Expert / 27 May, 2021 / Dr John Wilson
Of all the kinds of loss I counsel and write about, losing a child is the hardest. If much of what I have written here doesn’t match your experience, trust your own instincts and natural coping style rather than follow, to the letter, other people’s advice. Your grief is a unique journey, but I hope my own personal and professional experience can serve as a map.
The death of a child is like no other loss. It hurts like a physical pain. You alternate between feeling numb and not being able to stop crying. You wonder if you’ll cope with such despair. You can find yourself searching for your baby and crying out their name. It’s emotionally and physically exhausting. Grief comes over you in crushing waves. That alone is tiring because just when you think it’s getting a little easier, a fresh tsunami of sadness floods over you.
As hard as it seems, this overwhelming pain is normal, natural and even healthy. It’s a measure of the lengths you would go to in keeping your children safe. Nature has equipped you to feel distressed if your babies are threatened so that you would do anything to protect them. Parental grief is the other side of this love and attachment.
Ride those waves of grief and let them wash over you. Don’t bottle it up. At the same time, because it is so overwhelming, try to take time out from your grief. Spend some time each day keeping busy. It helps if you have other children to devote your time to, or if you can negotiate a phased return to work with a compassionate employer. Make a point of eating well and getting exercise. Activities and distractions are ways to ward off sinking into grief-related depression. On the other hand, keeping busy for too much of the time may lead to stress and burnout. For the first few weeks and months, you may need to hold it together, and that’s fine, but one day you’ll hear a piece of music, or see a television item that triggers you, and the tears will flow. Let them, it’s the start of a healing process.
It may be that if your child was born with a life-limiting condition, their death was anticipated. Your grief will have started with the paediatrician’s diagnosis, it so may be not so much of a shock, although the yearning for them will remain, alongside your mourning for their lost future. Your sick or disabled child may have needed a lot of care. When they are no longer with you, your life will have changed drastically. You may feel confused, guilty even, about your life suddenly getting easier on a day-to-day level, but your grief will be for a lost world of special care you no longer inhabit. To lose a child to a genetic condition you bestowed, can leave you with unresolved guilt. Bring it out into the open by talking to your family and others you trust.
The loss of a baby tests a relationship. Your partner may be protecting you by being strong and not showing their grief in front of you. Men will often protect their partner by delaying their own grief for many months, or by crying when they’re on their own. Don’t mistake their avoidance for not caring, each of us needs to find our own grieving style, and everyone’s uniqueness is valid. Share your feelings and tears with those around you, grief is lonely enough without being alone too. If you’re trying to be the strong and silent partner, you risk your other half feeling alone in grief.
It’s understandable to become over-protective for the health and safety of your other children. Don’t beat yourself up over it, in time your anxiety will return to the rational norms of good parenting.
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Grief after losing a child is intense and prolonged, sometimes for several years, although it does begin to get easier in time. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have what experts call Complicated Grief or Prolonged Grief Disorder. I would say that it’s just normal grief in unimaginably painful circumstances. It may help to talk to a counsellor or helpline or read books written by others who have gone through the same devastating experience. Choose a counsellor experienced in working with baby loss.
Humans are meaning-making animals. We find confusion uncomfortable, so we try to make sense of our world. We ask, “Why did this happen to my child?” and although there’s not always an answer, we still search for one. Ruminating over the same unanswerable question can lead to a downward spiral of depression, so it helps to know when to stop. In my professional practice I encourage my clients to seek answers from doctors who cared for the child because explanations help. I also encourage clients to know when to stop pointless searching. Sometimes well-meaning friends, or even strangers will offer you religious explanations. It may help you if you share that faith, but very often it does not.
Some friends will disappoint you by not being there for you. Others will say clumsy things to break a difficult silence. The last things you’ll want to hear are,
“God has a plan.”
“Perhaps it was for the best.”
“You’re young enough to have more children.”
“It’s nearly a year, I’d thought you’d be moving on.”
You’ll likely develop a recognition of those people who ask how you are, with fingers crossed, hoping your reply will be positive. It’s tempting to tell them you’re okay, but try to be honest, you have enough to cope with without looking after those friends. Very often, people you never thought of as friend will surprise you by being there, giving you what you just what you need. Tell them how much they’re appreciated.
Very young children don’t understand what death means. Even when they do, it takes a little more time to understand that death is final and irreversible. Children are usually five or six before they completely understand both ideas. Not until they are teenagers can they understand religious concepts of Heavenly immortality. Answer your children’s questions honestly and age-appropriately. It’s hard to use the D-word in any circumstances, but it is important with children not to use ambiguous words. If you say ‘sleeping’, they’ll worry about sleeping. If you say “Grandad is looking after her”, or “She’s up in the sky”, be prepared to explain why their baby sister has gone and can’t come back.
There are pros and cons. The upside is that you will be with other bereaved parents who get where you’re coming from. They will listen and be the closest to understanding what you’re going through. The downside, particularly in groups where new people are continually joining as others leave, is that some parents will be further on in their grief than you are. All groups carry the risk of recycling and perpetuating painful grief. Some people can’t manage others’ unrelenting sadness week after week. Others struggle with happy news, such as hearing the joy of a member’s new pregnancy. In one group I know of, some found it hard when a mother introduced her new baby to the others. Groups run by and for bereaved parents can be helpful, but it may be better to find a group facilitated by professionals or well-trained volunteers. Often these facilitators have themselves lost a child.
You don’t ‘move on’ when you lose a child, but you can move forward, taking the memories of them into your future. Part of moving forward may involve finding a new purpose in your life. Some change to more meaningful careers involving care for others. It’s not unknown for people to write books based on the experience of loss. Others volunteer, campaign or fundraise. I have to say, in some cases I have seen campaigning after bereavement become a passionate obsession at the expense of self-care. It is important not to lose track of your own needs as you work tirelessly to help others. Your new purpose should be part of your grieving, not an avoidance of your emotional needs.
I have never met a parent who ‘got over’ losing a child. It’s always with you. The story of your lost child is like a book with loose pages. Every so often a sad page drops to the floor, often when you least expect it, and there are always triggers: in music, films, places and conversations. Parents who’ve joined the club to which nobody wants to be a member can usually spot other members. It’s because although your grief seldom diminishes, you grow in compassion, understanding and care for others. As you learn to become this bigger person, the undiminished grief becomes a smaller part of your whole. Some of the loveliest people I know have lost a child.
The article was written by Dr. John Wilson. John works with groups and individuals and trains other bereavement counsellors. His book to help with loss is called The Plain Guide to Grief.
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