The Unspeakable Loss

How Do You Live After a Child Dies?


By Nisha Zenoff

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A guide to hope and healing after the death of a child, from a grief counselor and psychotherapist who has been there.

Nisha Zenoff lost her son in a tragic accident when he was just seventeen years old. Now, with decades of experience as a grief counselor and psychotherapist, she offers support and guidance from her own journey and from others who have experienced the death of a child. The Unspeakable Loss helps those who mourn to face the urgent questions that accompany loss: “Will my tears ever stop?” “Who am I now without my child?” “How can I help my other children cope?” “I lost my only child, how do I live?” “Will my marriage survive?” “Will life ever feel worth living again?”

No matter where you are in your grieving process, The Unspeakable Loss provides a space to mourn in your own way, and helps you understand how the death of a child affects siblings, other family members and friends, recognizing that we each grieve differently. And while there is no one prescription for healing, Zenoff provides tools to practice the important aspects of grieving that are easily forgotten — self-compassion and self-care.

The Unspeakable Loss doesn’t flinch from the reality or pain caused by the death of a child, yet ultimately it is a book about the choice to embrace life, love, and joy again. As Zenoff writes in the Preface: “Our relationships with our children do not end with their deaths. Our relationships change, they’re transformed, but our children will always be with us.”



In loving memory of our children, and all the children not named here, who will always be remembered and who teach us that love never dies.

Andrea Daniela “Dany” Aguirre

Dominic Clemente Aguis

Alana Teresa Alioto

John Christopher Alioto

Paula Frias Allende

Gabriella “Gabri” Aparicio

Dennis “Denny” Alan Apple

Kirk Arsenault

Daniel Ashkenazy

Michelle “Shelly” Barnes

Nathaniel “Nick” Eli Baylson

Lynnel Ravon Beck

Phillip Behuniak

Jenna Caprice Betti

Andrew “Andy” David Bonapart

Gabriel “Gabe” Louis Bouchard

Aaron Phillip Breiner

Emily Shenandoah Brightwood

Katharine Anne Caple

Zachary “Zach” Andrew Clayton

Gary Daitch

Bret Diamond

Baby girl Ehrenreich

Walter Irving Ehrenreich

Jacob “Jake” Freeman

Jeremy Michael Fulmer

Lori Gentry

Charles Harleigh Gordon

Jennifer Consigny Gordon

Jonathon “Jon” Gottlieb

Joshua Miles Hansen

Adam William Herzog

Seth Michael Herzog

Mark Christian Hornor

Mina Hornor

Christopher Robin Hotchkiss

Cynthia Mayer Idleman

Jordan McLeod Johnson

Lance John Juracka

Emma Kristen Kearns

Kristen “Krissie” Michele Kearns

Priya Khadalia

Kimberly Kilgroe

Shaun Kilgroe

Jacob “Jake” Klairmont

Dominic Careri Kulik

Michael James Levy

Lance Jay London

Joshua David Lord

Logan Robert Lunas

Richard “Dickie” Mannheimer, Jr.

Erik James Marks

Ari Benjamin Mazer

Kristina M. McCoy

Little Lady Lori Margo Meislin

Ashley Marie Pedersen

Daniel “Danny” Michael Picariello

Richard Lee Pollak

David “Dave” Pregerson

Kathryn “Kay” Raftenberg

Anthony Edward Reed

Carolyn Ann Reichling

Kendrick Reusch

Justin Daniel Reynolds

Jamie Rosengarden

Neva Raisel Rubenstein

Lara Rachel Rusky

Ashley White Samuels

Benjamin Patrick Scheuenstuhl

Daniel “Danny” Cahn Schwartz

Steven Joel Sotloff

Liz Shaw

Phillip Michael Silverman

Judith “Judy” Singer

Summer Skye

Morris “Moe” Slotin

Laure “Lori” Kleidman-Chodorow Smallwood

Lili Rachel Smith

Ryan Michael Soper

Daniel Justin Stark

Sean Patrick Sullivan

Andrea Johanna Taratoot

Raul Castells Valle

William Penn “Buffy” Whitehouse III

Roy James Wilson

Franklin Micah Wood

Michael Benjamin Zalkin


1950, Savannah, Georgia

I’m ten years old, a happy, skinny kid with a large, extended Jewish family, all living nearby. I’m visiting my Aunt Lena, my grandmother’s sister. Her house is elegantly furnished, with sunlight streaming in. Aunt Lena covers my cheeks with kisses and pinches that sometimes hurt. Over her fireplace hangs an oversized color portrait of a handsome young man in a chestnut brown suit. His blue eyes stare down at me as I secretly steal glances at him.

