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The Bereaved Parent

by Lea-anne Niamath

During the grief process, bereaved parents may take a long time to adjust to the loss of their child. Perhaps longer than other types of losses. Some factors which can complicate this kind of grief are:

  • If the parent is a single parent (may have limited support)
  • If the child was an only child (all purpose in life seems lost)
  • The nature of the death (murder, suicide, disease, sudden death)
  • Not the natural order of life (children bury their parents)
  • Not as common as the death of a spouse or parental death so shared experience is limited

It is important to support grieving parents in a way, which acknowledges the uniqueness of their loss and gives them permission to grieve “for as long as it takes”. Names have been given to survivors of other losses, e.g.: widow, widower, orphan etc. but there is no “name” for those parents whose children have died.

Grief care providers can be a tremendous support to newly bereaved parents if their communication approach incorporates an awareness of these differences. The following are some of the comments received by newly bereaved parents.

WHAT NOT TO SAY TO A BEREAVED PARENT

“You can have more children”

Remember that all a bereaved parent really wishes, is to have their child back. Not a replacement child. When people suggest having more children., the importance of the child who died is diminished as if they can be replaced somehow. There may be reasons that the parents cannot have children, which would make a comment like this even more inappropriate.

“Thank God you have other children”

Somehow suggests that the surviving children in the family will make up for the dead child. It is true that when the energy for life is restored, there are activities and experiences the surviving children provide for bereaved parents. However, the loss of the individual who was your child is gone forever: even tiny babies have personalities.

“God wanted her”

Whether the parents have a religious affiliation or not, some parents do not believe that their child was “chosen” to die. For some bereaved parents, issues around faith are challenged most at the loss of a child. For some parents, it can be their greatest source of strength.

“He’s in a better place”

Comments like this imply that parents maintain a belief system, which teaches that there is a “better” place. Not all bereaved parents have a belief system, let alone believe in a better place. For some, they simply feel their child is gone. One parent said, “the best place for our child was in his home.”

“Your child would not want to see you so sad”

As with many types of grief, this comment can create guilt feelings for the bereaved parent. It suggests that although they loved their child, they “owe it to their child” to be happy and there is a limit to the amount of sadness they can experience.

“Don’t grieve around the surviving children; it will upset them”

Yes, a grieving parent can be very frightening for surviving children in a family. But when parents “hide” their grief or feelings, they create mystery around a very normal human process. The only way children learn healthy grief responses is through their parents. It is acceptable for parents to explain to their children when they are sad or that they need time to be alone to work through their grief. It is especially important for parents to talk about the child who has died.

“I know how you feel….my father (mother, aunt) just passed away”

When a child dies, a parent is left to mourn a life that was not lived. They are grieving what could have been, first steps, graduation, wedding etc. The loss of a parent cannot be compared to the loss of a child even though the separation from both is very painful.

“Are you feeling better?”

Whether the loss occurred 4 months or 4 years ago, there may never be a time when a bereaved parent feels “better”. They may just feel different. This does not mean they cannot enjoy life again, but they will never lose that part of them which belonged to their child. The scar is always present.

WHAT TO SAY TO A BEREAVED PARENT

“I don’t know what to say”

An honest, straightforward response to parents, that still ACKNOWLEDGES THE LOSS. When friends and family do not mention the loss, it can feel like the child never existed.

“You must miss (child’s name).” or “I was thinking about (child’s name) today.”

Use the child’s name as often as you would if they were alive. They still live in the hearts of their parents.

“How is today going?”

This is a great alternative to “how are you”. In the early stages, you can be sure that parents are not “fine” even though they may say that out of habit.

“Do you have a picture of your child” or “what was your child like”

Parents want to know that whatever the age of their child, their life had meaning. When you ask about the child, it reinforces the fact that they played an important role in the family. This is especially important for parents surviving SIDS or stillborn deaths.

“How are the other children”

Sometimes, friends and family are so grief-stricken about the dead child they forget about surviving siblings. It is important to acknowledge their grief process as well.

Recommendations for a Grieving Family System

by Thomas R. Egnew, Ed. D., ACSW

1. Recognize the hurt: identify, predict, and accept the validity
of the unique issues and problems the family faces:
Be gentle with each other.

2. Be realistic about expectations as parents:
We cannot protect our children from everything.

3. Identify problem areas and communicate about them in light
of grief process:
Never underestimate the impact of grief on the family.

4. Discuss differences in grieving styles and do not judge
the responses of other family members:
Do not expect the grief of other family members to be like yours.

5. Men, open up to your pain/grief, learn to cry and express anger/stress appropriately: women, learn to express your anger appropriately:
Learn to share your grief with one another constructively.

6. Assist children to grieve by allowing expression of feelings, giving factual explanations, and being careful of expectations:
Don’t expect children to act or understand like adults.

7. Pace yourself with the recognition that grief resolution
will take a long time and will require reworking throughout life:
Recognize and prepare for anniversary reactions.

8. Establish personal and family methods of recognizing important
times relative to the deceased:
Create family grief rituals.

