By Harold K. Bush Jr. Saint Louis University

Gazing at the grisly images on CNN of the Virginia Tech slaughter, my wife and I had multiple reactions, as most Americans did during the frenzied, initial stages of the media coverage in April 2007.  Certainly as a college professor, I thought about my own students, and the devastation that such an event would have on any campus.  My wife, a Japanese citizen, noted the likelihood of cultural stereotyping that might result from the fact that the murderer was of Korean descent.  But for us, most poignantly of all, the Virginia Tech murders inevitably lead back to June 1999, when we lost our son Daniel. 

Because of our own bereavement, our reactions to the deaths of children inevitably include a deep sympathy for surviving parents.  We think, for instance, about the sheer horror that the parents will be facing in the weeks, months, and sadly, years to come.  It is possible for us to look at the parents who agree to be interviewed, and to detect in their numbed responses some of the dismay and unwillingness to accept the cold facts that accompanies the survivors in the several days after such a tragedy.  We think to ourselves (without saying it openly, except perhaps to each other): “those poor parents.  They have no idea how hellish their lives are probably going to become in the next few years.”

I suppose this sounds extremely pessimistic and dark to many who might read this.  But having lived through the trauma, I can testify that I had no wisp of a clue what the subsequent years would feel like.  The death of a child becomes a crucial event in any parent’s life, which is no surprise.  Parental grief is grueling and can lead to all sorts of mental hell.  Worst of all, and what nobody talks about, is how for many grieving parents, it becomes not only the crucial before-and-after moment of adulthood, but it usually has a lifelong effect.

One has to work through multiple myths about the ordeal.  They say, for instance, that time heals all wounds.  But about two years after my son Daniel’s death, I was not feeling better but markedly worse — I was actually getting so discouraged and often so physically and emotionally numb that I began to do research into the clinical findings about parental grief and its effects on surviving parents.  To be honest, mostly I undertook this research in an earnest attempt to figure out if I was actually losing my mind, or if I would ever be likely to start feeling better about life.


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