Dealing with the Death of an Adult Child
In January 2008, Brandon Worthing-Davies the son of Richard and Sally Worthing-Davies, the Partners of Swift Counselling, died of incurable and inoperable cancer. In May of 2008 they were asked to do ‘Thought for the Day’ for five days on BBC Local Radio and chose to talk about how they coped with their son’s death.
These talks are reproduced below in the hope that some of what was said might be of help to others who have gone or are going through a similar experience of loss – whether caused by the illness/death of a close family member or some other suffering. The talks represent their attempt to make sense of what happened and they clearly reflect some of their foundational beliefs about the nature of the world and of human existence. However, even these beliefs have been shaped by their recent experience and are not the same as those they might have held prior to their son’s illness and death. Long held assumptions about our world can easily be shattered by actual experience, and that has been true to some degree for them too.
We describe ourselves as psychotherapists who happen to be Christian. We work in private practice and deal with a wide variety of issues including couples and families with relationship concerns, individuals suffering from depression, anxiety and trauma induced stress disorders as well as with people who have lost a loved one.
In August 2007 our son Brandon, aged 35, was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer and given 4 to 6 months of life. In fact he lived for 5 months and died on January 10th 2008 from complications linked to the chemotherapy treatment he was having. Although we knew in our heart of hearts that he would not recover from the cancer, never the less, his actual death was a terrible blow to us, his sister and his wife of one year.
One possible response to this calamity, one quite common in our culture and well represented in the media, is to search for someone or something to blame – God, perhaps, for allowing this to occur, or the NHS for not diagnosing the condition earlier or the Government for not putting enough money into cancer research. But we haven’t gone down this path, though each day still brings a sense of loss and some days, a deep sadness. We avoided this and have come through it because of two sources of wisdom: our Christian faith, informed by the Bible, and secondly by what we have learned and applied from our work as psychotherapists. These have been crucial in how we have handled the loss of Brandon, and have been enabled to move forward in our own lives.
Over the next four days we will share with you how we acquired a way of understanding the world that didn’t demand that we should hold someone responsible for what happened to Brandon. Also we will share the insights from our work that defined a process for handling grief, which focused on thanksgiving for his life rather than a lament for what might have been. Finally, we will say how we were able to remain hopeful for the future despite Branson’s suffering and death.
A friend, when he heard of our son’s illness and death, wondered how come this terrible thing had happened to us, mentioning several things, including our Christian belief, which he seemed to think qualified us for some sort of protection from the ills of the world. We were rather surprised by his comment, and this led us to reflect on the nature of our western culture, which seems to be shaped by the notion that we can avoid hardship and suffering, and indeed have paradise now! Had our friend ‘bought into’ this notion too, allowing it to shape the way he saw God and his own faith? The Apostle Paul, one of the early leaders of the Christian community, saw this sort of danger in his own lifetime and warned Christians not to allow their faith to be twisted out of shape by their culture.1
So, how have we got to this idea that we can have paradise now? First, it’s hard not to believe and act as if scientific knowledge and technological advances can sort out all problems of pain and suffering. Second, for some people there seems to be a disconnect between behaviour and consequences. As psychotherapists working with troubled families we see adults and children who appear to think they can do whatever they want without suffering any negative consequences, and over the last ten years we have all been encouraged to use credit without serious thought so that we can have what we want now.
But are we beginning to question this blithe assumption that we can all have paradise now? The exploitation of our planet through science has brought to our notice climate change. Government is already contemplating the idea that parts of our East coast will be uninhabitable in the foreseeable future. The credit crunch has brought home to millions the risk of incurring unsustainable debt. The Bible paints a picture of our world that is miles away from the notion that we can have paradise now; rather the picture we get is of a less than perfect world.2 It is a world of complexity and wonder beyond our understanding, yet a world where suffering and death are inevitable and where bad things happen to good people. Despite this, the Bible also suggests how to live in it with hope in our hearts3.
Earlier generations of people, both Christian and those of other religions, were concerned with finding the wisdom to face and cope with the hardships of life. We moderns are more often than not simply offended by hardships. Rumi was a 13th century Sufi Muslim mystic and poet. In one of his poems he likens a human being to a guest house. Every morning a new arrival – a joy, a depression, a meanness. Even if the arrival is a crowd of sorrows, he advises that we treat each guest honourably – he may be clearing us out for some new delight. Be grateful for whoever comes, he suggests, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond4.
The contrast between modernity and the past in which there was a more general acceptance of suffering and death as a natural part of human life, is striking. Our faith, with it’s understanding of the world as less than perfect, puts us firmly in the camp of earlier generations, so that our response to our son’s unexpected death was to seek ways to face and cope with it.
The second piece of wisdom we encountered was in an article we read about how early Christian leaders dealt with death of loved ones in their communities. While acknowledging the grief and distress caused by death, a picture is built of the lost person and thanksgiving for their life is offered to God. So, we did just that. At Brandon’s funeral his immediate family all spoke and a wonderful picture emerged of an incredibly brave, humorous and loving person, though one with some annoying and frustrating ways too. Since then friends have told us of other aspects of his life that we were unaware of – how he offered them wisdom and constant friendship in good times and especially when they were going through bad times.
