COLBERT: Surviving the death of a child

January 14, 2020

I am the mother of two sons. David is my oldest and Derek my youngest. As their mother, I have sweet memories of them… growing up, playing in sports, hugs, laughter, silliness and seeing them do something unique or kind. Good memories.

Some memories, however, are painful. One of the most painful is about the day I learned that David had suffered a heat stroke and was in critical condition in Singapore. I boarded a plane to fly to him that night and prayed all the way.

I didn’t know what I would find when I arrived many hours later. Would he be alive? Would he be conscious? Would he be OK and tell me that I had made the trip for nothing? I began reading about heat stroke and all the damage it can do to someone, even cause death. With fear in my heart and prayers on my lips, I made the long trip to Singapore.

The loss of a child is the unthinkable, the unimaginable. No one knows how to cope with it until it happens to you.

The fight to save David’s life lasted almost six full months. He never left the hospital except to be transferred to a different hospital in Singapore and then here to Houston. He desperately wanted to come home to Texas. But even that was a struggle due to his fragile condition.

Eventually, with the help of many people and a great medical team, we got him here. I think now that perhaps that is what he was waiting for. Two weeks later, he passed away on Oct. 12, 2018. It was the most wrenching period of my life — to watch my child suffer, to see him fight for life, to overcome tremendous setbacks due to kidney and liver failure, then ultimately lose the battle.

The loss of a child is the unthinkable, the unimaginable. No one knows how to cope with it until it happens to you.

People describe it as being part of a club you never asked to join. Indeed, my husband and I have joined the thousands of parents whose lives are never the same after losing a child.

To help me cope, I have reached out to other parents who have also lost children and now I am part of an online support group. Over the past year since David died I have read and responded to many comments and testimonies from parents who are grieving.

Some of them lost their child due to cancer or another illness, others lost their child due to an accident, still others lost their child due to violence or murder, and on it goes.

Although our journeys are different, many of the feelings and challenges are the same, no matter the age or the reason a child has died. Shock is one of the ways that we can get through the funeral, and the aftermath of death. Deep sadness is something you learn to live with. We cry more tears that we ever thought possible.

Some describe a crisis of faith: “Why didn’t God save my child?” A common feeling is that one’s meaning in life has somehow been lost. We can feel so bereft that it becomes hard to stay focused, difficult to return to work and normal activities of daily living, and it may be hard to make decisions.

Parents often feel guilt. Part of our job as parents is to protect our children, and when your child dies, you feel that somehow you didn’t do enough to protect them or save them. Some people experience physical illness as a result of the loss.

So, to you parents who have lost a child, I would share this. Hold on to your faith no matter what it takes. Stand firm in the knowledge that God is with you in the saddest of times and that God was with your child when he or she traveled home to heaven.

Pray often. God hears you.

During my son’s illness and still today, I pray the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. I feel a closer connection to our Blessed Mother. She too watched her Son die, so I know she understands what I am going through. You may want to speak with a counselor. There are counselors who are trained in grief recovery and they can help tremendously.

With a counselor, your spouse, your priest — talk about your feelings. Talk about your child to people you trust. I encourage you to find ways to meet and talk with other parents who have lost children or join a support group. They know and understand what you are going through and it is imperative to obtain support because you are going to need it.

If you have lost a child, then you know that this grief is so profound, it brings you to your knees with weeping some days. Like a sleeper wave in the ocean, it can overwhelm you even on days when things are going well. Life is never the same. But in the past year, I have also learned that it is possible to have times of joy again, to find purpose in life and to smile and laugh when I remember my son.

Getting through loss is difficult. Be kind to yourself. Surround yourself with support from family, friends, loved ones. Share stories about your child with trusted friends and family memories.

Do something in memory of your child. Create a new family tradition that pairs with specific holidays or landmark times of the year — like a family trip or hike, or volunteering at a charity in town.

Since my son’s death, I have observed that we at Catholic Charities can do a better job in supporting parents who have lost children. So through Catholic Charities’ counseling program, we are taking some steps to aid grieving parents. In 2020, we will hold a retreat (date and location to be confirmed) for grieving parents, and begin support groups.

My son David was an adventurer; he loved to travel, meet new people and experience new cultures. He was quiet, he was kind, he had a sense of humor that made me laugh every time he teased me about something, and he had great compassion.

I am proud of the man he became and I am so very grateful to be his mother. If you have experienced the loss of a child and would like to talk, I invite you to email me at or call me at 713-526-4611. If you would like to share ideas about how Catholic Charities can minister to grieving parents, I invite you to contact me with your thoughts.

Cynthia Colbert is president and CEO of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.