At the Grief Recovery Institute, we receive hundreds of calls each year from parents who have lost children. So many of these parents feel that there is no way they will ever find relief for the enormous emotional pain they are experiencing, but they are still looking for hope. The purpose of this article is to examine why this pain is so intense and often so misunderstood by others. We have tried to mention a number of ways in which a parent might lose a child, but we fully understand that it is impossible to include every possibility. No offense is intended if how your child died is not mentioned. Our focus is on dealing with why many of the actions parents take to feel better do not work and to offer some direction on actions that will help.
It is not uncommon to hear a parent say, “There is no grief greater than that which comes with the death of a child”. The emotional (and even physical) pain associated with the loss of a child can be overwhelming, to say the least. For many, it seems unending.
We all learn, at a fairly young age, that we will likely outlive our parents and grandparents. Even though we may fear this eventuality, we know in our hearts, barring an unforeseen illness or accident, that aging will take them before it takes us. Children expect to eventually bury their parents, but we certainly do not expect to bury our children! That is not how things are supposed to work. Our children are our view to the future and not ever expected to be part of our past.
When a child dies unexpectedly, in an accident or at the hand of another, the most common first reaction is utter disbelief. There must be a mistake! There is no way that it is our child that died.
When a child dies of a long term illness, we may think that we have prepared ourselves on some level for this possibility, but we are still overwhelmed by the loss. Most parents have hoped or prayed for a miracle that would save them. When that does not happen, we are crushed by the reality of their death.
When a child dies at their own hand, in an overdose or by a planned suicide, most parents find themselves searching for answers as to what they could have done to prevent it. No matter how you might feel that you did everything possible to be the “best possible”, you might now be second guessing everything.
When a child dies at or prior to birth, the situation can still be horribly painful, but others are even less likely to understand that pain. They may forget or have no concept that you have already planned a lifetime with this child. It is not unusual for well-meaning friends to assume that since you “never knew this child”, it will somehow be easier, but they do not understand that you already had developed a relationship with that baby, filled with dreams and expectations. Worse yet, these friends and family members might say something about “you can always have another one”. They mean well, but children are not replaceable or interchangeable. They are not like random eggs in a carton. Each one is individual and different, as are our hopes and dreams for them.
No matter how the child dies, it is something for which we are never prepared. There are no words that people can say to make it better. No matter how people try to comfort us, the one thing that they cannot fix is that this child is dead and life will never be the same without them. That is a fact that cannot be changed.
The problem for most grievers is that our friends, family, and sometimes even our clergy do not have any real tools to help us. They will try to say supportive things, but comments sometimes feel very hollow in comparison to the pain we are experiencing. We spend a lifetime learning how to accumulate things in our lives, but rarely has anyone taught us how to let go. Worse yet, most parents cannot imagine that it will ever be possible to recover from this all-consuming emotional pain.
No matter the age of your child, from newborn to a child who has grown to have children or grandchildren of their own, the pain of losing them is justifiably intense. They are always your children.
What do we learn, growing up, to help us deal with loss?
Very few of us ever have a parent or mentor sit us down on their knee and give us useful tools for dealing with a broken heart. This is not a subject normally covered on the undergraduate level in any meaningful way. More often than not, we learn by watching how the people around us respond to emotionally painful events. The trouble is that they likely learned from observation as well, resulting in their passing on often less than useful information, without realizing it is not useful.
When I was four years old, I experienced my first recognizable emotional loss. I recognize that to have been the case now, but at the time I had no understanding that I was learning lessons for life!
My first loss was the death of my very best friend, the family dog. Mitzie was my constant companion and it seemed that we did everything together. She had been part of my life from the day my parents brought me home from the hospital. Then, one day, she was gone. My parents, like many others, wanted to protect me from the painful event of the death, and disposed of her body before I saw it to make it “easier on me”. The problem for me was that she was gone before I ever got to say goodbye.
