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  • Cited by 47
  • Print publication year: 1993
  • Online publication date: May 2010

19 - The death of a child is forever: The life course impact of child loss


With few exceptions, parents are able to love and care deeply for all their children, whether these be few or many in number. In times of life crisis, parents may become temporarily unable to find the resources within themselves to actively manage their relationships with their children, but this situation is generally time limited. The capacity for parents to care deeply for each child and to find different but balanced ways of involvement with each of their children is the norm. That is, unless a child in the family dies. In that situation, the capacity for parents to undergo a normal mourning process in which they will grieve for the deceased child and emerge able to continue meaningful and balanced interaction with the surviving children is far from assured. In all too many cases, the parents maintain a continuing preoccupation with and heightened investment in the relationship to the lost one and the loss itself.

The book of Genesis is rich in the description of family themes that would prove taxing for even the most resourceful of family therapists. Of all the stories of loss, the one of Jacob mourning for his beloved favorite son Joseph, presumed dead, is prototypical for one complication of parent loss of children. Although favored in life, it is Joseph's sudden “death” that cripples the father emotionally so that he is a mere shell of himself.