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Friday, 15 February, 2002, 10:24 GMT
Grieving a grown-up child
Few parents imagine they will attend the funeral of a grown-up child. With the death of Princess Margaret, the Queen Mother has had to face what is still considered the most "unnatural" of bereavements.

In the list of events parents expect to witness during the lives of their offspring - Christenings, graduations, weddings - few prepare themselves to stand over their child's adult-sized coffin.

"You don't expect your children to predecease you," says Dr Kate Davidson, secretary of the British Society of Gerontology.

Princess Margaret with Elizabeth, the Queen Mother
Princess Margaret was 30 years her mother's junior
Studying the lives of British widows, Dr Davidson says many elderly women admitted they found the loss of a grown-up child far more distressing than the death of their partner.

"Women have the expectation that their husbands will die before them, but for their middle-aged child to die is quite shocking."

Just as with men outliving their wives, the loss of an adult child is widely viewed as being against the natural order of things - a factor which only adds to the weight of grief felt by the surviving parents.

Mourning alone

"Our society is ready to deal with many forms of bereavement - even the deaths of very young babies - but there are almost no support networks for those predeceased by their grown children," says Dr Davidson.

Jon Gilbody, from the support group The Compassionate Friends, says "people find it very difficult to express their condolences to an older grieving parent. They don't know what to say simply because the event seems so unnatural".

This can lead to an elderly parent's feelings being neglected, as condolences are instead targeted at the offspring or partner of their dead child.

Queen Victoria's funeral procession
In her 81 years, Queen Victoria saw three royal children die
In other cases, a parent's intense grief can be "discounted" as they are told to be thankful for that their "child lived as long a life as they did".

Such sentiments ignore the deep and complex emotional bonds which develop between a parent and child over many decades.

"When their child's life has not run its anticipated course, there is often a sense of abandonment and total futility," says Mr Gilbody.

Feelings of anger and futility can be especially pronounced in those parents who made conscious sacrifices for their offspring or who viewed parenthood as central to their self-identity.

Taking a toll

The demise of an older child can also take a unique toll on the well-being of an aged parent, says Dr Davidson.

"The majority of old people are looked after informally - particularly by their children. The death of their carer has a huge impact."

The health of an ailing old person can also be dealt a serious blow by a bereavement and "send tumbling their ability to get well," says Dr Davidson.

Queen Elizabeth II (r) Queen Mary (c)
Queen Mary buried three grown sons
The death of Princess Margaret has brought the issue of grown-child bereavement to national attention, with even a line of Poet Laureate Andrew Motion's poem for the princess describing her as "A daughter gone before her mother goes".

Though the present Queen Mother is certainly one of the oldest ever royals, she is certainly not the only member of the British Royal Family to experience the death of a mature child.

Queen Victoria famously mourned her husband, Albert, for the last 40 years of her reign - but she also outlived three of her nine grown-up children.

Queen Mary - our own Queen Mother's mother-in-law - endured the loss of one teenage and two adult sons before her own demise in 1953.

Such was the impact of the death of the Duke of Kent in a wartime aeroplane crash on Queen Mary, that when word of King George VI's sudden passing was given to her lady-in-waiting she was reluctant to break the news to the 84-year-old.

"I think you'll have to tell her that he's very ill," Lady Cynthia Colville told messenger Sir Edward Ford. "She's never forgiven me for the way in which I told her the Duke of Kent had been killed."

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