9. Give yourself and family members permission to set aside
grief and enjoy life:
Have fun together.

10. Be realistic regarding the resolution of grief:
Accept that things will never be the same and turn off the “if onlys”.

Anger and the Grieving Process

~ by Chaplain Leroy Joesten
Lutheran Minister and Chaplain at
Lutheran General Hospital
Park Ridge, Illinois.

Anger is but one of many emotional reactions to the painful reality of death. It is important to recognize anger as a natural, human response. If we can allow ourselves to be aggravated, irritated, even angered, by relatively minor life disappointments, we are certainly entitled to feel angry when faced with one of life’s most devastating experiences — the death of a child. Anger is not chosen, however, whether to remain angry, to refuse to surrender it or to resolve it ….is a choice.

Even though it is a natural, emotional response and is not willed, anger does have some objectives. Initially, anger is PROTEST — an attempt to ward off a reality which is seen as too devastating to one’s own sense of survival. It is an attempt to undo an event which is untimely and unwarranted. This phase of anger is the most acute, the most intense and therefore, perhaps, the most frightening. But anger must be expressed or ventilated in order for it to burn out. The reality of the death must be acknowledged; it cannot be fought or denied.

Anger is a means of RETRIEVAL. It craves a target. It may be directed at the doctor, at God, at oneself, or even at the deceased. Anger seeks to locate the author of the death with the hope that somehow our deceased child can be retrieved. This desire to retrieve or to have our dead child return to life continues for some time. Anger continues to feed the hope that somehow the death can be reversed. What eventually must be accepted is not only that the death has occurred but also that it is irreversible. As unfair and untimely as it is, the death cannot be undone.

Anger is a means of CONTROL. Anger erupts when we have lost control. It is an emotional response designed to regain control. It is a defense against accepting one’s own sense of impotence. This helplessness may be the most painful dimension of a beloved child’s death. Anger must be vented and burned out before we can, or in order for us to, get close to our helplessness. Our impotence to change the event needs to be accepted.

Once we can accept anger as a natural, human response, we can focus on its proper or improper expression. Instead of talking of good or bad ways of expressing anger, I prefer to speak of constructive or counter productive means of expressing anger. Constructive expression leads toward some form of resolution or dissolution of anger, while counter productive venting perpetuates, perhaps even magnifies, the effects of the death of a child.

Constructive venting of anger includes verbal and non-verbal means. It is important for people to have permission to verbalize their most intense feelings of anger, regardless of where the anger is targeted. Anger at God is as permissible as at any other target. If we give thanks to God for good times, it seems only natural that God would bear the brunt of at least some of our anger. It is also permissible and common that our dead child receive some of our anger. Even if the words must be yelled or screamed, the expression is healthy and therapeutic. The only caution may be to be in the company of someone who is understanding and accepting of our needs to verbalize the full intensity of our anger.

Anger can also be ventilated non-verbally. Crying itself can be a release of anger, especially the more intense and uncontrollable crying. Crying is a natural means of releasing frustration, helplessness, pain. Allowing ourselves to do those things which force the tears are good things to do: listening to music, looking at pictures, doing things that remind us of our child. Often these are avoided so that we will not cry, but they are a natural means of reinforcing the reality. Other non verbal means of expressing anger include physical exercise (running, walking, golf, tennis). The more physically demanding the better, because it forces a deeper physical release of stored up anger. (Scrubbing floors, washing walls, chopping wood, pounding nails are also good).

But there are counterproductive ways of dealing with anger. Repressing it so that it cannot come out is a common means. Displacing it on people who are either ignorant of the death or who are unable to understand the origin of the anger is counterproductive because it drives people away, causing even greater emotional isolation. Displacement may include being critical, harsh or even cruel to family members or friends for no apparent reason. Other counterproductive means include excess alcohol and drug abuse. Smoking or eating may increase. All of these make oneself the target of the anger, decreasing one’s self esteem and self worth. Some may idealize their child, making him or her perfect or more than human. This can be a cover up for anger at the dead child which is too painful to express. Vengeance or taking the law into one’s own hands is counterproductive. However, seeking justice through proper channels is a legitimate and potentially constructive outlet.

It is important to understand that people vary greatly in their experience of anger. Some people are said to have short fuses and erupt with very little provocation. Others are said to have the patience of a saint and are slow to anger. People also vary in their expression of anger; some find it easy while others find it difficult. These differences need to be respected so that people are free to pursue the most fitting expression of anger for themselves.

Anger must be expressed along with other emotional responses in order for it finally to be put to rest. Anger must be resolved if we are ever to be at peace with the fact of our child’s death. Unexpressed anger leads to unresolved anger, which in turn leads to bitterness and sometimes depression. Bitterness is when a person’s entire view of life is tainted and distorted. A bitter person is one who refuses to see the beauty and goodness and joy which, in spite of the tragedy of a child’s death, still constitutes much of life. Indeed, the occasion of those qualities being restored in our life is a living tribute to the importance and lasting value of our child’s life.

The goal of grief is to say goodbye to our child on all levels, to embrace the contribution our child was able to make to life and to exercise gratitude for the life that was, albeit all too short. To identify and express anger as a natural, human response is one of the steps on the way to recovery.