When I ask my mother who that man is over the fireplace, she leans down and whispers, “Shh, I’ll tell you when we leave. I don’t want to talk about it now.” On our way home, she explains in a hushed voice, “That young man was Aunt Lena’s nineteen-year-old son Walter. He was killed in an automobile accident when returning to his army base during WWII. Aunt Lena never mentions his name or talks about him. We don’t mention his name when we’re visiting either because we don’t want to make her more sad. We know she’s sad because sometimes she goes into her bedroom, closes the door, and stays there for hours. We don’t know what she does in there, and we don’t ask.”

Aunt Lena’s daughter, Sara, later told me that after her older brother’s death, her mother never again mentioned him by name. No one in their home did. Sara wasn’t able to talk about the brother she loved and missed. When her own son was born many years later, she named him Walter in honor of her brother. Sadly, Aunt Lena could never bring herself to call her grandson by his name, calling him by a nickname, “Billy.” I recently spoke with Walter, Aunt Lena’s grandson, who is now sixty-three. He remembers the heavy silence that hung over Aunt Lena’s house, and the oddness of being called “Billy.” “[Walter] died and we could never talk about it. [My grandmother] was sort of numb. She never said a mean thing, but she was always very sad, never saw her laugh.” The whole family felt the absence of Aunt Lena’s son, expressed in a terrible silence and the unspoken reverberations of her grief. Walter’s death in 1943 became the unspeakable loss in our family, creating a veil of secrecy, pain, and unresolved grief for three generations.

At the time my mother told me about Walter, the thought of Aunt Lena spending hours in her bedroom intrigued me. What did she do? Did she lie on her bed and weep? Did she hold pieces of his clothing or his favorite things? Did she talk to him? Did he come to her?

After my own seventeen-year-old son, Victor, died in a hiking accident in 1980, I came to understand her grief in a way I would never have chosen. I had an idea of what she might have been doing alone in her room. There were many times when, overwhelmed by pain, I needed to withdraw from others, well-meaning as they were. Alone, it was a relief not to worry about anyone else or their feelings. It was a time to be with my feelings, my inner spirituality, and to ask God, “How could you let this happen?” I could cry, sit, stare, write, pray, remember, and think undisturbed about Victor. I was also free to think about other things. My solitude was precious.

Yet solitude was only part of what I needed. I knew, early on, that our home was not going to be like Aunt Lena’s. We were not going to erase Victor’s name from our vocabulary. I couldn’t help thinking of Aunt Lena in her loneliness and sorrow. My heart went out to her. I wanted to go back to that time when I was young, put my arms around her, and let her know I cared. I understood that speaking about someone who has died is a personal choice. For some, the simple mention of a name can be too painful to bear. But I knew that I didn’t want to only sit in silent pain as Aunt Lena had.

A few months after Victor’s death, I was impelled to call Sara to ask about her brother’s death. “What did Aunt Lena do after Walter died?” I asked. “I want to do the opposite.”

We both chuckled. But it was a crucial question, and Sara’s answer was just as crucial. “Tell everyone to talk about their child,” Sara said. “Tell them not to keep the silence, to bring the loved one into the conversation.”

Before Victor died, I, like so many, hesitated to ask a close friend about the death of her daughter because I feared causing her pain. For years I had wanted to know about her experience yet was afraid to speak of it. Mitch Carmody, author and bereaved father of nine-year-old Kelly, his son who died of a brain tumor, said, “Our child dies a second time when no one speaks their name.”

Now, in my own grief, I felt the importance of speaking. Our family talked about Victor, and eventually we laughed together at some of the funny stories we remembered. We included photos of him in our gallery of family photos. It felt right to integrate Victor’s life and death into our home, to find the balance of having him with us and not.

However, years after Victor’s death when my brother and sister-in-law lovingly named their son Victor in memory of my son, it took me months to feel comfortable referring to my new precious nephew by his name. I gained new empathy for Aunt Lena and how she tried to avoid pain by not saying or hearing Walter’s name. To this day when we talk about Victor, there are times when I ask myself, which one?

