When Tom L. lost his son, Mike, age twenty, in a fiery motorcycle accident, he never dreamed he would write a book about it. In fact, Tom described himself as a poor student and felt fortunate to finish high school. But, ten years after his son’s death, he still carried a profound sense of sadness at losing his only child.

“Some friends thought I should be feeling better by that point,” recalled Tom. “But you just can’t push a button and make the pain go away.”

He visited a counselor who told him that what he was feeling, besides normal grief after devastating loss, might be unattended sorrow.

“Perhaps there is something else that you need to do, something that really allows you to express your feelings. Grief is like a garden in a heart washed out by a storm. You’ve got to tend the soil and grow new flowers. You seem to have a circle of supportive friends, but are there any details about your son and your relationship with him that you’d like others to know?  Why don’t you write me a list of those things, those thoughts that you want to nurture and grow.”

Tom started writing and couldn’t stop.

“I wrote my heart out,” he said.

Two weeks later he had two hundred pages describing his son and what it was like to be Mike’s father – and eventually his friend as Mike grew into a young adult.

Not everyone will attempt to work through grief by writing a book, but anyone who has experienced the death of a child of any age understands how profoundly difficult it is to ease the ache in the heart. What writing seems to encourage is to bring the bereaved back in connection with the lost child and to get beyond how and when they died, essentially to bring back who they were in life and all feelings for them – happy and sad. When a child dies in infancy, there is the enormous sense of loss of potential of what they might have become and the imagining of them at different ages never achieved, but the process of attending to sorrow and lost hope is the same.

For the bereaved parent and for those who want to help them tend the garden of grief in ways that ways that support healthy growth, here are some gardening tips:

  • Give permission to feel and express feelings. If emotions remain bottled up, one cannot experience feeling better. Crying is not only okay, it’s necessary. Intense moments of anger, denial, guilt and sorrow are normal. Speaking about the loss and acknowledging the presence of “if only…” sentiments will help to lift the weight of the loss off the heart, perhaps only for a moment, but each repetition releases some of the inescapable intensity of the reality that the child is gone. Writing may accomplish this by placing the thoughts and emotions on the page. The writer feels some relief because feelings are momentarily off-loaded into words.
  • Give grief its own schedule. No one is the same regarding the progress of grief through steps or stages. Couples often find that they are each grieving the child differently. There is no right way or right time. The transition to better coping may come as a surprise. The mother of a young man killed in Iraq described that one day, months after his death, she heard herself laughing spontaneously. “I never thought I’d laugh again,” she said.
  • Acknowledge that relationships change after a traumatic experience like the death of a child. Some people may need to distance themselves because it’s difficult for them to observe someone suffering or they may fear the loss of their own child.
  • Celebrate the memory of the child by creating a memorial event, making a donation in memory of the child, organizing a display of photographs, lighting candles in a memorial service, and celebrating the child’s birthday if it feels appropriate. When the six-year-old son of John Walsh was murdered, John helped to sponsor legislation that made laws tougher on convicted murderers and child molesters, and he created and hosted “America’s Most Wanted” on TV to track down violent criminals.


Those who have experienced the loss of a child through an accident or illness say that, in some cases, it took years to feel normal again. Some say that they felt moments of manic behavior during which they had to remind themselves to relax, slow down and learn how to find peace.  The most important advice reported by grieving parents was the permission to do what felt right at the moment and that no explanation to anyone was necessary. Some parents who normally found comfort in their faith, were surprised to feel anger that their child had not been rescued from a terrible fate. They may have even bargained with their God in exchange for whatever could be offered and felt rejected when the child died anyway. Again, this is a normal reaction to an excruciating event.

Tom said that when he first started writing his book he wasn’t sure he could survive, but writing down his thoughts became like speaking to a listener who was willing to hear anything. He eventually self-published his book and has shared it with other parents in similar circumstances.

“My son gave me a lot during his short life,” said Tom. “And in the end he even made me realize that I really was a good student after all. He left me a legacy of new confidence in myself. What more could a father ask for – except to have him back.”