This is a focus I’ve had in my heart for some time, but have grappled with how to present it in a way that gives due respect and honour to parents who have endured (and continue to endure) the horrible reality of losing a child.
While there are many types of grief that I’ve personally experienced, this is NOT one of them. However, I have witnessed first-hand as a daughter, how my own parents grieved the sudden loss of my sister, aged 11. I’ve had close extended family members lose a teenage child in tragic circumstances. I’ve had friends who’ve lost infant children, young children and adult children through various devastating circumstances. So while, I’m not speaking from my own perspective as a parent who has lost a child, I have developed a great deal of empathy and understanding (personally and professionally) for parents who endure such a devastating loss. I have shared many a conversation with mothers and fathers who have poured out their heartbreak, both in close proximity and many years following their loss.
Regardless of the age, stage or circumstances surrounding the death of a child, for a mother or a father this carries the most unspeakable pain.
In order to do this month’s blog justice, I have spent some really special time with parents who have experienced the death of a child to gain further insight into their heartache, their grief, and their pain, and what it is that helps them to muster the strength to keep going, and how they have used their loss to bring hope and life to others who cross their path.
Rather than doing an ‘interview-style’ blog, I’ve decided to collate the very personal thoughts and feelings of each of the parents I had the privilege of hearing from and write a ‘letter’ from grieving parents to encapsulate those very precious insights for you to share in. This will inevitably deepen your insight and understanding into the life and the mind of a parent who has faced the devastating loss of their son or daughter, whether it be suddenly, or after a period of illness, or after a whole range of circumstances.
(A little disclaimer – please take care that you don’t read the following in public. Many tears were shed in the writing of this. Having a tissue box nearby may be useful).
I miss my child every single day. My grief will always stay with me. It’s so devastatingly difficult to know that I’ll never be able to wrap my arms around my child again. My love for my child is still the same. By that I mean it’s a present tense love. Just because they’re no longer alive has no bearing on how much I love them. I will love my child forever, and therefore there will be grief in my heart forever.
I know that it’s really hard for some people to understand my ‘ongoing’ grief, possibly because they want to see me ‘get better’ or return to ‘normal’. I am normal. My ‘new normal’ is different. I am forever changed. This is just how it is.
My grief is ever-changing. It doesn’t fit into a neat little box, or even into a five stage process. As a parent whose child has died my grief is continuous. It does not have a definitive time-line. It is not an insurmountable object to ‘get over’, rather it is something I need to journey through in an effort to integrate my loss into life as I know it now. Time is not something that mysteriously heals or fixes my grief. It simply allows my grief to change shape.
Like many things in a grieving parent’s life, special days of celebration are bittersweet to the extreme. Days such as Mother’s/Father’s Day, Birthdays, Anniversaries etc highlight for me the very real struggle in my internal world. On the one hand I feel deep joy because I was blessed with my child, and I feel eternally thankful for every precious moment I was given with them. On the other hand, the pain of missing my child – my life’s greatest achievement and joy – is more intense than words could ever describe.
Such confusing contrasts are all too common for bereaved parents. I am a parent to a child who is no longer alive. Perhaps a child who you never ever had the chance to meet. You can’t ask me about their school year, how they’re enjoying their sport, or whether they’ve made their uni selections or how they’re going in their chosen career path. In my mind I’ve imagined my child doing all of these things. Perhaps people don’t realise that I grieve each one of my child’s milestones, understanding they never had the opportunity to experience these special days.
Many people don’t know how to validate my child’s place in the world, or my ongoing role as my child’s parent. This is a tricky concept for others to get their head around. Even I wrestle to give answers to questions like “Do you have any children” and “How many?” I know so many bereaved parents, who like me, long for straightforward answers to such questions.
Sadly, there are parents who experience the death of their only child or all of their children, which causes them to wonder where they fit and whether they get to call themselves a mother or father in our broader society. In addition to the intense pain of grief, I know parents who are faced with a sense of being left out, forgotten and ignored. Can you imagine how that might feel?
Then, for parents like myself, who have other living children, there is the insensitivity that is projected through comments such as “Well you’re lucky to have other children”. Please be assured, parents do not forget any of their children. I love each one of my unique and special children in unique and special ways, but one of my children has died, so my love for this child looks a little untraditional. And for parents with a personal faith comments like, “They’re safe in heaven now”, or “It’s part of God’s plan”, are unhelpful because they negate our grief instead of giving us permission to give open expression to it. So please be as sensitive as possible with your comments. It’s tough enough for parents who already feel torn between the ambivalence of feeling joy and happiness for their living children and grief for their child who has died.
Please don’t act as though my child never existed. It causes me to feel forgotten, and that my child has been forgotten. I know what it’s like to feel the ‘elephant in the room’, when people feel uncomfortable talking about my child. Can I be really honest with you? I find it so comforting when someone talks about my child. I love hearing their name spoken out loud. I love hearing stories about them. Maybe you know a story that I’ve never heard, or perhaps I’ve heard it a thousand times before, but it really doesn’t matter to me. This is the most special gift I could ever receive as a bereaved parent!
And please don’t be afraid of my tears. I’m trying not to be afraid of them. I need you to be okay with them, so that I can be too. They appear at the most inconvenient times. That’s okay too. Again, this is just how it is.
So while I’m having my two-bits worth I’d also like to say something to bereaved parents. Every individual parent’s journey is unique to them. It’s a journey of discovery about yourself and others. The journey of confronting your greatest fears and finding ways to rise above them is profound. This is not a journey that you chose. It chose you. Just know that at some point in the future you will not feel as much pain as you do right now. Try not to compare your grief journey with that of someone else’s. Instead, take your time to work through your grief thoroughly. There are many helpful strategies to assist you to grow into the new person you have become. You may need help to do this. That’s okay. Grief work is the hardest work you will ever do!
For me, as I continue journeying through the grief of my child who has died, I have found ways to offer support to other grieving parents in small ways, such as offering an ear to hear someone else’s story and validating their experience; preparing meals; speaking encouraging words; giving a thoughtful, heartfelt gift, or taking care of other children for short periods of time. And then there are the many other ways that bereaved parents contribute as a way of honouring their child, and finding purpose in their own pain, as they create, support or volunteer in organisations who help others through their pain and grief. There are no limits on what form this may take. However, there is definitely something cathartic in working out in due course, as a bereaved parent, what this ‘thing’ is for you.
Whatever stage you’re at as a bereaved parent, know you will make it through today. In time, the grief storms will grow smaller and less frequent and you will find ways to restore balance and give yourself room to breathe. Find people who will love and support you through this journey. Be kind to yourself.
Let’s support one another,
A Bereaved Parent
Whether you are a friend, family member, neighbour, work colleague or a bereaved parent reading this, my hope is that you have gained a deeper insight into the journey many parents who have endured the death of a child have and continue to travel. This is undeniably one of the most difficult experiences any parent could find themselves navigating.
“How could any parent ever recover from the death of a child?”
In answer to this question, on hearing so many mother’s and father’s stories, I’m not sure a parent could ever truly ‘recover’ in the truest sense… or if they would in fact want to.
Recover – No! Forever changed – Yes!
How are you going to play your part to better help bereaved parents in your world navigate this journey that has chosen them?
Bereaved parents deserve for us to educate ourselves; to demonstrate genuine empathy and understanding. Don’t retreat for fear of feeling the discomfort of not knowing what to say or how to behave. They need you – not to have profound words of healing – but to just be ‘okay’ with this ever-changing journey they’re on.
With you on this journey,