Coming Full Circle: Helping a Young Couple Through Their Grief

Coming Full Circle: Helping a Young Couple Through Their Grief

by Liz Tingley
A therapist who lost a sibling during childhood shares her sense of gratitude when she has an opportunity to help parents who are grieving the loss of their own child.
Filed Under: Children, Grief/Loss


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A Matter of Death in Life

After seeing my last patient out, the sun in the back-office windows faded into twilight, darkly illuminating the autumn leaves. I began to feel weekend-ish, looking forward to a long, relaxed walk with Charley in the park, and the single gin and tonic with two limes, which I allowed myself on Friday evenings. As I put the day’s session notes on the desk, I saw the light blinking on the answering machine. One of my grad school colleagues and friend, Ben, sounded mildly upset.

“Hey Liz, I don’t know if you could see someone over the weekend, but a friend of mine just lost a baby to what they think is SIDS. They have a three-year-old son. They’re in shock and want to talk to someone about how to handle it with the kid. I thought of you immediately. It’s kind of urgent. Call me back.” 

I don’t know if you could see someone over the weekend, but a friend of mine just lost a baby to what they think is SIDS. They have a three-year-old son
I sat quietly, letting this request wash over me. Was this a little too close to home, me aged 3 with the dead brother? But this felt urgent to me, as it was my story. Then with certainty and a whole-body-resolve, I thought, I could be of help. I dialed my colleague back.

“Liz? Hey, thanks for calling back.”

“Sure. Give me some details.”

“Upper-middle-class family. Lives on the west side. Dad seriously Type A. Mom too, but she has an arty vibe. The dad, Mark, left early for work this morning and when mom got up later, she thought it was strange her one-year-old daughter Bonny hadn’t woken her up. Claire, the mom, found the baby blue and not breathing in the crib and called 911. Claire tried not to panic, because Angus, the three-year-old, was up. Angus saw the cops and the medics and watched as the baby was taken out of the apartment. I think Claire was really freaking out too. Mark called me — he is a friend of my brother’s — after the baby was pronounced dead at the hospital. He is worried about his wife and his son.”

“I can see them tomorrow morning before yoga. Nine?”


“Did the father describe the three-year-old’s reaction at all?”

“I think he is usually pretty rambunctious but after it all went down, apparently the kid has refused to talk and is very subdued.”

“Got it. Why don’t you just call them back with the time and give them my name, the office address, and my cell number in case by morning they change their minds. I assume they can afford a full fee?”

“Definitely,” Ben responded. “Great, I knew you were the person for this.”

“Thanks.” I hesitated and then said, “I think I am too.”

sometimes the universe is a sticky web. We get stuck in with those we need to know
Ben was a good guy. We had bonded over leukemia; Ben got sick with it in adolescence and had been able to tell me about that experience. This helped me to know what it may have been like for my brother. Sometimes the universe is a sticky web. We get stuck in with those we need to know.

As I hung up, I realized I was somewhat daunted by the intensity of this referral, but felt it was necessary I take it on. What will I learn by touching the rawest parental grief over a lost child? Would I learn something about what my parents really went through when Jim died, or what I went through then too?  

The weekend feeling vanished, but I was still up to mixing my gin and tonic.

The next morning, I knew I needed to be centered and calm. Before my shower, I breathed in the roses on the terrace and then gave Charley’s belly some extra rubbing. As Charley and I walked to the office, I kept my awareness on what I could take in through my senses: the silver-grey concrete, the smell of traffic, the feeling of my foot hitting the pavement, and the cool morning air. I would have to steady my own feelings, so my own ancient grief did not disrupt what the family needed to bring to me. I had been known to get tears in my eyes when my patients were in pain.   

At the office, Charley snoozed under my desk, and I settled into my buttery soft leather shrink chair. I kept working to find the right emotional space to work from — calm, steady, receptive. I didn’t get to stay put long when the outer doorbell rang. Game on.

A Sense of Helpless Defeat

I tried to softly smile as I greeted them. “Hi, I’m Liz Tingley. Please do come in.”

The father shoved out his hand and said, “Mark McNitt. This is my wife, Claire Holm.” They were in their late twenties, both tall, the woman quite thin. She was blond and the man’s hair had a reddish tint. They wore jeans, he with a jacket and button-down shirt. She had on a light-colored linen sweater, her long blond hair held back from her face in a ponytail. Their expressions were somber. Neither looked like they had slept.

I studied her face, pressed lips, red, swollen dull eyes. This plummeted me back to my own mother’s dark hole eyes the morning after my brother died, the look that made me back away so as to not get sucked all the way into her blackness. I felt a muscle in my neck tighten.

Stay in the present, Lizzie.   

