Grieving Parents Look for Gentleness and Understanding from Friends and Counselors
As a grieving parent herself, Deb Kosmer, social worker, writer and grief specialist, shares insights on how others can support those who are grieving the death of a child. She provides practical tips for walking the journey of grief with your friends or loved ones who have had a child die. She also gives tips about what not to say and how to be a listening friend.
by Deb Kosmer
“When children die, the bond doesn’t break... [But] the parents face two mutually exclusive facts. The child is gone and not coming back and the bond is...as powerful a bonding as people have in their abilities... [Bereaved parents attempt] to let go, not of the child, but of the pain.” - FINKBEINER
My son Shawn taught me what it was like to be a bereaved parent, a lesson no one wants to learn or would ever volunteer for. In the 15 years since his death, I have walked along side of, held the hand of, and cried with many other bereaved parents as they have shared their stories, their memories, their joys and their sorrow. From their and my own personal experience I have learned many things that are helpful and many that are not, and many that are even hurtful.
My handsome, smart, talented, and outgoing son died instantly at age 14 after being struck by a car. There are no words to describe the bottomless pit of despair parents find themselves in. In my own case I was still trying to come to terms with the sudden death of my 31-year-old sister in a motor vehicle accident eight months before my son’s tragic death. The loss of a child is so devastating and parents need a lot of support for a long time.
Some parents find real help in support groups. Groups such as Compassionate Friends and Bereaved Parents are a source of comfort for many. In these groups, parents find others who have similar feelings of rage, guilt, powerlessness, loss of interest in life, despair, hopelessness, and disbelief. They can speak these things out loud without fear of judgment or criticism or reprisal. As dark as their thoughts may be it is only by bringing them to the surface that their power to destroy is lessened.
Parents’ grief is so great and so overwhelming that they need to tell their story again and again as they try to come to grips with what has happened and what they are supposed to do with the rest of their lives. They also benefit from hearing the stories of other parents. In support groups, parents at all different points in their grief journeys participate. This allows newer members of the group to see that these parents, though still missing their children, sometimes share laughter and the happy times that they have begun experiencing.
As grieving parents listen to each other’s stories, sometimes the amount of grief in one room can seem too much to bear. Yet for most parents, as the meeting draws to a close, they linger, hesitant to leave this place where, though still so sad, they at least feel understood and not so alone. Sometimes they dread having to leave and return home with their devastating loss.
Counselors need to be very mindful of what they say and tread softly with theses folks. Bereaved parents are not looking to a counselor for advice, but rather for validation of their feelings and their right to those feelings. They are looking for someone who will just listen and be with them as they release some of their pain. They are looking for someone who will allow them the time that they need to sort through their feelings and who will not expect them to be over the death of their child in weeks or in months … someone who understands that we do not “get over” people, especially the death of our children who are supposed to be here long after we die.
When you are trying to help a grieving parent it is important to realize that with the death of their child came an accompanying loss of innocence and belief in the rightness of the world. They know now how vulnerable we all are and how lives can be lost and changed in an instant. Most all bereaved parents struggle with feelings of guilt and “if only.” If only I’d taken him to the doctor sooner, another doctor, kept him home from school, didn’t let her go out on that date, had not left her with a sitter, insisted he have a light on his bike, and on and on and on. And the overriding guilt issue: I should not be here when my child is not. I should have protected my child. It was my job and I blew it. Parents are not supposed to outlive their children. It’s wrong, it’s obscene, what am I still doing here. Many parents describe the death of their child as a death sentence of their own; they often feel like they died as well. They no longer know themselves and, if married, they often don’t feel as though they know each other anymore either.
Personal belongings that link the parents to their child are very important. It is also very important to them to hear their child’s name and know that others have not forgotten. Since they can never make new memories with their child, the memories that they do have become ever more precious; parents have a strong need to share these over and over.
Mothers and fathers very often grieve differently and both are in such pain that the death of a child can be very hard on a marriage. It has been my experience that troubled marriages before the death of a child become increasingly troubled and seldom survive. Good strong marriages seem to fare better but it still takes a toll and sometimes one parent blames the other, whether they acknowledge this or not.
Counselors and friends and family who want to be supportive need to listen without judgment, need to be comfortable around the expression of strong feelings, and need to be compassionate and encouraging as the parents struggle to survive.
One of the worst things a counselor said to me in a counseling session was, “Pain is pain; there is no difference from one person’s pain to another.” In retrospect I know what she was trying to say; that we can’t judge each other’s pain and should not try. When you are in pain, it doesn’t really matter that others may have more pain; yours is what matters and it hurts. Back then what I heard was, “Pain is pain; it’s the same whether you just broke up with your girlfriend, your goldfish died, or your 89-year-old aunt died.” I wanted to shake her. Instead, when I calmed down, at our next session I proceeded to educate her on how hurtful and idiotic her words seemed to me. I knew firsthand that pain has different levels and meanings and is not all the same. I hurt when my dad died at 56 and I hurt when my sister died at 31, and I hurt over many big and little things. But the death of my son was a hurt I had never even imagined.
The attachment and the continuing bonds between parent and child are something that in time the grieving parents realize can never be taken from them, even by death. A percentage of parents, of course, never reach this place and never move much beyond the point of learning of the death. That is truly sad, as then, other lives have been lost as well.
Many counselors speak of grief never really ending, which is true, and of “heavier” grief enduring for two to three years. From the many bereaved parents I have known personally or professionally, I would say that for most the second year is harder than the first because by then the reality of the death and just how long a time they will have to live without their child’s physical presence is really becoming clearer. Grief continues to be difficult through the fifth year. Even parents who may have resigned themselves to their fate and appear to be coping better are still experiencing intense hurt.
It is not uncommon to visit with parents and learn that they’ve experienced the death of a child 40 or 50 years ago, and have them tear up still as they tell it. This does not mean that they never dealt with their loss. It’s just that as long as we live, it’s never really over. Life can be good and beautiful and meaningful again, and yet there will still be moments of sadness and longing for our children and what might have been.