On a side note, many years ago, this same type of action was taken for mothers who lost children at time of birth. In my early years of funeral service, it was not unusual to receive a call from a hospital that a baby died, and that, since the mother would be in the hospital for several days, it would be ideal for the child to be buried before she was released, to make it “easier on her”. Today we might look at this as heartless and total nonsense, yet, without thinking, many parents still try to do this with a pet without thinking of the possible negative impact it will have on the grief of their children.
Don’t Feel Bad
My parents tried to make things better for me, but sadly could offer no useful tools to help me with the emotional pain I was experiencing. This is when I was given my first bit of “misinformation” on how to deal with the loss. They told me “don’t feel bad”, and gave me many logical reason why I should not feel my pain. They told me that Mitzie was old, that she was in pain, and that I should be happy she was in a better place. I had no idea where that place was, but it was not with me! What my parents did not understand was that grief is emotional, not logical. No matter how many reasons they gave me not to feel bad, it still hurt, but what I learned was that it was somehow not proper to express that pain. Because these were my parents giving me this information, I trusted that it was the right information.
Many of you may have encountered something similar after the death of your child. Well-meaning people may have offered you any number of reasons why you should not continue to feel sad. Did any of those reasons actually make you feel less sad or better on any level? Probably not. What you most likely took away from these comments was that if you told the truth about your pain, people would continue to try to “fix” you and that it was better just to bury it inside. Grievers are not broken and do not need to be fixed! Grief is the normal and natural reaction to any major change in your life. To say that the death of a child is a major change is an understatement of the greatest proportion!
Replace the Loss
When my parents could see that I was still sad, they gave me my next bit of misinformation. They told me that on Saturday, we would get a new dog. Their thought, like that of many parents, is that replacing what I had lost would make things better. On Saturday we indeed got a new dog. Toby was very nice but, in my mind, she was always just “the dog”. What my parents did not know to tell me was that you can never fully invest yourself in a new relationship until you have completed the unfinished business in the older one.
We sometimes hear of parents, who have lost a child, more often at or near the time of birth, very quickly trying to have another child. This may be due simply to their wish of having children as a part of their lives. It may also part of that instilled mechanism of wanting to replace that which was lost. In this latter case, they are simply following through with what they inadvertently learned was how you are “supposed” to deal with a loss of any kind. You replace it!
People rarely tell you that you need to grieve alone to better deal with your emotional pain. That does not mean that this action is not one you end up following.
Most grievers discover very quickly that others get uncomfortable when we express our emotional pain. That is one of the reasons that they give us intellectual reasons why we should not feel what we are feeling. Rather than deal with this continuing onslaught, may grievers begin to isolate.
Sometimes this isolation is inadvertently forced on us by others. People stop calling to check on you, often because they are at a loss on how to help. Events will happen to which you do not receive an invitation, because others worry that it will be “too much for you” in your fragile emotional state. Sometimes, when those invitations do come, you might make the choice not to attend, for fear of how you will be able to face the situation.
Since no one can possibly truly know how you feel, grief, in and of itself, can become isolating. Others may tell you that they know how you feel, but you quickly discover that that is not the case. You may feel, that in saying this, they are discounting your personal pain. Sometimes it is just easier to avoid others, rather than dealing with more input. You may choose to grieve alone as a form of self-protection.
Grief Just Takes Time
Perhaps what is one of the greatest pieces of misinformation that is communicated to any griever is that time is somehow a factor in recovery.
When my last grandparent died when I was seven, my mother was devastated. It was her mother who died. Her way of dealing with it was to emotionally withdraw from all of us in the family. When I asked my Father “when will Mom be Mom again?” he said, “Son, grief just takes time”! The problem was that she just got used to feeling that overwhelming pain on a daily basis and never let go of it until her Alzheimer’s got to the point that she had forgotten her mother had died. That was 35 years later.
The concept that time makes a difference is a fallacy. Time simply goes by. With the passage of time, that emotional pain becomes an element of our persona. That level of pain impacts our interactions with the other people around us. It impacts our ability to feel joy on any level. Sometimes it convinces us that we can never be happy again.
As we will discuss later in this article, it is not the passage of time that makes a difference, it is what we do with that time. There are actions you can take to more effectively deal with these painful feelings.
