For a parent, there is nothing more devastating than the death of our child. How do we begin to comprehend the immensity of our loss? And how do we learn to cope in such unfamiliar territory? We feel totally unprepared for what seems an impossible task, that of learning to live without our child.
First reactions of shock, numbness, denial and disbelief help to cushion us against the full impact of our loss. It is when this protection against the cruel reality of the death begins to wear off that we begin to feel the full extent of our grief. Feelings of wanting to join our dead child are not uncommon and the ordinary things of life have very little meaning. It is quite usual for us to feel that we are going crazy at this time, because our emotions are so extreme, but this is a normal physical and psychological reaction to deep loss. Many bereaved parents share these bewildering thoughts and emotions.
For a long time our child is constantly in the forefront of our mind; we may experience intense feelings of emptiness and loneliness, and a deep desire to hold our child again. We may feel dead inside, as if part of us has died too. There are reminders of our child in all we see and touch and hear; we may think we hear our child’s voice or see their familiar figure in the street. We still sometimes expect them to walk through the door. At a very deep level of the unconscious we are still ‘searching’ for our child.
We may feel angry at the insensitivity of others to our feelings and needs. Some friends and acquaintances expect us to function ‘normally’ within a short time of our child’s death. We feel that others are sometimes uncomfortable in our company and that they avoid mentioning our child’s name “for fear of reminding us”, and if we mention what is uppermost in our mind, they change the subject. This is hurtful and difficult to cope with. We are bewildered at the intensity of our grief; we feel vulnerable and ill at ease in the world around us. Telling our friends openly how we feel, and that it helps to talk about our child, will release the tension and increase understanding on both sides.
Sometimes we fear we shall forget what our child looked like, or that we may not be able to recall their voice. Seeing our child’s clothes and belongings around the house brings back painful memories. We need not make hurried decisions about our child’s personal things. We can pack them away until we feel ready to sort them out. In time we may wish to keep some as treasures, and they will indeed become a comfort. Some may have special meanings to any surviving children or our child’s friends; the gift of some of our child’s belongings could be an important step in working through our grief.
The shattering experience of our child’s death may create tensions within our marriage or partnership. All the understanding that has been developed over the years together will be put to a severe test. We feel that we should be able to console each other, and many do, but we also discover that we are individuals who have to grieve in our own way, at our own pace. We may not have the strength to comfort each other as we would wish, nor to understand our partner’s grief pattern. Tolerance, affection and patience are the keywords in helping each other through this devastating experience. The TCF leaflets Grieving Couples, A Father’s Grief and A Mother’s Grief may give extra support.
In searching for a way to numb their anguish, some people turn to drugs and alcohol. These can only block out the pain temporarily and will delay the normal grief processes if used regularly or to excess. We need all our faculties to cope with our grief situation.
If you have surviving children, remember that they too are grieving. They are often the ‘forgotten mourners’ within a family. They need their parents’ love most especially at this time, and excluding them from the family sorrow will only add to the fear and confusion that they may already be feeling. A family is helped and strengthened by the sharing of its grief. TCF’s booklet Our Surviving Children discusses these issues in more detail. There is also a support group for brothers and sisters with its own newsletter, SIBBS.
Tears are an important way of expressing anguish and if you can you need to cry, perhaps in the privacy of your child’s room. It is good to let the tears flow and we cope with them as best we can; it is usually better to weep than to bottle it up. But for some people the tears stay locked inside.
Physical exhaustion is a very common symptom of early bereavement. It can be a mistake to waste energy pretending to be in control when you feel far from it. Be yourself whenever possible. Try to eat sensibly and rest as much as you can, even though sleep may be elusive in the early weeks and months. Walks and exercise in the fresh air may help restore normal sleep patterns; and other relaxation techniques can also be useful.
Most bereaved people suffer from depression at some stage in their grief. The main thing to remember is that this is not a permanent state, it will pass when its purpose has been achieved although some of us may need professional help if it deepens and persists. It is a time which many of us describe as being “grey and lifeless”, when we have no appetite for anything that previously gave us pleasure. However, colour does slowly return to our lives and imperceptibly we realise that we have more energies to cope with our new life without our child.
There are no short cuts through grieving. In the early days we are often searching for a time-table; we want to know how long it will take. We wish that someone would wave a magic wand to relieve our pain, to bring back our child and the life we had before. Accepting that this cannot happen is one of the stages along our grief journey. The first birthday, the anniversary of the death and Christmas are especially painful times. Ideas for dealing with these events can be found in the TCF leaflet Coping with Special Occasions. Face each new obstacle or problem as it occurs – and don’t let others pressurise you! Try not to look too far ahead, take one day and one step at a time. Some days will be better than others, our grief cannot be hurried. No one can grieve for us, we have to do it ourselves, but we don’t have to do it alone. Other people – family, friends, people working in the field of bereavement – can be very helpful too.
Symptoms of early grief such as tiredness, loss of short-term memory and lack of concentration will all improve gradually, as will energy levels and the ability to organise daily life. Not knowing what is ‘normal’ can bring extra anxiety and so it is helpful to take time to read and to learn as much as we can about grief.
In time you will find it possible to enjoy yourself again, unbelievable though it may seem when you are newly bereaved. Role models are important – it gives hope and encouragement to see other bereaved parents getting on with their lives and even helping others to take their first steps in the adjustment to the death of their child.
The Compassionate Friends can provide support in different ways – only another bereaved parent can fully understand the pain and anguish of your child’s untimely death. Their willingness to listen and their gentle encouragement may give you the strength you need to carry on. You may find it helpful to attend meetings in your area, or share experiences on a one-to-one basis through home visits, letters or the telephone. Information on grief and suggestions from other bereaved parents can be found in the TCF quarterly publication Compassion and in the comprehensive TCF Postal Library. A range of leaflets and articles on many different aspects of grief is also available from TCF (details from the National Office).
Slowly the intensity of our grief diminishes and we begin to take up the threads of life again, moving into what will become our new normality. We all know that life will never be the same after the death of our child, but time and the mutual support of shared experiences will help us to find ways to honour our child’s life, to rebuild our own, and to grow in wisdom, strength and love.
These leaflets are protected by Copyright © 2000-2005 by The Compassionate Friends (UK). You may print off one copy now for personal use only.
One or more printed copies can be ordered from TCF (UK) order page should you wish to pass our publications on to someone else.