Nashville Mayor Megan Barry announced the death of her only child, Max Barry, 22, on Sunday morning due to an apparent drug overdose. It left Mayor Barry (as well as her husband), the public face of Nashville, addressing a deeply personal and devastating tragedy even as she received an overwhelming outpouring of condolences from the American people.
As someone who has an affinity with forensic psychology, my budding psychologist’s mind was intrigued how the Mayor would cope with losing a child in such a painful way, and while in the centre of pressures of serving in public office. There are complex emotional and psychological implications in responding to others in a time of loss. How many more for a parent losing a child to a drug overdose while living in the public eye?
Persons serving in public office have many subjective expectations set upon them by the electorates. In the case of a loss of a child by drug overdose, how does an official share information or their grief publicly, if at all? How do they respond to the gravity of being expected to be a model of how to cope? Will the public allow them; will they allow themselves, the grace to be raw and vulnerable? Perhaps the Barrys will receive more attention and help than those who are not in the public eye. Perhaps they will also receive more criticism.
One study explored the long-term effects of the death of a child on parent’s adjustment in midlife, to which two hypotheses were offered. First, although the majority of parents were expected to show effective adaptation to bereavement, there would be evidence of lasting grief in the form of negative psychological, health, social, and occupational functioning in midlife. Specifically, parents who experienced the death of a child would be more likely than would non-bereaved parents to report depressive symptoms, poor psychological well-being, health problems, limited social participation, marital disruption, and limited occupational success. However, because of the search for meaning triggered by grief, which is a critical part of coping with bereavement, we expected that bereaved parents would report a greater sense of purpose in life and more religious participation than would comparison parents.
Second, and more importantly, recovery from grief would be facilitated by the individual’s ability to find a sense of purpose in life, as well as through activities that give life meaning, such as religious participation, social participation, having a satisfying job, having other children at the time of death, and giving birth to a new child after the death. Thus, we expected that, in addition to having direct effects on functioning, these factors would moderate the differences between the bereaved and the comparison parents and would predict less negative functioning (better recovery) within the bereaved group.
Families of substance abusers face social stigmatisation and a lack of validation. Mayor Barry and her family may face public outcry and judgement by certain holier-than-thou individuals. Both the literatures and experience teach that substance use disorders can dramatically affect an entire family, but only users can stop themselves from abusing.
Blaming parents as causing their child’s death by drug overdose or suicide reinforces the parents’ own guilt, fear and shame. Disapproval of, or blaming the deceased, is distressing to their loved ones. Indeed, neither substance abuse disorders nor death by overdose or suicide discriminate against colour, ethnicity, religion, politics or any other cultural parameter. Hopefully, spiritual responders will be judicious with comments such as, ‘He is in a better place’, as those sentiments are not comforting to all people who experience loss.
How the Barry family processes Max’s passing may be a matter of public interest, but it is simply not a matter of public importance or urgency. Questioning a bereaved parent or the circumstances surrounding the loss of a child is intrusive, unhelpful and ill-advised, perpetuating paralysing stigma and painful emotions. Those affected by suicide or substance use disorders and bereaved parents are in pain. The public response to Mayor Megan Barry’s family should be to recognise and acknowledge their pain and respond with non-judgemental comfort, understanding and support.
The death of a child of any age is a terribly profound and challenging life event. While bereavement is stressful whenever it occurs, studies continue to provide evidence that the greatest stress, and often the most enduring one, occurs for parents who experience the death of a child. Needless to say, the death of a child is a loss like no other. When a child dies before their parents do, it feels so wrong that great shock is added to the enormous grief and sadness you’ll already be feeling.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today.