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Washington Voices

Front Porch: It’s not right that we bury our children

There’s been too much dying lately.

Recently – within a few days of each other, actually – two friends of mine have lost adult children, which has given me new perspective on life and relationships. The past few years have been filled with what seems like an inordinate number of deaths of people I care deeply about. The hardest losses were of young children of family and friends, but I have also had to say goodbye to some elderly friends and relatives and also a number of peers, including friends my own age I’ve known since early childhood.

People my age and older – well, that makes more sense. Little children and teens, that makes no sense at all, and we rail at the cancers, accidents and suicides that take the young from us way too soon. But what I hadn’t thought much about before last week was losing adult children.

I heard from one friend about the death of her daughter, who I first knew as a bright and delightful toddler. She was in her early 40s and had been living a life that kept her apart from her mother and was not likely to result in long years. My friend had, for all intents and purposes, lost her daughter many years ago, but she is now coping with losing her again.

Another friend, who had married and had her children quite young, told me that her oldest son, a man in his 50s, died suddenly of a massive heart attack. He lived in another state, so the reality of what happened was, I think, a little hard for her to grasp at first. Or maybe it was just the shock of it all.

When I think about her son when I first knew him, I remember him as an intellectually curious boy who knew everything there was to know about the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and he was quite eager to share that knowledge with all who would listen. It’s funny the memories that stick in your head.

He was a father and a husband, which are probably major societal identifiers of who he was. But he was also a son, and I don’t think we put that much thought into the fact that adults who die frequently also leave behind a parent. Or at least I didn’t.

Even when we see reports on the evening news of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, the focus is largely on spouses and small children who survive them. That’s understandable, of course, but I realize there are also parents out there – and no matter how big and strong or how old those soldiers might look to someone else – they are still someone’s babies.

And that is true for the middle aged who die in our everyday society, like the man and woman I speak of here. They have mourning parents as well.

I remember my mother telling me about her oldest sister, who died at age 42. She told me that my grandmother grieved the rest of her life, even though she attended weddings, rejoiced in the birth of grandchildren and was able to laugh again. While everyone concentrated on the widower and the young daughters, Grandma apparently wasn’t so much on the radar.

It’s not that I’m trying to focus the center of grieving on the parents of the adults who have just died, but it occurs to me that perhaps the older parents are given a little short shrift here. Whether your child is 8 or 38, that person is still your child.

With the recent news, my thoughts went out to my friends, but I confess I also thought about my own sons – both adults, both living elsewhere and both identified in society in any number of ways, but probably not as the child of someone. But they are still my boys; they are the children of this gray-haired woman, and they remain my own personal major identifier. I’m their mom.

And consider, when you are older, a senior citizen or maybe an elderly and frail super senior citizen – at the time in life when you’re the most vulnerable, when you have less time to rebound and probably less strength – you endure this toughest loss of all. And there is nothing tougher than the loss of your child.

We are not meant to bury our children; it’s for them to bury us.

Email to Stefanie Pettit at

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