“Please come in,” I repeated, gesturing toward the adult patient chairs on one side of the room. Mark took his wife by the hand, almost depositing her in the first seat.

Type A alright, but protective too. She needs that now. That memory of my father pulling my mother to him, as we left the hospital where they learned Jim would die, reverberated in my head.   

“Ben only told me a bit of what’s happened to you,” I said as I sat back. I made eye contact with each of them slowly, lingering a bit with Claire, her eyes tearing as she met my gaze. “Just tell me where you are.”

Mark reached over to hold Claire’s hand. He spoke first. “In shock, really.” Claire nodded.

“Yes. And it will take a while for that to wear off,” I said softly and paused. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

Claire nodded. “It was a usual morning, except that we had been out late to friends for dinner with both kids the night before. We put the two of them down for bed about an hour or so later than usual. So, in the morning, when I didn’t hear Bonny stirring, I didn’t think anything of it.” She broke down, sobbing. Mark put his arm around her.

she must be feeling guilty, like if she had checked right away, the child might have lived
She must be feeling guilty, like if she had checked right away, the child might have lived.

“You had no reason to think it wasn’t normal for her to sleep in a little.”

Claire nodded as she sobbed. She pulled herself together. “Angus was playing in his room. I could hear him. So, I put the coffee on first and then went into Bonny’s room. She was lying on her side, with her head in an odd position. When I touched her, I knew something was wrong. She was blue. I screamed, grabbed her up, and called 911. They had me try to clear her airway and do mouth to mouth. When the paramedics got there, they took over. They took her away and I called Mark to meet them at the ER.” She looked down, her voice tapering off to a whisper and then she stopped.

Mark finished the story. “She was already dead,” he said. “The EMTs told me that at the hospital.” In a monotone, he continued, “They let me see her.” He teared up too but bravely went on. “They told me it was an unexplained death and they had to investigate. They called the Agency for Children’s Services and the cops. They’ve kind of been at the house since.”

Claire continued, “They said it’s a ‘SIDS-like’ death, but she was too old for SIDS.” She was trying to hold onto her tears but couldn’t. “She was nearly a month premature, but she had caught up at her one-year check-up. She seemed so healthy.”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to match my tone to hers, this inexplicable crazy fact of her dead baby.

“And Angus,” Claire again began to cry, with a panicked tone.

“That is why we are here, Dr. Tingley, to figure out what to do for him.” Mark sat up straight in his chair, ready for instructions.

Inwardly I groaned. They couldn’t fix this for their son, or for themselves any time soon, and I could see that at least Mark wanted a solution now. They were going to have to live in grief with him and themselves for a long while.

“Yes, let’s do talk about Angus. But let’s not go too fast to him. Before I can share what might help you with him, I want to know more about how you are experiencing today and yesterday. What has this been like for you?”

Claire sat back in her chair, with an air of defeat. “Devastated. And I feel a cascade of things. Exhaustion.”   

what agency they had left they needed to carry them through the next few days
That’s it, the sense of helpless defeat when you can’t protect your child. Though no one’s fault, it feels like a parental failure. I decided this was not the moment to elaborate this. What agency they had left they needed to carry them through the next few days.

Mark too leaned back in his chair, looked at his wife, and then made piercing eye contact with me. I held his gaze, to reflect the pain I saw on his face. Mark added slowly, “I didn’t know something could feel this bad.”

“Those feelings for you aren’t going away for a long time. And there is a lot to get through,” I replied.

“I know they just have to do their job, but I feel like both the cops and the social workers are very suspicious of us,” Claire reported.

I nodded.

Mark jumped in. “We know we didn’t do anything to cause this. The autopsy will show that. They just have to follow up.” Claire hung her head.

“You want to know how I am?” Mark continued, his tone now angry. “I am so mad. Not at the cops, but this is so unfair. Cosmically unjust. And Angus is suffering.”   

Ah, he is trying to protect his son, because he “failed” to protect his daughter. 

“It is,” I said with emphasis, “Completely unfair.”

Mark met my eyes again and a tiny sliver of real connection seemed present, but he was rushing to solve the problem at hand, his son’s trauma from this abrupt death of his sister. “So, what can we do to help Angus?”

I decided to work with his wish for some answers. “What has been his reaction so far?”

Claire grimaced. “I’m not sure what he was doing when I found her, and I was screaming and trying to breathe life into her. He came out into the living room when the EMTs arrived. He looked spooked. And my son is usually a little bit of a tough kid.” Here she smiled just a bit.

Mark added, “He is usually a little bit oblivious and is very active, in his own world.”

