“When we choose to be parents, we accept another human being as part of ourselves, and a large part of our emotional selves will stay with that person as love as we live. From that time on, there will be another person on this earth whose orbit around us will affect use as surely as the moon affects the tides, and affect us in some way more deeply than anyone else can. Our children are extensions of ourselves.” –Fred Rogers
It’s a love that persists beyond time and space. It makes sense that loss of a child has been described as “identity theft of your family,” like losing a part of yourself. Parents experience intense pain, shock, paralysis, disbelief, and despair following the loss of child. This loss is like no other. It’s different than from someone who loses a parent, spouse, or friend. It feels unnatural for bereaved parents to outlive a child. It disrupts what we understand as the natural order of things. It’s considered the ultimate tragedy and complicated grief.
I’ve talked with bereaved parents and have personally seen how grieving the loss of a child can forever change you. I have an older brother who died of meningitis at age 5. Although my older sister was 1-year-old at the time, and I not born yet, I’ve seen how losing him has impacted the course of their lives and family dynamics. It’s a lifelong journey of healing from deep grief. I’ll never forget the day my mother and I were talking about my brother and the loss of her son. She explained that it’s the hardest things she has ever dealt with. My older cousin, who used to babysit us when we were young, told me that she remembers driving with my Mom while she pulled over, hysterically crying and screaming, “Why?! God, why did you take him? Why him?!?!” I can’t imagine. Though I’ve always had sympathy for and empathized with my parents, it really hit me and came to light the day I held my newborn son, of how devastating it must’ve been for them.
Studies show these are common responses to a child’s death:
- Loss of Hope
- Intense Yearning for you Child
- Turning to Self-Destructive Behaviors to Cope with your emotions
- Extreme Sorrow
- Heightened Sense of Sensitivity
- Post-traumatic stress
Isolation and social withdrawal are common. Bereaved parents have expressed they want support but want to be alone. Although family, friends, neighbors, etc. have the best intentions, they often don’t know how to respond. Some may back away or avoid the couple as a result of their own discomfort of not knowing how to provide support. People say things like, “God has a plan, he takes the best one’s first, you need to be strong, time heals all wounds, etc.” which can unintentionally create further distress. Words such as “closure” can be offensive. Feeling like you’re the spectator of your own nightmare, lost in a wilderness, not knowing who you are anymore, wondering how you can go on, you tend to lose faith and isolate. Therefore, loss can occur on multiple levels, including close relationships. A number of emotions like anxiety, anger, and sorrow may damage attachment relationships.
Individuals grieve differently. Grieving parents are at risk for experiencing marital difficulties and strained interpersonal relationships. Because each parent is mourning, it is difficult to support each other as they could in a different grieving experience such as if the partner’s parent or friend passed away. Marital partners undergo stress due to experiencing the phases of grieving at different times and different ways. Couples can grow apart while experiencing differences in healing. Men tend to hold it in, deal with it, follow an old school thought of needing to take care of the family, repressing their feelings. Women tend to use more emotional expression of their painful feelings to cope with the stress. Breakdown in communication, such as misunderstandings or avoidance of discussion about the death can be associated with marital distress.
Grief varies from day-to-day. Anniversaries, birthdays, life events, significant others comments or lack thereof to be helpful can bring back deeply emotional memories or painful feelings. Parents also step aside to help their children’s grief. Surviving children are at risk for anxiety and depression. Siblings are emotionally impacted while experiencing their own loss, as their parents struggle with regaining balance.
It’s important for bereaving families to seek therapy, support services, and grief support groups. Connection with peers and community are important. Group members can help couples recognize and accept these stressors and individual differences through feedback. Group support allows parents to talk about the life and death of the child in a safe environment. Group grieving allows members to normalize their reactions and reassure other members of their shared experiences. They can have a chance to grow in their understanding, coping, and acceptance of death. Sharing experiences through storytelling is therapeutic. Storytelling allows parents to reminisce by sharing memories.
Because of the loss, relationships within the family are at-risk for attachment issues in parent-child relationships. Therefore, family therapy and groups for children of bereaved parents can be helpful as well.
The Compassionate Friends is an organization dedicated to providing support for those who have lost children. Other helpful resources for parents and siblings include:
If you know anyone close who suffered the loss of their child, please be mindful of what to say. I heard that just being there for a shoulder to lean on, to listen, and to say, “Tell me about your son/daughter…” can speak volumes. When they speak their name, relive memories with them, don’t shrink away. If you notice them trying to balance grief and happiness after the loss at milestone celebrations, don’t walk away, sit with them and be part of the process. We never understand the true depths of their grief, but can open our hearts. If you’ve suffered the loss, you may never be able to explain to the outside, but try to listen to their hearts, instead of their words, as they have are trying to come from a good place.
If you’re struggling with the grieving process and need to talk, therapy can help. Reach out to Edgewood today.