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The Myth of Losing An “Only Child”

Often people express “extra” concern when they hear I lost my only child. They say things like, “how tragic to lose your only child!” But it’s no more tragic than losing ANY child whether you have one or nine (my 85-year-old grandmother was devastated when my 48-year-old father died; he had six brothers and two sisters).

But here’s the thing - I don’t need “extra” sympathy or concern. Sure, losing your only child is tragic because along with the devastating loss you also lose any future grandchildren, a daughter-in-law, a reason to celebrate the holidays, and someone to take care of you when you’re too old to do everything for yourself. (If Keven was still here, I’d have him doing so many chores! With my “issues” there are certain things I can’t do anymore.)

There’s one thing a parent who’s lost an only child doesn’t have to deal with. The heartbreak of their other children. Siblings suffer a significant loss. Siblings often get overlooked because parents get all the attention. “How are your parents doing with the loss?” instead of “How are YOU doing with the loss?”

Siblings are supposed to be together forever. Losing a brother or sister must be one of the most painful losses there is, especially with a drug overdose or suicide - it feels so unfair. Sometimes they have guilt thinking they should have been able to help their sibling more, or they have survivor’s guilt.

The siblings have to watch their parents suffer - in a way they lose their parents at the same time the sibling dies because mom and dad are not the same people after losing a child. We can’t be - part of us is gone. Some siblings retreat, others work hard to console their parents. It takes an enormous toll on them.

And for the parents, they may feel guilty that they cannot be the same parent for their surviving children. It devastates them to see their surviving children suffering. Some parents try not to grieve too openly in front of the kids, some parents cling to their surviving children and worry about them constantly. Everyone deals with death differently.

Some siblings are so deeply affected by the loss of their brother or sister that they fall into a deep depression or develop a mental illness. I can think of four families I know that are dealing with this, so if there are four in my small circle, it must happen across the country. I know firsthand what it’s like to watch a child suffer from mental illness - debilitating anxiety and depression, hearing voices, etc. When parents are in this situation, they feel grief plus fear and helplessness.

So, no, it’s not more devastating or difficult to lose an only child. It’s devastating and difficult no matter how many children you have. Bereaved parents aren’t looking for comparisons or sympathy. We’re just looking for acknowledgement that our lives are forever changed and hoping that our family and friends will join us in keeping our missing child’s memory alive.

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