Claire went on, “After they took Bonny away, he started to cry and asked where she was going. I feel like I came to my senses then and told him she was sick and going in the ambulance to the hospital and that Daddy would meet her there. He seemed to take that in. I said Sandy, his babysitter, was coming while I went to the hospital too. He asked me to stay with him but then I left him with Sandy. She was reading to him when I went out. We didn’t know what to say when we came back, with Bonny dead.” Claire started to sob uncontrollably.   

I sat, looking at them both, trying to generate warmth, allowing her strong affect to flow and for me to receive it
I sat, looking at them both, trying to generate warmth, allowing her strong affect to flow and for me to receive it. Mark went over to hold Claire, his eyes wet too. Finally, Claire’s sobs receded, and she sat up, grabbed a tissue from the table next to her.

“How does it feel to let it out?” I asked.

She smiled faintly. “It’s not like regular crying. It doesn’t get any better if you let it out or hold it in.”

“Yes, the grief is intense, and it won’t go away altogether, ever. It may, with time, be less intense.”

She nodded, then continued her description of Angus’s reaction to the chaos. “When we got back, Angus was not himself. He clearly knew that something was terribly wrong. He won’t talk now, not a word. And he is not his usual bundle of energy. He kind of just sits there.” Claire paused. “What should we say?”

“It’s hard to know how to explain this to him when you can’t explain it to yourselves,” I replied. Both parents looked so utterly sad, helpless, and young. “I don’t know what you should say exactly, but we can think about it together. It has to be honest. You have to say that she is dead, that her heart and brain stopped working, and that she is never coming back. Do you have any religious views that you want to give him about death?”

They glanced at each other and then said, “No, not really,” simultaneously. That was a good sign; they were attuned to each other. That could go a long way to help them get through this.

“Has he ever stopped talking before?” I asked.

Mark shook his head. “He did have some pronunciation problems and he’s had some speech therapy but no, he’s never stopped talking before. Though he is an action kind of kid usually.”

“How old is he exactly?”

“Three and a half.”

That gave me an idea of how he thought. Concretely. And with probably slightly underdeveloped narrative skills given what else they were saying about his language. It might be hard for him to participate in creating a coherent story about this.

“Okay. Basically, what I said before goes to the main point, to let him know that Bonny is dead.” I watched to see how they would react to this clear statement of the reality. Mark minimally flinched but I went on. “Angus will not understand death at his age. I always recommend the book The Dead Bird by the lady who wrote Goodnight Moon. It is simple and direct. You can read it to him over and over if he wants, to help him understand.”   

Mark took out his phone and made a note of the book. “I will order it when we leave.”

I continued, “And even though you tell him once that Bonny is dead, he will likely need to hear it more than once, because he will understand it differently than you think he does. I mean, cartoons make sense to kids; when the guy gets run over and then he pops back up. Permanence doesn’t mean the same thing to preschoolers as it does to us.”

Both parents nodded.

“Don’t force him to talk but keep talking to him. Empathize with his state of shock. Label his feelings, including confusion. Children often regress under stress. His language sounds a little vulnerable. It’s not surprising that he might lose that. He might regress in other ways too, toileting for instance, or not being able to sleep alone.”

Mark almost chuckled. “Claire had him in our bed last night, and he had been in his own room for more than a year.”

“I had to be sure he would make it through the night, Mark,” Claire said, distressed.  

“I understand completely,” I replied. “And it was wise. He needs your physical presence more than anything, and to the extent that you can, your emotional presence as well. Children are most reassured by their parents. You need to help him feel safe. Mark, can you be okay with that for now?”

“Of course. Claire, I didn’t mean…” She nodded at him.  

Different Ways of Grieving

“One part of this, as you try to manage what Angus needs, is to allow each other to need things that might be different. There is a lot of research suggesting men and women often grieve differently.”

Claire asked, “What do you mean?”

“Let me ask Mark. When are you going back to work?”

“Oh, I’ll want to get back in a couple of days. I can’t imagine sitting around like this for very long.” Claire looked horrified.

“That is what I mean. To feel useful and in the routine can often feel like healing to men. Often, women find they just need more time together. And that conflict can be misunderstood by both. I wonder, Mark, if you really will want to get back to work so soon, and if you will be able to meet your need to do that and balance what Claire and Angus might need.”

Mark looked at his wife. “We can talk about it, of course.” She smiled for the first time.

“When we have the funeral, should Angus be there?” Claire asked.