Be Strong – Keep Busy
Two other myths that often become part of our survival mechanism are that we must be strong and keep busy to recover.
When people tell you that you must be strong, they usually add that you must be strong for someone else. You are advised to “be strong” for your spouse, your other children, your parents, or any number of other people. Although it is not intended, the message you hear is often that the display of sad or unhappy emotions is not appropriate. This display upsets others, so it is somehow wrong.
People may tell you that keeping busy will make you feel better. Certainly, staring at the wall, an empty crib, or at a phone that does not ring does nothing to help you deal with the emotional pain you are experiencing. But the problem with keeping busy for the sake of keeping busy is that when you are no longer busy, that pain is still there. You might have a temporary respite from the pain, while you are focused on something else, but that pain is waiting to greet you once again when you have finished that project. Grievers often keep themselves busy to the point of exhaustion, while running from that pain.
These are some of the most common bits of misinformation. You may find that you have others, based on your upbringing and education. The reality is that they do not help you recover on any level. The one thing they do accomplish, however, it to make it easier for other people to accept you. If you are covering up your pain, they to not have to deal with it!
Please do not stop reading now!
It may sound like there is nothing in your personal library of grief solutions that can be of any value. What we are doing to this point is showing you why you may not feel better in dealing with the loss of your child. Please do not feel that there is no hope.
Once we have learned something, right or wrong, we tend to keep doing the same things over and over with the hope they will work. That is the nature of our brain and the belief system that has been instilled since birth. To make changes in the actions that will better assist you in moving through this horrible experience, you have to see why what you are doing is not working. There is hope yet to come in this article! Your Body Will Tell You It is Not Happy
If you keep repeating the same non-helpful actions to deal with your emotional pain, eventually your body will tell you that these actions are not working!
Many grievers experience headaches, sleep issues, confusion with simple tasks, and even forgetfulness. Some develop ulcers or heart palpitations as a result of suppressing their feelings. One lady shared with me that her physician suggested that the stress she was experiencing might be a factor in the development of her fibromyalgia.
Your body was designed as a processing center for dealing with your emotions. If, however, you keep these emotions suppressed or take no positive action to face them, your body has to take on the role of an emotional storage center. Since this this was not part of its design, it sends you signals to let you know that there is a problem.
Short Term Energy Relieving Behaviors – STERBs
It is at this point, when the body is sending you these signals, that many grievers start participating in what we call “short term energy reliving behaviors”, or STERBs, for short. STERBs are any action you might take to feel better, if just for a short time. For some, it is eating, while for others it is avoiding food, since there is an empty space at the table. Some will find that they consume more alcohol than in the past. Others will become dependent on medication (legal or illegal) to mask their pain. For some it is gaming (at home or at a casino) or exercise, while others find “retail therapy” to be their passion. This list is as long as your imagination!
The wonderful thing about STERBs is that they work, for as long as you continue to do them. The reality is that they tend to help cover up the symptoms of grief, while doing nothing to permanently assist you in moving through and beyond the pain. When you stop doing your STERBs, the pain is still there. Constant participation in some STERBs can actually lead to addictive behavior that adds additional grief to your life.
The story of one man’s STERB
Some years ago, I was part of a group made up of the leaders of the many grief assistance groups in our community. We met every two to three months to share information about our different programs. One of the members had lost a child and was now leading a group for others in the same situation. It was a very noble act, but after seven years, he was still not able to say his son’s name without falling apart.
He came to one of our meetings and shared that he finally had something in common with his son. It turned out that he had a living son about whom none of us were aware. He had never mentioned this second son’s name before. He shared with us that this son and his wife had lost a child, shortly after birth. Now, he said, they finally had something they could talk about! How very sad that it took this event for them to have something about which they could speak. His group was not helping him successfully move through his own pain, or likely that of the other participants, in view of how he spoke. It had become his STERB and was preventing him from taking substantive action.
Please understand that we are not saying that participation in such groups does not have value! The problem arises when it is a group that only allows you the repeated opportunity to share your emotional pain, but offers no opportunity to take action to move beyond the devastation of the loss.
Grief is normal!
Grief is the normal and natural reaction to any change in your life. We said this before, but it deserves repeating.
