Bereft, inconsolable: the parents left behind

Thousands of children die every year. In time, some families recover – others never will
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The Independent Online

No parent should ever have to bury a child. Yet Nigel Gresham and his partner Sara Bolland will have to do just that not once but four times after crashing their Land Rover into a river last Sunday. That three of their seven children survived will be scant comfort. The shock of the accident, whichpolice think occurred after Mr Gresham tried to squeeze past a minibus and trailer carrying canoes on a narrow track at Tattershall Bridge, near Coningsby, Lincolnshire, will make it all the harder for the devastated family to emerge from the grieving process, psychologists warn.

Some of the thousands of parents who have to cope with the death of a child each year never complete that journey. Like the mother of Natasha Coombs, the 17-year-old thought to have committed suicide last month after breaking up with her boyfriend. Joanne Coombs' body was found last Tuesday on the same train tracks where her daughter died, near Manningtree station in Essex. A poem written by the 40-year-old in tribute to her daughter and posted on the internet days before her own death promised that the bereaved parents would "ache and weep until our lives end". Joanne and her husband, Gary, went ahead with an 18th birthday party at which they gave keepsakes to her friends. Natasha was an only child: another, Emma, was stillborn.

Official figures show that 5,600 children aged 19 or under died in 2005. Back in 1996, figures were worse: 7,000 under-19s died. Separately, the number of adults taking their own lives each year is up. Nearly 5,700 adults committed suicide in 2005, rising from 4,300 in 2000. Medical advances mean far fewer children die these days; in 1901, child deaths accounted for 41 per cent of annual mortalities; in 2000 it was 1 per cent.

Dr Cosmo Hallstrom, fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, says: "The response [to a child's death] depends on the emotional investment you have. If you have more children to look after, then you have to get on with life but if it's your only daughter then the death will have a far greater impact." Other parents coping with the loss of a child, such as Kate and Gerry McCann, respond by going into "hyperdrive", he adds. "The McCanns are very much can-do people who don't take things lying down. They have become very active."

Joyce Davies, a consultant clinical child psychologist in Shetland, says bereaved parents never stop grieving, even when they go on to have more children. "A child who is lost is not replaceable." She cautions against couples trying immediately to conceive. "That can... lead to a very complicated pregnancy psychologically."

Although family and friends can provide the most comfort, experts also recommend support networks, such as Cruse Bereavement Care, or Care for the Family; 170,000 people contacted Cruse in 2004 alone.