Our relationships with our children do not end with their deaths. Our relationships change, they’re transformed, but our children will always be with us. The Compassionate Friends, the largest and oldest nondenominational international bereavement organization in the United States, encourages bereaved parents, grandparents, and siblings to speak openly and frequently about their children who have died. When we speak the names of our loved ones, we keep them alive in memory and celebrate their lives. This book is about speaking, about remaining in connection with our loved ones as a way of healing our broken hearts.


Recently, I spoke with Cindy, a mother whose six-year-old daughter Linda had died in a car accident just three weeks earlier. She asked me three questions:

What do I do with the feeling that I want to die to be with my daughter?

How can I live for the rest of my life with this much pain?

Nisha, are you happy?

After I answered Cindy’s first two questions, I told her the third question brought tears to my eyes. I can honestly say that, thirty-seven years after my son Victor’s death, yes, I am happy. I am also sad sometimes, I grieve sometimes, and I miss Victor every day. But I have discovered that even with a broken heart, we can learn to laugh and embrace life again.

The death of a child is the worst trauma a parent can endure. When my son Victor died in a hiking accident in Yosemite in 1980, a week before his eighteenth birthday, I questioned how life could be worth living again. Overcome with a grief I’d never known, I doubted I would ever again feel joyous or loving or have peace of mind.

This entry from my journal shortly after Victor’s death describes my feelings at the time: “The pain is too great; I can’t take a full breath. There is a fire in my gut that feels like it will never stop burning. I beg for the fire in me to be snuffed out. My child is gone! I feel crazy. Will I ever return to my ‘normal’ self? Do I even want to? Life is not worth living without Victor! How do I bear the unbearable?”

Even though I was a therapist and grief counselor, psychological knowledge and clinical experience did little to soothe my devastation and pain. I made a vow at that time that if I lived through this loss—and at first, that seemed far from certain—I would learn as much as possible about how other bereaved parents find their way and share that knowledge with others. I wanted to talk to the real experts—parents who had been through what I was experiencing. How did they survive? I didn’t think I could. What was their secret? Is survival really a miracle? The result of hard work? Simply the passage of time? Is it due to courage or luck? Does it require a leap of faith? It felt crucial that I solve the mystery of how parents could make their way through the bewildering land of parental loss.

My initial research involved interviewing thirty-two mothers, all of whom had experienced the sudden and unexpected death of a child, some less than a month before we spoke, others many years earlier. They generously shared their intimate feelings—their grief, confusion, struggles, and healing—in the hope of helping others. They told amazing stories, of miracles, unusual happenings, and those first glimmers of renewal and hope. And they asked questions, heart-wrenching, crucial questions: “Who am I now without my child?” “How can I help my other children cope?” “Will my marriage survive?” “Will life ever feel worth living again?” “What is my purpose now?”

Over the years, as I counseled many grieving parents, similar questions arose over and over. Their questions were always urgent, driven by confusion and pain. Yet those questions were often wise beyond their knowledge. They reflect the core challenges of the grief process: how do we remake our relationship to ourselves, our partners and families, our communities, our faith or spirituality? Parents’ questions go to the heart of what it is to grieve, to be reshaped by loss, and, ultimately, to reconfigure a life in positive, meaningful ways.

This book grew from the collective wisdom of the parents and family members I interviewed, my own experience, and that of the hundreds of mothers, fathers, and families I counseled over three decades of clinical practice as a grief counselor and psychotherapist. More recently, I interviewed another forty-six people, including parents whose children had died between five and fifty years earlier, siblings, grandparents, family members, and friends. (Some names have been changed to protect privacy.) The people I spoke with provided remarkable insight into the long-term course of grief and recovery, an area only beginning to be explored in the research literature. We now know that grief is not something one simply gets over. It is a life-altering, ever-evolving presence.

The shock of a child’s death affects every aspect of being: physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual. Unfamiliar and erratic behavior, emotional outbursts, anger at the world and at those around you, problems remembering the simplest things, changes in relationships, a desire to die, questions about one’s faith, and a host of other experiences are normal to the grieving process. Many parents experiencing loss are physically weakened and more susceptible to illness or other health issues. They may also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They must cope with feelings of guilt and responsibility, and adjust to a new family configuration. Marriages are challenged, as couples face the differing ways they cope with grief.

We each mourn differently. There is no one prescription for healing. You are going to find your own way. Some bereaved parents find it healing to be in the company of other bereaved parents. Others seek solitude. Some search for information or self-knowledge; others find activities that give them solace. Yet as I spoke with these remarkable parents, I realized that there is much that we share. There are patterns and commonalities in the experiences of bereaved parents. As we move through grief, there are touchstones along the way that many who have lost a child will recognize, as well as stories and questions that resonate with others who have experienced loss.

