Death of a child. What we can learn from the Travolta family tragedy?

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

No one should have to bury their child.  A universal truth that will never be cliche.  There is nothing worse than the death of your son or daughter.  It haunts you forever.

I know from second-hand experience after my parents had to do just that when my sister died in an auto accident in her twenties.  The Travoltas know first-hand.  You can only try to cope.  But how?  What common lessons can be learned from such an unthinkable tragedy?

If they are like most, for one, they will feel guilty.  Seeing the past television interviews it is clear the Travoltas thought they had, somehow, been responsible for their son getting Kawasaki disease when a child  (see my previous post.) Although the cause of this disease is unkown, it appeared they were convinced it was their incessant carpet cleaning and chemicals used that were the culprit.  Whether the disease had anything to do with his death is uncertain, but, no matter the cause, they will feel guilt.  Surely they could have done something, they will think.

Also, they will look for someone or something else to blame.  Whether it is conscious or not, we all think there has to be a reason for horrible events.  Unfortunately, most look at the ones closest to them.  Divorces are frequent after the death of a child.

They will go through stages of grief.  In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D. wrote an excellent book called On Death and Dying.  She had spent countless hours with people at various stages of dying, and noted five common stages they went through.  Those who go through a loved one’s death experience similar stages.

  1. Denial
    You think, this is not really happening.  It is a mistake.
  2. Anger
    You blame God, or (fill in the blank).  You ask, why me?
  3. Bargaining
    You promise to be a better person, if only for a second chance.
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

The goal is to work through the first four and get to number five.  Not everyone does.

With the sudden death of a loved one, all of these stages are bunched up, condensed and confused.  They crop up at unpredictable times, later, and can last a lifetime.

It is important to acknowledge these feelings and experience the pain, but not by yourself.  Talk to a counselor, or someone you trust.  Maybe you can find someone who has gone through similar heartbreak.  You won’t be able to suppress the feelings.  They will manifest sometime, somehow, and often in very unhealthy ways.

Has anyone else been through similar circumstances?  Do you have suggestions, tips, experiences?

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5 Responses to “Death of a child. What we can learn from the Travolta family tragedy?”

  1. Steve Parker, M.D. Says:

    I think a horrible experience like this would be easier to cope with for someone who has faith in a higher power Who is ultimately in charge of the universe. There’s a Plan, you know, even if we don’t comprehend it.

    Still extremely difficult to endure, however.

    Counselling from a trusted spiritual advisor helps some.

    I try to convince the grieving person that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but it can take a year or more to get there. It’s so hard for them to hear that or take comfort in it, though.


  2. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Thanks Dr. Parker:
    It does get better, but few believe so initially.

  3. Dr. J Says:

    What though the radiance
    which was once so bright
    Be now for ever taken from my sight,
    Though nothing can bring back the hour
    Of splendour in the grass,
    of glory in the flower;
    We will grieve not, rather find
    Strength in what remains behind;
    In the primal sympathy
    Which having been must ever be;
    In the soothing thoughts that spring
    Out of human suffering;
    In the faith that looks through death,
    In years that bring the philosophic mind.

    William Wordsworth

    Dr. Js last blog post..Nibbles for kids: Not enough obesity diagnoses, gastric bypass and diabetes and another danger of skipping breakfast

  4. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Thanks Dr. J, good words.

  5. physyko Says:

    Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance….

    These are OUR culture’s way of dealing with death. But do all cultures work that way? In some cultures, people look forward to their future in heaven and welcome death as a respite from the suffering of life on earth. Such cultures do not try to prolong life but instead help make the passing of a life peaceful and comfortable.

    Swimming in a sea of Death, a son’s memoir by David Rieff about his mother, Susan Sontag’s death begins to explore that very subject. Why is it that we insist on fighting death? It IS part of the natural cycle of life. If we insist on calling every death a “tragedy;” we become a part of the problem and necessitate the four stages prior to acceptance. How would the press and the blogosphere have reacted had the Travolta family simply stated we are saddened by our son’s passing but we understand that it was simply a question of when not if.

    physykos last blog post..This holiday season give the gift that heals – sign up with your state organ and tissue registry!

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