How you express and display your grief will depend on your personal misinformation and the STERBs that you choose to use. Since each person grieves differently, depending on these factors and their personal relationship with their child, it is not uncommon to find parents questioning each other’s level of grief. Couples that have always felt that they have a solid relationship will sometimes find themselves at odds with each other.
Once you can begin to understand this concept, you are in a better position to take action.
There really is help out there for you! You have the opportunity to once again enjoy your fond memories!
For many parents dealing with the death of a child, they find themselves so overwhelmed by that moment of loss, that it they can no longer fully think about all of the other elements of that relationship. That pain overshadows the joyful elements of that life lived, however long that life was.
An overriding element of grief is directly related to the unfinished business in the relationship lost. The things you wish might have been different, better, or more in that relationship. The unmet hopes and dreams for the future that will now be a vastly different future to what you imagined. It is about the undelivered communications of an emotional nature.
Some people are afraid that when someone suggests recovering from a loss, it somehow means forgetting that child. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Recovery is about being able to enjoy all of the memories of that relationship and letting go of those elements that cause you extended emotional pain.
Some people are afraid that that if they choose to take recovery action, they will somehow be discounting the value of that child’s life. I have had many parents tell me that if they took recovery action, it would be the same as saying that that child’s death did not matter. They sometimes express that their continued misery is a testament to their love. The real testament of love is in sharing with others that things that made your child special, without it tearing you apart!
The Grief Recovery Method is designed to help you let go of the emotional pain associated with the loss of your child and to allow you to better enjoy your fond memories. It is a step by step process of walking through the entire relationship to identify those things you might have wished had been different and better, while at the same time giving you the opportunity to put voice to those dreams and expectations for the future that is not the one you had planned. It is structured to allow this to happen without analysis, criticism, or judgement, thereby making it safe to say what needs to be said.
The Grief Recovery Handbook: A step-by-step guide to recovery
Whether you are working through this program with a trusted friend, attending a weekend workshop, doing this as a member of an eight-week support group or meeting one-on-one with a Grief Recovery Specialist, you will be utilizing “The Grief Recovery Handbook”. Unlike so many of the books I have read in the past, or that you may have been given, this is not the story of one person’s tragic loss, where you are seeking help through another individual’s loss experience. Nor is it a text book that speaks to your head and intellect. Rather, this is a guided journey through the steps you need to take to deal with your personal unfinished business and emotional pain.
John James, the founder of the Grief Recovery Institute, also lost a child. He honestly thought that the emotional pain of this loss would kill him. He has told me on many occasions that the only intelligent thing he ever did, as he struggled with this loss, was to keep notes on the things he did that helped. As friends saw that he was making progress and was able to find joy once again, they brought others to him who were also suffering, so that he could help them as well. Those notes ultimately became the “Grief Recovery Handbook”.
This book and the program start at the beginning, with what you learned about coping with loss as a child. It offers you the chance to step back and look at your STERBs. It guides you through figuring out all those items of unfinished business in your very personal relationship with your child and walks you through the actions you need to take to move beyond the emotional pain of the loss. It is not about therapy, but rather an educational program that adapts to your specific situation. It takes you from being stuck in those painful memories of the death to being able to revel in all the joy that relationship brought into your life. If you and your child walked a “rocky road” at any point during their life, it allows you to let go of that emotional pain as well.
The beauty of this book and the tools you will learn to use is that they can be applied to other losses as well. If you have found that other relationships in your life have been negatively impacted as well by the death of your child, you will now have the knowledge regarding how to let go of that pain as well.
A closing note
When I first went for my training in the Grief Recovery Method, it was for the purpose of helping others. I was a funeral director and I saw people devastated by emotional loss on a daily basis. I did not realize how much I was actually suffering from personal loss and how that loss was controlling my happiness. I put these same tools to use for myself and was amazed at the positive difference in my life. I would not be encouraging you to take this recovery action if I was not convinced that it actually worked. By taking these actions, I was able to find joy in relationships lost that I never imagined was possible. It is for that reason that I lovingly encourage you to take action as well.