Still Mourning, Still Dreaming After Death of a Child

Shortly after my son’s death, I came across his bathrobe in a closet; hugging it to my chest, my nose detected his scent. For the next few days, I frequently held his bathrobe to my face to breathe in his smell and perpetuate the illusion of his presence. The scent eventually dissipated, but the journey had just begun.

I have approached many people to talk about their grief journey – especially parents who lost a child – hoping to learn something from them. What I ultimately learned is that even when the pain is similar, people grieve differently.

When your child dies, memories of that child are like rocks strewn across the path of your grief journey, and when you trip on them it may be quite painful, but they also often trigger your mental camera. As you recall past images and scenes, they are often pleasant to remember; yet when they pass, the feeling that remains is the emptiness caused by the absence of this child.

For some people this is reason enough not to remember, so they focus on the present. Yet one of the last things my best friend said to me before he died of cancer was: “Don’t forget me.”

Although his absence is painful to me, I choose to remember him. At various times I revisit memories of my friend, of my son – happy moments or sad ones – to stay connected to the loved ones who cannot be here, to honor those whose lives enriched mine.

Kent Koppelman 2012

Adapted from:

Wrestling with the Angel

Kent Koppelman

More Articles Written by Kent

Kent Koppelman earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Education and a Master’s degree in English from the University of Nebraska and he taught high school English and social studies in Nebraska, Connecticut, and Iowa before enrolling in a PhD at Iowa State University in Ames. After graduation, he accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse where for 28 years he taught undergraduate and graduate courses in foundations, diversity issues, ethics, and multicultural education. Throughout his career Dr. Koppelman has published essays in various journals and given presentations at state, national, and international conferences. Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction selected him as the “Teacher Educator of the Year” in 1988, but the following year was marred by a family tragedy when his son, Jason, was killed in a car accident. His experience with loss and grief was the subject of his first book entitled The Fall of a Sparrow: Of Death and Dreams and Healing (1994, Baywood Publishing Company). Dr. Koppelman’s second book, Values in the Key of Life: Making Harmony in the Human Community (2001, Baywood Publishing Company), consisted of essays about the need to choose between conflicting values and the implications of those choices in everyday life. His third book was a textbook for college courses on diversity entitled Understanding Human Differences: Multicultural Education for a Diverse America (2005, 2008, 2011) published by Allyn and Bacon. Dr. Koppelman retired in May of 2007, and the following fall, the College of Human Sciences at Iowa State University presented him with the Virgil S. Lagomarcino Laureate Award to honor his “distinguished achievement in the field of education.” Since his retirement, Dr. Koppelman has compiled and edited an anthology on diversity issues for Allyn & Bacon entitled Perspectives on Human Differences: Selected Readings on Diversity in America (2010), and he finished another book on his grief experiences including essays, fiction, and poetry entitled Wrestling with the Angel: Literary Writings and Reflections on Death, Dying and Bereavement (2010, Baywood Publishing Company). Dr. Koppelman is currently working on a book for Teachers College Press tilted The Great Diversity Debate: Embracing Pluralism in School and Society that will be published in the spring of 2011. Dr. Koppelman and his wife Jan have been married for over 40 years, and their daughter, Tess, is a broadcast journalist in Kansas City.

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  • Cathy Seehuetter says:

    As a bereaved parent who writes about my child too, this is beautifully said. Thank you for this!

  • Cathy Seehuetter says:

    P.S. My daughter Nina also died in a car accident in 1995. I am the chapter leader and newsletter editor for the St. Paul Chapter of TCF. Would you give me permission to use this in an upcoming newsletter? We do not charge for our newsletters and will go out to approximately 300 people. Thank you.

  • Kent Koppelman says:

    Cathy,
    I am sorry to hear about your daughter. Garrison Keillor expressed my
    sentiments best when he said “Grief makes relatives of us all.” As for using
    the above short piece, you certainly have my permission to use it in your newsletter.
    Kent K

  • Sophie Johnson says:

    ‘When your child dies, memories of that child are like rocks strewn across the path of your grief journey, and when you trip on them it may be quite painful, but they also often trigger your mental camera. As you recall past images and scenes, they are often pleasant to remember; yet when they pass, the feeling that remains is the emptiness caused by the absence of this child.’

    I empathise completely, Kent. I, too, want my mental camera to keep being triggered, despite the ensuing pain. Indeed, my fear is that my ability to see my darling son clearly will weaken. It is only 19 days since his death. Please tell me: Do you dream of your dead son? I have had one dream of mine, on the second night after his death. It consisted of a short, mundane event that could have happened while he was alive: He came into my bedroom carrying a very heavy metal ladder with difficulty. I warned him to be careful, for he was about to hit the chandelier with the ladder. Then I was out of bed and on my hands and knees, picking up the shards. ‘It’s all right mum, I can glue it all back together,’ my son said, looking me straight in the eye. But he was crestfallen, clearly aware that the damage was not reparable.
    Please tell me your view of how much, if any, entitlement you think one has to take a dream like this to be a message from one’s dead child. Frankly, I am taking this dream as my son’s apology to me for having accidentally killed himself, despite my oft-expressed fear that he would.

  • Kent Koppelman says:

    Sophie,

    In my book, The Fall of a Sparrow, I describe a dream about a week after my son died, which appears to have rescued me from a deep bout of clinical depression. A few years later I addressed a grief group consisting of Native American people, mostly women. I told them what a doctor said about dreams possibly provoking a chemical reaction in the brain that purged me of the depression, but after my meeting with this group of women, I found that in their culture they believed that my son knew I needed him so he came to me in that dream to help me. Each of us can decide what explanations make the most sense to us, and in most cases I would choose the most rational explanation. But in this case, the women’s explanation is such a compelling one that I would rather embrace it than the doctor’s “clinical” explanation. I think you should believe what you choose to believe as well, in terms of what satisfies your deepest sense of what our world is or should be.

    Kent Koppelman

  • Thank you, Kent. You generously gave me the leave you knew I was seeking. And you did it exquisitely. I shall read your book, certainly.

  • Chris says:

    One can only hope they are not forgotten after passing.
    There is no joy without sorrow.