I did survive; I am surviving. Most of us do. And when we do, it seems as much a mystery as it does a miracle. Although it feels like time stops the moment your child dies and there’s a terrible grief you fear is forever, trust me that you will be able to breathe freely one day, to appreciate the beauty surrounding you, and to live again. We have a great capacity to heal and transform our grief over time.

If you are in acute pain, this may seem impossible—even absurd—right now. The thirty-seven years since Victor’s death have given me the advantage of being able to look back and recognize changes I never thought would occur, changes I didn’t think possible. As life goes on and the years pass, pain is altered and even disappears for large periods of time. It’s surprising how and when that happens, but it does. It is possible to again feel joy and a renewed sense of purpose in life. It is even possible to thrive, though this may at first seem impossible to believe.

Part of the miracle for me was to realize and then acknowledge the positive effects Victor’s death and my process of grieving had on my life. It’s difficult to acknowledge that something good can result from traumatic loss. Yet, over the years, in addition to learning to live with Victor’s death, I’ve come to realize that I have been transformed by this experience in unquestionably positive ways. I, like many of the bereaved parents I’ve encountered, have experienced unexpected changes in my beliefs about myself and what’s important, about faith and the miracle of life. Grieving parents often report becoming more compassionate and focusing more clearly on what truly matters in life. Many bereaved parents make remarkable choices about how to live the rest of their lives. Researchers are only beginning to recognize and examine the potent way that grief can, uncannily, enrich and transform a life for the better. The transformative power of grief is a topic that deserves much more focus.

This book follows the progression of grief from the excruciating first days through our long-term healing, but the grief process is neither uniform nor linear. After some better days, we may find ourselves circling back to a place of indescribable pain. Another day, our dark mood lifts. We circle forward and back in this dance of grief, with the only constant being change itself. I encourage you to respect your individual grief/healing process, to trust that you are healing as you are meant to.

Immediately after the death of a child, or any severe loss, it is unlikely that you will want to read at all. Your brain has undergone a severe trauma, and it takes time before you have the desire or ability to read. This book is structured to be used as needed. Feel free to skip around, read bite-sized pieces, or dive into those sections that feel most relevant to you. Pick it up when the time is right and when the words and experiences of others can be a balm.

I wrote this book for you. I want you to know that you are not alone, whether your child’s death was last week or many decades ago. Others have walked this path and were able to embrace life again, and you can too. I also wrote this book for your family and friends who care for you and want to support you throughout your time of grief, even while dealing with their own shock and loss. These family and friends play a special role in times of bereavement and are an essential part of your daily story of grief. This book is also for the mental health professionals and caregivers who seek to understand and assist their patients, clients, and friends through times of loss.

During that first year when I was struggling to find the desire to live, Victor came to me in a dream and spoke: “Mom, don’t be in a hurry to be here. When you are here, it’s forever. We’ll have all eternity together.”

I began to understand this life as a brief moment in a longer, everlasting journey. My relationship with Victor did not end with his death. My love for him is alive in my heart. I am more in awe of life than ever before. Its preciousness increases.

Even though feeling gratitude for this gift of life might sound like an impossibility right now, may you discover for yourself, over time, that love makes the unbearable bearable, and that the words of wisdom spoken by others or yourself can be a part of that healing.




July 12, 1980, Atherton, California

The doorbell rings.

I’m home alone. It’s 9:00 p.m. Saturday and I’ve just gone to bed, still feeling weak from inexplicably becoming sick earlier in the day while having lunch with my mother. It’s probably someone coming for a preview of my garage sale advertised for tomorrow morning. I’m annoyed. Maybe they’ll go away, I think. I’m watching Saturday Night Live as I promised my son Victor I would, and I don’t want to get up.

The doorbell rings more insistently. Why don’t they go away?

Suddenly a chill comes over me. I do a mental check of my family. My husband David is in Milwaukee at his high school reunion. My thirteen-year-old daughter Fay is at camp in the mountains. Andrew, fifteen, is in Israel traveling with a group of kids. Victor, seventeen, is hiking in Yosemite for a week. It’s too early for any of them to be back. My heart beats faster as I push myself up, the doorbell ringing.

I crack open the door and see a young policeman, a heavy belt of radios and equipment at his waist.

“Are you Mrs. Zenoff?”

“Yes, what do you want?”

“Are you alone?”

