Losing an only child: the fight to help ‘shidu parents’

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The Maple Women’s Psychological Counselling Center joined hands with Sohu on Sept 6 to livestream a discussion on mental health issues impacting elderly parents who suffer the loss of their only child, also known as “shidu parents”.

When a couple’s only biological child has died and both of them have no ability or desire to have another baby, the couple are considered “shidu parents” and their family becomes a “shidu family”.

It’s estimated that the number of shidu families in China exceeded 1 million in 2010, and their size is still expanding with a growth rate of 7.6 percent, which is expected to bring the number to 2 million by 2024.

Maple Women’s Psychological Counselling Center brought in shidu parents as well as representatives from China’s social organizations (NGOs), foundations and universities to address the problems shidu families face and to discuss possible solutions. The nearly two-hour livestream was watched by 432,480 people.

As a social organization specializing in mental health, the Maple Center has been focusing on and serving shidu parents since 2013. The center surveyed over 500 such parents, mostly around 60 years old, from 2013 to 2018. In addition to financial distress, which was not very common, many of them suffered from chronic illness, and their social skills were seriously impaired. In the survey, almost all said that they were not afraid of death or illness, but worried about living alone without dignity.

Shidu parents: how to make the best of our lives?

Zhao Changquan and Hou Junying, a married couple and both retired employees of the Beijing Heavy Machinery Factory, spoke on stage together. Their son died of illness nine years ago, when Zhao was 69 and Hou was 65.

After the death of their son, “I was soaked in tears all day and had no interest in living my life anymore,” Hou recalled. “I refused to go out or meet people, and I didn’t even want to be in touch with my family members because I couldn’t really talk to anyone — it was an indescribable pain.”

“The mixed feelings were hard to describe — pain, remorse, guilt and regret. But if we keep drowning ourselves in those negative emotions, I thought it would eventually cause us health problems,” Zhao said. “For us, the main question is, why do people live? What is the meaning and value of living?”

The turning point appeared when a colleague introduced them to join a shidu family group in Beijing’s Shijingshan District, where they met people who understood what they had been through and could comfort each other. They also participated in other group events including the workshop held by Maple Center. Through the three-day workshop, they began to accept their reality and learned ways to relieve themselves and divert their attention.

Mao Aizhen, whose only son died with depression in 2011, founded Beijing Shangshan Foundation in 2012 to “care for people’s mental health and promote the prevention and treatment of depression”.

The foundation launched the “Heartwarming Action” project in 2015 to care for the mental health of shidu parents.

The main components of the project include celebration events on five selected Chinese festivals plus lectures and workshops on various topics to enhance awareness, overcome grief and build confidence. The project aims to stimulate a chain reaction by encouraging the recipients to also lend out their helping hands so as to benefit more and more shidu families.

The project now covers 65 cities and regions, attracting over 60,000 shidu parents to their offline events. They’ve also launched their WeChat mini app, serving over 200,000 users per year.

“At the end of the day, I just hope to find the value and meaning of life and live a wonderful life, and I hope that’s what my child would want,” said Mao.

How can shidu parents be helped to rebuild their lives?

Maple Center’s Workshop for Shidu Parents is one of the organization’s projects that has been carefully designed by the center after a decade’s experience working with the group, and it’s being constantly improved in practice.

The three-day closed workshop consists of six modules and more than 20 activities. The main purpose of the workshop is for shidu parents to “get out and make more friends”, which consists of three modules: “building relationships with others”, “self-empowerment” and “starting a new journey”. There are usually 30 to 40 participants in each workshop, who are divided into five groups. Members from each group will select a leader, and each group will be matched with a counsellor as their teaching assistant.

Xie Jun, secretary general of Endowment Enterprise Development Fund of China Social Welfare Foundation, has been working with the shidu families for eight years.

Speaking of this group, Xie said that they need time to heal, and they crave attention and respect from society. “They are looking carefully for someone close to them who can understand what they’ve been through, so we expect more social organizations like the Maple Center to intervene and help them, through professional counselling and a diverse range of group activities.”

As early as 2004, Mu Guangzong, a professor and doctoral supervisor at the Institute of Population Research of Peking University and executive editor of Population and Development magazine, pointed out in a monograph that one-child families are essentially risky families.

According to Mu, the death of the only child will bring at least three universal and devastating problems to the child’s parents. The first is the breakdown of the family structure. Specifically, it means that the traditional triangular family structure is no longer complete, and the family has lost its focus and balance. The second is the mental and emotional pain. The third is the lack of a carer for parents when they reach old age.

Mu stressed that the psychological predicament of shidu parents is a complex and sensitive topic, which needs more institutional care and support. It is an inevitable and rational choice for society and the government to build a systematic and comprehensive social support system for this group, including a powerful national compensation and social care mechanism and legislature to protect the dignity and quality of their lives.

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