In January I touched upon the subject of recovery after the death of a child. When I say recovery I do not mean a neatly complete type of closure but rather a regaining of the ability to function at a previous level, an integration of one’s loss and a successful resolution of the situation. In some ways, though, we can never recover totally, because we will never be exactly the way we were before. The loss of a child, changes us in many ways. What we can recover are our attributes and our capabilities, even though other aspects of us are different. We now have a slightly different self, due to the changes in us and our world as a consequence of our Child’s death.
THE RECOVERY GOAL
Our goal in grief recovery should be to learn to live with our loss and to adjust to our new “Normal”. This is arrived at by making many adjustments; I call them course corrections due to our new identity, our new relationship with the child we lost and readjusting to our new life without our child. This happens at the uniquely right time for each one of us and happens by reinvesting ourselves in new people, things, goals, pursuits etc. This is not the same thing as wanting or choosing the loss it just means you no longer have to fight it. You accept it in the way of learning to live with it as a fact of our life.
Recovery is when we can combine the past with the new present. Not that we will ever forget but we will not always agonize over our loss as much or as hard. Just like a physical operation which leaves a scar, our recovery from grief will also leave a psychic scar. And although we will be able to live our life there will be days again just like having a physical scar that it will throb or ache. It will remind us of what we have been through and that we will have to deal with it until it passes.
WHAT RECOVERY DOES NOT MEAN
Recovery does not mean forgetting our child or the way things were. It is not the end of our relationship with that child. It most certainly does not mean the end of our pain and that we are always happy again. We choose what recovery isn’t! Recovery will not mean that we do not experience bursts of grief as we live our life coming from familiar smells, sights, sounds, places, occasions and reminders of our child. It does not mean that we won’t wish for our child to be present for certain events in our life nor that our child was present to experience many of the things in life like graduation, marriage, children etc. that we imagined they would be experiencing. And it certainly does not mean we will not wonder what they might look like at a certain age or wish they were able to share in our joys or be proud of us even.
Recovery does not mean the end of grieving; it means we have painfully but successfully integrated the loss of our child so as not to interfere with our ongoing healthy functioning new life as we now know it. We will never stop grieving entirely. The following passage discussing widows is written by psychiatrist Gerald Caplan. It can be applied to bereaved parents as well.
We now realize that most [bereaved persons] continue the psychological work of mourning for their loved ones for the rest of their lives. During the turmoil and struggles of the first one to three years, most [bereaved persons] generally learn how to circumscribe and segregate this mourning within their mental economy and how to continue living despite its burden. After this time they are no longer actively mourning, but their loss remains a part of them and now and again they are caught up in a resurgence of feelings of grief. This happens with decreasing frequency as time goes on, but never ceases entirely. (Caplan 1974, viii).
The goal for a bereaved parent in Grief Recovery should be to come to terms with their grief and to have healthy productive lives in spite of the loss of their child rather than expecting a complete and permanent end to their grief.
WHAT RECOVERY MEANS
Grief changes you. It redefines roles, relationships and skills. Again like a physical scar the psychic scar we now have can give us character or vulnerability. But it is up to us how we will respond. We did not have a choice in losing our child but for the rest of our life we can choose how to respond to the scar after we have worked through the early on acute period of grief which affects all areas of our life. It is up to us whether or not after that we want to make the most out of our lives or stay bitter, whether we choose to integrate the loss into our lives so we grow or stay stuck in our grief like tires in the sand unable to move forward. Eventually we may be able to see how our loss can also be a gift from our child to use in incredible ways that would have otherwise never had happened if not for our loss. Or we can carry with us the sense that the world owes us now. It is our choice.
There are an incredible number of parents who have shown the positive things that can be done after losing a child. This is not the same thing as choosing to lose your child but choosing to recover from it and make something positive from a negative situation. I do not mean this to sound unrealistically positive or sappy as in denying our pain and the price we pay for losing our child. Instead I mean that even though we have lost our child we can decide that it will have some positive meaning for the rest of our own life.
The numbers of positive varied responses I have been privileged to see or hear about are amazing. As in the song “To Live Like You Were Dying” being touched by the death of our child opens our eyes to new possibilities and experiences and priorities that we may not have seen before or choose to overlook in the past. An example would be spending more time with the loved ones we still have. Not putting off saying things or doing things with them as we now know how precious, brief and fragile life can be but living each day more fully and meaningfully because of the death.
Many grieving parents find themselves more compassionate and caring towards others as they have developed a new sensitivity due to their loss. They have found a new or enhanced ability to pick up on and discuss sensitive emotional issues with others. Parents I have talked to often note increased religiousness and spirituality as well as heightened levels of consciousness. Like a dying individual the experience of losing a child has opened many parents up to taking time to enjoy the simple things in life that they once were in too big of a hurry to even notice. Many turn to the arts creating music, art, literature etc. from their pain.
Many decide to take their pain and rage and funnel it into helping others which in turn helps them as well. They start or assist in support groups for bereaved parents to help other grieving parents such as Compassionate Friends for example. Many bereaved parents strive to get political changes made through groups like Parents of Murdered Children to ensure no others suffer the same bereavement.
Successfully enduring the pain and suffering of grief allows us to find a deeper sense of self-worth, understanding of ourselves, life and of others. We are more passionate, compassionate and stronger than we were because we faced and got through our adversity. The death of our child has been one of our greatest lessons!
Many parents find some things are sweeter so to speak than ever before. Our relationships take on new dimensions as we have survived the worst. We want to get on with the business of living focusing on our newly found priorities. We are more assertive and set more limits than we may have before as we don’t wish to waste time on the people and things we put up with in the past.
Many parents find their own way to recovery and others like me rather than take the amount of time it takes to figure it out ourselves choose to use a Grief Recovery Coach. Some parents choose the opposite of the responses above and can become hardened, angry, and bitter and stuck in their grief. This is their choice too. You can not change others just your response to others. This goes here too! You did not have a choice in your child’s death but you do have a choice in your response to the death once the initial shock has worn off. Recognize you can make a choice. Take responsibility for the choice you make and do not think that if you chose something positive and constructive with the loss you have somehow betrayed your child or have stopped loving them. On the contrary many parents see it as a way of honoring their child! A way to continue their relationship with that child and to love them despite death!
Peace & Light,
Certified From Heartbreak to Happiness Coach
“Who then can so softly bind up the wound of another as he who has felt the same wound himself?”