“Why do you want to know if I’m alone?” It strikes me as a weird question.

The police officer shifts uncomfortably. “Because I have news for you, and I hope you’re not alone.”

“Who are you?” I’m feeling more and more frightened.

“The police. Do you have a son named Victor?”

I open the door and stare directly into his eyes. He looks much too kind to be bringing any bad news. I glance at his police ID, too nervous to look at it closely. He could be a fake, a thief. This could be a setup to rob my house.

I swallow. “Is my son okay?”

He lowers his eyes and shakes his head.

“What’s wrong? Where is he? What’s happened?”

The officer looks straight at me with a blank face. “There’s been an accident.”

“Where is he? Is he hurt?” Silence. The officer’s compassionate eyes meet mine.

“Is he alive?” I whisper the words I’m too afraid to utter, my heart pounding wildly. In that moment I know Victor is dead. I know it. Deep inside, my body knows it. This stranger standing in the dark is telling me something I know—the absolute unthinkable truth that my child is dead.

“Oh my God, no! No!” I scream. But I know Victor is dead. “Where is he? What happened?”

The policeman, voice strained, tells me that Victor fell while hiking in Yosemite. He was running downhill on a narrow switchback. He tripped and fell 700 feet near Lower Yosemite Falls.

I know it is true. I stand paralyzed. Something cracks in my brain, my head, my heart, my gut, as if blown apart by a bomb. I’m not myself; I’m watching myself from a distance. I’m disintegrating, gone. He’s grasping my arm.

Something snaps into focus. “Did it happen this afternoon around 3:00?”

“Yes.” He narrows his eyes, puzzled. “How do you know?”

“I’m his mother. A mother knows,” I state matter-of-factly.

That was the exact time when, out to lunch with my mother, I suddenly jumped up and ran to the street, nauseated and choking. I vomited and collapsed onto the curb. Too weak to get behind the wheel of the car, I asked my mother to drive me home. I had remained weak, feeling ill all evening.

A million questions flood my brain. “How do they know it’s Victor? Who was with him? An accident? Suicide? Was he pushed? Who found him? Where is he now? I need to go to him. There must be some mistake. Where is he?”


In the last month I have been trying not to go under. I have been so close to going under. He and I were like one. When he died, I died. I wanted to die to be with him.

—Hedda, age fifty, whose twenty-two-year-old son had died from acute hepatitis while traveling two months earlier

Your feelings of wanting to die to be with your child are normal and natural after his or her death. Of course you want to be with your child. Many parents have expressed these same desires, and I felt this way myself. It is not uncommon to want to go to your child, to join your child in death so you can be together. When you feel that you also want to die, it is most likely because you want to be with your child and to feel no pain. These feelings represent your powerful resistance to being separated from your child. The words of Laura, a mother I spoke with after her fifteen-year-old daughter died from complications from Apert syndrome, a genetic disorder, are not unusual: “After Lili died, I just wanted to just melt into the ground myself and disappear. If I could have I would have just literally melted into the ground and found her and been buried next to her. That’s how much I just wanted to be taken away with Lili. I did not want to have to survive without her.”

Right now you are caught between two worlds. Yet somewhere within you, there is the smallest, tiniest place of hope, even though you may not know it is there. You have so much to live for here with those who love and need you. Eventually, with time, the feeling of wanting to die fades as life here becomes more tolerable and, yes, even pleasurable again.

Your feelings are not uncommon among bereaved parents. These feelings don’t necessarily mean that you are suicidal or will become suicidal. It doesn’t mean you want to leave the rest of your life. These scary, painful feelings will subside. Most grieving parents do wish at one time or another to be with their child who has died, but actual suicide among grieving parents is rare. No matter how deep their pain, they somehow sense that one day in the future life will again be worth living. If your suicidal feelings persist or frighten you, however, it is important to consult with a mental health professional or call a suicide prevention hotline. Free, confidential support is available 24/7 from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255.


  • "Written with a remarkable blend of compassion, insight, and 'real world' practicality... essential reading for any parent experiencing the loss of a child."—Midwest Book Review

On Sale
Nov 7, 2017
Page Count
256 pages

Nisha Zenoff

About the Author

Nisha Zenoff, PhD, LMFT, has been a psychotherapist, grief counselor, and teacher for more than thirty-five years. In addition to being a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Nisha is a registered dance movement therapist. Educated at Brandeis University, the University of Utah and Columbia University, she received her PhD in transpersonal psychology from Sofia University.

Learn more about this author