By Bob Thompson —

Although we know that after a loss the acute state of mourning will subside, we also know we remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it is filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually this is how it should be. It is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish. — Sigmund Freud

This year marked a milestone regarding my son’s death that I noted but did not celebrate. This year was the year that Paul has been dead longer than he lived. To use an overused but nonetheless accurate word to describe my feelings, it felt “surreal.”

It was that feeling that possessed a dream-like quality of unreality as I thought about it. Thinking about it further, I realize that the whole experience of my son’s death was surreal. From the moment of the first phone call through the funeral, memorial service, and dark days that followed, it all had an unnatural feeling.

The first year’s goal was to function, and somehow we did that. But after that first year, we had to learn to live and love and laugh again, and those are harder tasks. It’s hard to laugh when the vulture of death is sitting on your shoulder and harder to love when acute pain wells up in you at unexpected moments. Yet that is what we must do for our own sakes, the sakes of our partners, and truly for the good of everyone whose lives we touch. And most of all, we must do it for the child who has left us. And yet even now, we live in the shadow of our pain and awareness of our loss.

In a book first published in 1986, Beyond Endurance. When a Child Dies, Ronald J. Knapp describes six characteristics that parents who have suffered the loss of a child hold in common. His conclusions are not the result of theories formed in an academic vacuum, but rather research based on extended interviews with 155 families over a five-year period. In my opinion, it is still one of the best longitudinal and compassionate studies of what parents experience after the death of a child regardless of whether the death occurs suddenly and unexpectedly, or is the result of a prolonged illness or is due to murder or suicide. One of the six characteristics is a term coined by Knapp, “shadow grief.”

Knapp states that “shadow grief” is a form of chronic grief. He describes it as a painful awareness of the child’s death that never goes completely away and that prevents us from fully experiencing the joys of living. While we function normally, shadow grief “is characterized by a dull ache in the background of one’s feelings that remains fairly constant and that…..on certain occasions comes bubbling to the surface….always accompanied by a feeling of sadness…..”

By now, we have learned to choose those with whom we share stories of our child’s life and perhaps the circumstances of his or her death. Such sharing on our part is not easily borne by everyone so we pick and choose and sometimes move on to new friends. It is not our wish to burden others with our sadness. Yet the sadness engulfs us and affects who we are. Even if we are not defined by it we are shaped by it and we cannot run from it anymore than we can run from our shadows.

Just as we can see our shadow better on some days more than others we are more aware of the shadow of our grief some days than others. On some days, it becomes very plain and bright and at other times we say, “Good morning” to it and it recedes for the rest of the day. But it is always there following us even if we and others can’t see it. It has become part of us and we of it.

Now, almost 20 years after my son’s death, I embrace the shadow of my grief. Partly because it’s there and I can no more deny it than I can deny my son’s life, and partly because it serves to remind me of him and brings back memories that I find pleasant. I no longer care if others want to hear the story of my sorrow and I don’t feel any compulsion to share it unless there is genuine interest on their part. What once was important to me has become less so as I weave the tapestry of my own life. My son lives in my memory of him and my grief shadow is his grief shadow too. Grief over an uncompleted life snatched away in its prime.

Very recently I was in the north woods just before sunrise sitting on a stump and watching a brown creeper spiral down a large white pine tree. As the sun rose higher behind me I watched my shadow lengthen on the ground. I thought about my son and the times we spent in the woods together and the joys and humor that we shared with his brothers. Those memories like my shadow are always there and always comfort.

With apologies to the psalmist, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”….I will live my life.

This article was Previously published in Living With LossTM Magazine, Spring Issue, by Bereavement Publications, Inc, in the Healing the Body, Mind & Spirit Column, 2009, Living in the Shadow by Robert R. Thompson, M.D.  (888) 604-4673,

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Robert Thompson

Dr. Robert R. Thompson, M.D. graduated from Thomas Jefferson University Medical School in 1965. After an internship in Akron, Ohio he joined the US Public Health Service and was sent to Alaska. He and his wife, Martha spent two years in remote Alaskan villages. Having adjusted to life in the arctic they decided to return, with their two sons, Andrew and Peter, to Minnesota where a third son Paul was born. Dr. Thompson completed one year of a psychiatry residency at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and then opted for rural family practice. During his career Dr. Thompson served as hospice consultant for a community hospital and eventually worked in a federal medical prison taking care of the terminally ill. The Thompson’s youngest son, Paul, was killed in a traffic accident in 1989 at the age of eighteen. The family was devastated by the loss but with the help of family, friends, church, and a national organization known as The Compassionate Friends eventually were able to adjust to this loss and return to a normal life forever marked by the experience. After retirement, Dr. Thompson decided he could help others who have lost children by describing the healing journey Martha and he took after Paul’s death. "Remembering:The Death of a Child" describes that journey and provides hope and healing for other parents and siblings who have lost a child.

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