From one grieving parent to another

You will always grieve to some extent for your lost child. You will always remember your baby and wish beyond wishes that you could smell her smell or hold his weight in your arms. But as time goes on, this wishing will no longer deplete you of the will to live your own life.
Horchler and Morris 1994, 158

Parental grief is overwhelming; there is nothing that can prepare a parent for its enormity or devastation; parental grief never ends but only changes in intensity and manner of expression; parental grief affects the head, the heart, and the spirit.

For parents, the death of a child means coming to terms with untold emptiness and deep emotional hurt. Immediately after the death, some parents may even find it impossible to express grief at all as many experience a period of shock and numbness. All newly bereaved parents must find ways to get through, not over, their grief-to go on with their lives. Each is forced to continue life’s journey in an individual manner.

Parental bereavement often brings with it a sense of despair, a sense that life is not worth living, a sense of disarray and of utter and complete confusion. At times, the parent’s pain may seem so severe and his/her energy and desire to live so lacking that there is uncertainty about survival. Some bereaved parents feel that it is not right for them to live when their child has died. Others feel that they have failed at parenting and somehow they should have found a way to keep the child from dying.

Grieving parents often have to adopt what one parent called a “new world view” (Wisconsin Perspectives Newsletter, December 1996, 7). Each parent must almost become a new and different person.

Grieving parents should learn to be compassionate, gentle, and patient with themselves and each other. Grief is an emotionally devastating experience; grief is work and demands much patience, understanding, effort, and energy.

Parental grief can and often does involve a vast array of conflicting emotions and responses including shock and numbness, intense sadness and pain, depression, and often feelings of total confusion and disorganization. Sometimes, parents may not even seem sure of who they are and may feel as if they have lost an integral part of their very being. At other times, parents may feel that what happened was a myth or an illusion or that they were having a nightmare.

The death of a child can and often does affect not only personal health but sometimes the marriage, the entire family unit, other relationships, and even plans and goals for the future.

Grieving parents need to know how important it is to express their pain to someone who will understand and acknowledge what they are feeling and saying. They should be honest with themselves and others about how they feel. These parents should allow themselves to cry, be angry, and complain. They need to admit they are overwhelmed, distracted, and unable to focus or concentrate. They may even need to admit to themselves and others that they might show physical and/or emotional symptoms that they don’t want or can’t even understand.

When are you ready to live again? There is no list of events or anniversaries to check off. In fact, you are likely to begin living again before you realize you are doing it. You may catch yourself laughing. You may pick up a book for recreational reading again. You may start playing lighter, happier music. When you do make these steps toward living again, you are likely to feel guilty at first. ‘What right have I, you may ask yourself, to be happy when my child is dead?’ And yet something inside feels as though you are being nudged in this positive direction. You may even have the sense that this nudge is from your child, or at least a feeling that your child approves of it.
Horchler and Morris 1994, 158[

Each bereaved parent must be allowed to mourn in his/her own way and time frame. Each person’s grief is unique, even that of family members facing the same loss. Bereaved parents shouldn’t expect or try to follow a specific or prescribed pattern for grief or worry if they seem out of synchrony with their partner or other grieving parents.

Bereaved parents need to know that others may minimize or misunderstand their grief. Many don’t understand the power, depth, intensity, or duration of parental grief, especially after the death of a very young child. In some instances, bereaved parents are even ignored because some individuals are not able to deal with the tragedy. They find the thought of a child’s death too hard, too Inexplicable, or too threatening. Many simply don’t know what to say or do and so don’t say or do anything.

Most grieving parents experience great pain and distress deciding what to do with their child’s belongings. Parents need to understand that this task will be most difficult and that different parents make different decisions. They should be encouraged to hold onto any experiences, memories, or mementoes they have of the child and find ways to keep and treasure them. These memories and mementoes-their legacy from the short time they shared with this very special person- will be affirming and restorative in the future.

Most grieving parents also experience considerable pain on special occasions, such as birthdays, holidays, or the anniversary of the child’s death. Parents will need to find ways to cope with these events and should do what feels right for them, not what others think they should do.

Many bereaved parents find solace in their religion. Not only will these religious beliefs significantly alter the meaning that the parents give to life, death, and life after death, they will also affect their grief response. Grieving parents with a religious background should be encouraged to express these beliefs if this is helpful. Some grieving parents without a formal or organized religious background may maintain a spirituality or a personal faith that is also a part of their lives and that gives them comfort. They, too, should be encouraged to express these feelings. Seeking spiritual comfort in a time of grief does not mean repressing the grief. It is important, however, that others offering support to grieving parents should not try to dismiss or diminish their grief by using religious or other platitudes or by forcing religion on parents who are uncomfortable with a particular belief system.

Bereaved parents will recover and reach a place of rest and hope… [They] will never forget [their child], but rather will find ways to keep [the child] a cherished part of [their] inner selves forever.
Horchler and Morris 1994, XIX

Many grieving parents also find comfort in rituals. Funerals or memorial services have served many parents as beautiful and meaningful ways of saying goodbye, providing a sense of closure after the child’s death. For others, sending announcement cards about the baby’s death, writing poems, keeping journals or writing down personal reflections or prayers, or volunteering with a parental bereavement group become ways to remember and honor the child who died.

Probably the most important step for parents in their grief journey is to allow themselves to heal. Parents need to come to understand that healing doesn’t mean forgetting. They need to be good to themselves and absolve themselves from guilt. They should not be afraid to let grief loosen its grip on them when the time comes. Easing away from intense grief may sometimes cause pain, fear, and guilt for a while, but eventually, it usually allows parents to come to a new and more peaceful place in their journey. Allowing grief’s place to become a lesser one does not mean abandoning the child who died.

In the end parents must heal themselves. It was their baby; it is their loss; it is their grief. They need to gain closure, to experience release, to look to their new future.
Nichols, in Rando 1986, 156