In remembering ‘what has been’, one avoids the temptation when someone dies young of focusing on the legacy of ‘what might have been’. Richard Morrison, writing in the Times newspaper about the death of the film director, Anthony Minghella wrote, “Once death arrives, the book is finished. The notion that we can tidy up or even control our own exit is a very modern fallacy. Our ancestors knew better”.5 So we celebrated Brandon’s life, believing with Morrison that it is better to celebrate what is wonderful in a short life than to bemoan what may seem to be missing had the person lived longer.
In facing up to life without Brandon, we have been informed by our psychotherapeutic practice. Conventional bereavement counselling can seem very prescriptive about the stages of grief people must pass through to be able to ‘move on’ and leave behind whatever is troubling them. To us and others, this seems to be a very Western and limited way of thinking. In much of the world, people think of the deceased as living with them, unseen but there never the less.6
What this suggested to us was that instead of simply trying to ‘move on’ we should consider how we could take the person, Brandon, on with us, rather than just seeking to leave him behind. And that is what we have done in a very deliberate way. It has meant choosing to be in dialogue with others who knew Brandon and to hear and read others’ stories about him. This process has enabled us to develop a richer more rounded picture of the person he was. We have also searched through pictures of him in key times of his life that show him in various stages of his personhood. We have put these pictures in prominent places in our house where we walk or sit. We have shared the care of his cat and dog with Brandon’s in-laws who live in Wales near us. In a sense the animals were Brandon’s children. One of us has also kept a diary of significant experiences and events during his illness and since his death. And we have kept in contact with his lovely wife as much as she wants as she manages her grief in her own unique way. Consequently, we feel Brandon is with us rather than being left behind as we journey into the future.
In the Bible, Jesus is recorded as saying that all of us, whether living or dead are alive in God.7 This idea reinforces the sense we have that Brandon is in some way with us, as we too are in God as we journey on in life here on earth.
In the story of the Little Prince, two characters, the Prince and the fox, go on a journey together. When it’s time to say goodbye, the Fox is very sad as he contemplates not seeing the Prince again. Fox reflects further and ends by saying it is the journey itself that counts.8
The journey we’ve had with Brandon has been much shorter than we had ever imagined. Yet, we can truly say that it has been a good journey for us and for Brandon too. Over the five months between his diagnosis and his death we were able to change our work load and spend two days a week with Brandon and his wife, Caterina, in Walton on Thames where they lived. We were able to say what we wanted to each other so that none of us have any regrets about things said or unsaid, and some significant rifts in relationships were mended. During the last few weeks of his life Brandon repeatedly said that he had never been so happy or contented, which was truly amazing and wonderful.
But while we agree that the journey is important, there is also the destination to consider. As Christians we believe God is the ultimate creator of all things, including Brandon, and that He loaned him to us for 36 years and has now reclaimed him. Our journey in life begins and ends in God and Brandon is now with him in a place we call heaven, as we will be too, one day.
When we do die, life is not destroyed but is transformed for the better. Brandon has escaped further pain and suffering, and is experiencing an unimaginable fulfilment in God. We are all on a journey, for some a short one and for others a long one, all heading towards the same destination – God – where we shall all meet again.
November 16 2009. It is almost two years now since Brandon died. What would Sally and Richard Worthing-Davies say now about what they spoke in these broadcasts, and to what extent have the ideas that they described been helpful?
Both say that seeking to bring their son with them in their journey had the advantage of making them quickly face up to their loss. Not a day went by without them deliberately thinking and talking about him, and on special occasions they visited places or did things that Brandon loved. Though initially very painful, in the longer run they believe it has enabled them to adjust well. Of course, there are days and times when they feel the loss especially acutely, and such days are always going to occur though less frequently and with lower intensity as time goes on.
Their understanding of the world and of God has stood them in good stead – if the question, ‘Why us?’ ever arises it is met by another question, ‘Why not us?’ and they draw great comfort from their understanding that Brandon is with God. Finally, much of the time they do have a sense that Brandon is close to them, even surrounding them, and moving with them on their journey. On Brandon’s gravestone are the words, ‘Beloved husband, son, brother and friend’. They were, and still are, true.
1 Book of Romans, Chapter 12, vs. 2, Good News Bible.
2 Book of Job or Lamentations, and many of the Psalms.
3 Light from the Dark Valley: Reflections on Suffering and the Care of the Dying, Dr. Sheila Cassidy.
4 The Guest House, The Essential Rumi, English versions by Coleman Barks
5 Times, March 19 2008
6 A New Model of Grief: Bereavement and Biography, Mortality, Vol.1, 1996
7 Book of Luke, Ch. 20, vs. 38, Good News Bible.
8 Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry
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Following a car accident, I suffered terribly with a fight or flight response when driving. I did not know what this anxiety was and tried for months to recover on my own. After a particularly severe anxiety attack, I realised that I needed to get help. EMDR therapy was incredibly effective. My anxiety was linked specifically to the accident and in one session the anxiety was dispersed. I literally walked out of Swift Counselling, got in my car and drove with no anxiety from that moment on. I am thrilled with the results, thank you.