Life after the death of an only child

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I was only nine years old when Leah died.

The phone rang, piercing the silence of an early November morning, and my mom dragged herself out of bed to answer it. Spying out of a small crack in my bedroom door, I watched as my mom sunk into the couch, her trembling hands holding the phone to her ear as her best friend Kathy Cloutier delivered the news that her only daughter Leah had made the decision to take her own life.

The life drained from my mom’s face as she sat there shocked. Leah was only 16 and had been like a niece to her. Recounting that tragic morning, my mom says she just didn’t know what to say to Kathy, she couldn’t even imagine the sense of loss she was feeling.

“For a long time, I thought about taking my own life,” says Kathy, whose daughter hung herself in November 1999. “If I was alone in the house, I would wander around and think of the ways I could do it.”

My mom went over to Kathy’s house later that morning and joined the sea of friends and family that had come to comfort her. My mom says that it was like Kathy was gone too; she was just empty.

“I really didn’t think I had a future for a long time,” says Kathy. “I couldn’t see my way out of the tunnel, I couldn’t see that life would ever be good again.”

We did not catch a glimpse of our old friend until a few years later, when she attended a conference with other parents who had lost their only children.

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“It was a very healing time for bereaved parents to come together,” says Kathy. “You learn from other parents that you aren’t going crazy, that there will be light at the end of the tunnel, and that you will survive.” Kathy Cloutier sits in silence, at the grave of her only daughter Leah.Photo by: Tanis Brown

Kathy returned from the conference with a renewed sense of purpose. After recognizing a need for a similar support group in her community, she began working with social worker Elizabeth Rea to start an Alive Alone group in Calgary.

“I knew there were parents out there who were hurting like I was,” says Kathy. “Grief shared is grief diminished; people who can talk about their grief in a safe place are able to heal faster.”

Hosting their first meeting in a small conference room in McInnis & Holloway Funeral Homes Park Memorial Chapel, Kathy stood up in front of a small group of parents just like her and told them that there was hope and that they could find joy in their lives again.

“I think just being able to relax and talk about their children, cry, and just be angry is important,” says Rea. “No one is judging, they all understand.”

Sitting around a large table, parents go around and talk about their child. By bringing in items their child once treasured, telling funny stories and expressing their pain, slowly, parents learn how to grieve their loss, adds Kathy.

“Grief is tough, and some people aren’t comfortable with it. By talking about their children they are able to heal.”

Ardith Bowden met Kathy at an Alive Alone meeting in 2003 after her son, Michael, died of a disease at the age of 14. “Although you can never really know what someone is going through, we all have that common thread,” says Ardith. “We have all lost the most precious thing in our lives.”

Parents who have lost their only child feel cheated, says Kathy. She will never see Leah graduate, be involved in her wedding, or have grandchildren. Even simple things like to whom she will leave her jewelry become a daunting reminder.

“There is no guidebook for how to deal with losing your only child,” Kathy says. “We talk about how to manage the first wedding you are invited to, how to handle holidays when you no longer play Santa.”

At Christmas time, Kathy hangs the ornaments that her daughter used to collect on a small tree next to her grave. Creating ceremony and ways to honour your child’s life helps, Kathy says.

“The number one fear that bereaved parents have is that their child will be forgotten,” says Kathy. “We all want our kids to be remembered, and to remember that they mattered.”

I was too young to have really known Leah when she died, but through Kathy and the stories that my mom tells me I have a glimpse of the wonderful girl that blessed both of their lives. There is never a day that goes by that I don’t think of the great girl that brought them so much happiness.

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