It's a parent's worst nightmare.
And no matter waht the textbooks say, the effects on a family can last many, many years.
Susan Hendricks is co-ordinator of the Durham Region branch of Bereaved Families of Ontario. She lost her daughter Kristina in a car accident four years ago. She says losing a child through death is different from any other type of bereavement.
"When you lose someone you love, it's like losing an arm. But when it's your child, it's like losing your lungs - your life breath is gone."
Parents who have lost children through death have distinct emotions to work through. For one thing, it seems extremely unfair that a child should go before his or her parents.
"It's as if the whole natural order of things is turned upside down. You lose your sense of identity was wrapped up in being Kristina's mom and alter a grandmother to her children."
After her daughter's death, Hendricks soon realized she had particular concerns and needs that couldn't be met by therapists and well-meaning friends.
That's why she sought out Bereaved Families of Ontario (At that time, the closest branch was in Toronto.)
Bereaved Families is a self-help organization staffed by bereaved persons. Group leaders are trained by the professionals community, who also help in the development of programs. The idea of the organization is to help families cope and return to mainstream life.
It was through the Toronto group that Hendricks met antoher Durham resident Marion Rehr. Together they decided to start up a Durham region branch - which they did at the end of 1993. Last year they begun running their 12-week programs.
Once members have joined a group (which includes six to 12 members) the discussions followed a prescribed path. In the first week, group members tell their stories. In the second week the funeral is discussed, because it is important to recognize the finality of it all, says Hendricks.
Then other topics are covered, such as getting-through-the-day, relations with family and friends, and sexuality between the couples. After that, the discussion and topics are left up to the group members.
The most important aspect to such self-help meetings is that you are surrounded by people who understand very well how you are feeling.
"I had wonderful support from friends, but regardless of their good intentions, they still have not experienced what you have experienced," says Hendricks. "People treat you differently. They try to protect you, and they are well-meaning, but they make you feel as if you are sick and abnormal."
In a group though, people can express themselves and feel they are understood, says Hendricks.
"Often someone will turn to you and say, 'Yeah, that happened to me as well.' And then you feel normalized."
Hendricks points out that the group is funded entirely by donations. It is a charitable organization and donations are tax-deductable.
by Michelle Young, March 12 1995