“Yes, unless there is some compelling reason elsewise. But you need a back-up plan, in case he is disruptive or very upset, or you feel you can’t grieve as you need to with him there. Someone who could take him out and could bring him back. It has to be someone he knows and trusts. Though he won’t understand all the nuances, he will be a part of saying good-bye to his sister, with you and family and friends. That’s what matters,” I said.

why couldn’t someone have said these things to my parents? Why?
I could have cried right then. I had succeeded in pushing my past out during most of the session, but something felt very big, pressing down inside of me, my own emotional exhaustion at trying to hold them and me at the same time. They were hurting and it hurt to see that, to feel the hurt with them, as I suggested what they do for Angus. Why couldn’t someone have said these things to my parents? Why? But I had to push that question away for the moment. I still had work to do.

“This is, not to sound clichéd, a process,” I continued. “It is going to take time. The goal with Angus is to help him have a story to tell himself about this time and about his lost sister, a story that will become part of his life story, that helps him feel that it is coherent and hangs together. To do that, you are also going to have to be willing to be with him over time and to talk about your own sadness and grief and confusion — of course in a modulated way when you can — so that he feels you all together.”

Mark let out a big sigh. “That fits with so much of my gut instinct, but already I can see that Claire’s mother wants to take him out to her house in Westchester, so we have time to cope and make arrangements. But I want him with us. Don’t you Claire?”

“I’m not letting him out of my sight for more than five minutes,” she answered forcefully.

“Is he close to his grandmother?” I asked.

“Well, yes and no. She travels a lot, but when she is around, she is super fun with him.”

Grandparent as playmate. Not what this kid needs right now.

“Some of that will be fine, but more as time goes on. You will deserve breaks sometimes, but now he needs you. As best you can, give him that,” I said softly. Both were quiet for a moment, and I saw Mark disconnect and return to some state of shock.

“I think this is enough for now,” Mark said. “You have given us the start, a preliminary road map. Claire?”

Claire nodded, tearing up slightly, and said, “Thank you Dr. Tingley. I feel like I have some better ideas about helping Angus.”

“I’m glad it feels helpful. It’s going to be a tough row to hoe, but I think you have what it takes to get it done. And remember, like always with parenting, taking care of yourselves is also a way to take care of Angus.” I made full-on eye contact, first with Claire and then Mark. “And remember I am here. Call if you need more.”

Claire bowed her head at me as they stood. Mark shook my hand.

when I returned to my chair, I let the tension of holding myself together through the session evaporate
When I returned to my chair, I let the tension of holding myself together through the session evaporate. Silently, I still felt all the same terror, confusion, sadness, helplessness, and anger as Mark and Claire, but I knew I had done decent work with them. I also thought, as Ben had said, that I was the perfect person for this — on many levels. It wasn’t just my 40-plus years in the field, working in childcare with toddlers, where I lived with children’s everyday tears and frustrations, or the career in academic developmental psychology where I learned the research that supported work with young children, or even my time as clinical psychologist, where I found a theoretical frame and the tools to connect with and manage pain and growth. It was all of that combined with my own experience of early loss, that brought me here to be able to do this job, this day. That felt satisfying.

There was another feeling, too. Gratitude. These two grieving people had come to me, trusted me, taken in my empathy and knowledge. I was honored they had let me in at such a time in their lives.

A circle was complete. My career began because I wanted people to take the emotional experience of young children seriously, as my parents had not. I had just done exactly this for Angus. This small child, whom I’d never even meet, allowed me to finish what I started, unconsciously, so very long ago, saving myself, and all the children I had touched in my career, from the denial of their young children’s grief and pain and the aftermath.

A quite different sensation took hold: I am done. I will not be compelled to do this work anymore. My mission is complete. I could work, but I didn’t have to, the compulsion gone. I slumped down, exhausted, and exhilarated. Was there time to get to yoga?  

Postscript: I did not see the family again but heard from my colleague that they had relocated to Vermont and had another child. I also did not give up the practice of psychotherapy but now see many more adolescents and adults in my practice.  

© 2024,
Liz Tingley Liz Tingley, PhD, grew up in a small midwestern town, and has a B.A. in English from Oberlin College. She migrated East after college and lived there with a couple of minor detours, for forty years. She has an MS in Infant and Parent Development from Bank Street College of Education. She worked as a teacher and director of the Harvard Law School Child Care Center early in her career. She then obtained a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Boston University and held faculty positions at the University of Texas at Dallas, Bennington College and Bank Street College of Education. She received her second doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the City University of New York CUNY). She did her postdoctoral training at the Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Program of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (IPTAR). She was in private practice as a psychologist in New York City for many years and taught and supervised psychologists at IPTAR, CUNY/CCNY and Pace University. She relocated to Illinois in 2017, where she practices as a clinical psychologist, directs the Child Diagnostic Clinic, acts as the chief psychologist, and supervises and teaches in the psychiatry residency program at Carle Health in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. She returned so her dog Charley could have a big yard, and to fight Trump on the ground.