée Sarah Hart, an artist, and founded the band Handsome Molly. When Hart was accepted as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, the couple moved to Chicago, where he worked for a bike shop and founded a kickball team.
Haywood died trying to climb the outside of his building to his third-floor apartment when he realized he was locked out one day. He was wearing cowboy boots, his parents said, and slipped and fell and spent the next two weeks in a coma in the hospital.
Gail and Greg came to Chicago to be by his side and they were surrounded and embraced by K.C.’s large kickball community. “We were never alone.“
But K.C. never woke up. When he died after two weeks, his organs were harvested, going to five people who needed transplants.
Memorials for K.C. were held in five cities in four states, including Humboldt Park Field House in Chicago, the Orpheum Theatre in Wichita plus in Ponca City, Oklahoma, and Taos, where his Taos firefighter badge was given to his parents.
The filming of a documentary about the kickball league paused to make K.C.’s death an integral part of the story. “Left Field” played at several film festivals and in Wichita, sponsored by the Tallgrass Film Association. Greg had to keep working during the vigil and services, setting up an office in the hospital as an IT supervisor for Sedgwick County. He admits that when they returned to Wichita after a month, he had a tough time.
“After several months, I finally got past the feeling of falling off a cliff,” he said. “The feeling washes over you. That has smoothed off through the years.”
Gail and Greg have had 15 years to recover from K.C.’s death. She believes that even though his body is gone, his spirit is alive and well. “Friends are still naming babies after him,” Gail said. “There is a newborn K.C. who will be at Winfield this year.”
Help exists for seniors who have lost support systems
When adult children have established their own home and career in a different city, parents have already dealt with the separation and their relationship may have evolved to one of friendship. This does not diminish their loss, grief counselors say.
For those whose children lived nearby, the child often has become a best friend to go out with. For the oldest adults, the son or daughter may be the one who takes them to the grocery store and doctor and may even help them financially. The death of an adult child can cause physical and emotional isolation for a parent who has limited resources and support systems.
Help for seniors including those who have lost family support systems is available through the Central Plains Area Agency on Aging for those over 60 in Sedgwick, Harvey and Butler counties. It and its partner agencies offer transportation, home-delivered meals and minor home repairs, among other services.
No matter how difficult it is to face such a loss, there are evidence-based coping techniques that experienced counselors use to help grieving parents through recovery. Articles published on websites such as compassionatefriends.org and the National Wellness Institute Journal can offer new insights.
Erica Greenwood, a certified grief recovery specialist with Grief Recovery Kansas in Wichita, suggests journaling is a good way to acknowledge your feelings. “Write down things you wish you had said to them; apologize for times you weren’t there when they needed you; say how glad you were to spend time with them.”
When milestones approach, she said, “Rather than dread their birthday coming up, make a time to honor them. Reread a book you read to them as a child, cook their favorite meal, celebrate their life so memories do not slip away.”
What not to say if you want to help those grieving
And for those trying to support parents who are grieving child loss? Greenwood urges people to avoid saying these things, which are not helpful:
- “Don’t feel bad.” Saying that to someone who is mourning invalidates their grief. It is better to express feelings than to internalize them. Crying is therapeutic.
- “You have other children.” This comment is not helpful. All relationships are unique, there are no exceptions. You cannot replace a relationship.
- “Time heals all wounds.” That is not true. “It’s like a flat tire,” Greenwood said, “you can’t just sit down and wait for it to repair itself.” The pain may lessen in time and be replaced with yearning for the one who’s gone.
- “Be strong for others.” Sometimes grandchildren whose surviving parent is exhausted physically and emotionally need comforting, and the grandparent often tries to be “strong” and not show emotions. Sharing memories of the one who is gone and crying a few tears with the children can be soothing to both.
- “Keep busy.” Some avoid processing pain by staying busy. This doesn’t make feelings of grief go away. It’s important to take time and space to grieve.
Where can I find help managing death of an adult child?
In addition to private grief counselors and therapists, you can find groups through churches and nonprofits, such as Good Grief of Kansas, which hosts bereavement groups at no charge in Derby and Wichita at 316-612-0700 or www.goodgriefofkansas.org.
Hospices in Kansas are required by law to provide aftercare through Medicare for the bereaved for up to a year. Each one puts together its own procedures, so if your loved one was in a Kansas hospice, find out what that hospice offers.
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