No Greater Grief Healing: When a parent loses a child, recovery is out of the question. As one such parent, Ann Finkbeiner went looking for common answers and found only uncommon pain.

July 16, 1996|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Ann Finkbeiner remembers the last time she saw her son: He was tall, blond, 18, excited about art photography and his freshman year at the Rhode Island School of Design. He was also in love. He was so eager to return to his girlfriend, in fact, that he cut short his Christmas vacation in Baltimore.

His mother put him on the train on Jan. 4, 1987, kissed him goodbye and told him she was proud of him. He said he was, too.

Twenty minutes later, in Chase, Md., a freight train crashed into his train. Thomas Carl Colley was one of 16 people who died.

And his mother was left behind on a familiar, yet completely alien, planet.

During the past nine years, the award-winning science and medical writer has struggled to understand and manage existence without her only child. Meanwhile, she has continued to publish articles in such magazines as The Sciences -- she specializes in origins of the universe -- and to teach science writing part-time in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. She co-authored "The Guide to Living with HIV Infection," the definitive guidebook for people with AIDS.

And she embarked on a project that might seem unthinkable: She interviewed 30 other parents who had lost children to cancer, accidents, suicide, even murder, in her search to define what she, and other bereaved parents, endure.

"When I read through the early grief research, it said that recovery should happen in about six weeks and if it took longer than that, it was probably pathological," Finkbeiner says. "What the research now says is that they don't know what recovery is. And they don't know what pathology is."

"After the Death of A Child: Living with Loss Through the Years" (The Free Press, $23) is the first book to examine the long-term nature of parental grief through the tales of those who suffer it. Although the book includes most current grief research, its authorities are parents, not psychologists.

Their stories demonstrate how limitless and individual such grief can be, how doomed any attempt to 12-step a path through it.

"Letting go of a child is impossible," Finkbeiner writes. "One of my earliest and most persistent reactions to T.C.'s death was surprise. I had no idea whatever how much he meant to me. All I knew was that I hadn't wanted to think about it.

"Right after he was killed, I was in shock for a very, very long time," she says. "But I was thinking, 'Well, I sort of know how this is going to go. It's going to be the same general outline as my father's death. I'm going to be OK.' And then I started thinking, 'Something's wrong with me because things aren't OK. And they are never going to be OK.' "

'Reasons for being on earth'

Sitting in her writing studio in Mill Centre, a bright, airy room decorated with posters of Renaissance art and photographs by her son, Finkbeiner has a face etched by laughter, pain and skepticism. At 52, she believes she has seen the worst life can offer her, and its knowledge remains in her hazel eyes.

Part of what she knows is just how much a child means.

"We choose our own lives and die our own deaths. But we don't choose our love of, alliance with, or obligations to our children," she writes. "Our children are much more central; they're something like our own humanness or our reasons for being on earth. If children are part of parents, they are not arms or legs but bones or breath."

Her book is a stirring tribute to those mothers and fathers who must learn how to breathe again. Through meetings of Compassionate Friends, a support group for bereaved parents, she encountered a brave tribe trying to cope in a world where "nobody knows."

The parents who responded to Finkbeiner's query to be interviewed -- she placed an ad in the Compassionate Friends newsletter -- had lost children at least five years before. She talked to parents who were old and young, male and female, Christian and Jewish, black and white, biological and adoptive.

And she listened to the stories almost everyone is scared to hear.

Parents spoke of new priorities, broken marriages, difficult friendships and complicated relationships with remaining children.

They talked about their attempts to make sense of what had happened, about the impact on their belief in God.

They discussed how they remain close to the memory of their children, about the search to find other vessels worthy of such love and hope.

They pondered whether "recovery" exists.

"For me, the most interesting sentence in the whole book is, 'If you want to know the nature of a bond, look at what happens when it's broken,' " Finkbeiner says. "That was what grief researchers were all doing, they were looking at the nature of a bond by looking at grief. It was like early brain research: You had to wait until someone had a terrible head injury before you knew what a certain part of the brain did."

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