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Life After Death? – a bereaved parent’s perspective on grief

This is not my first blog about the grief experienced by the loss of a child. On reflection, that piece was somewhat generic and so, on this occasion I feel it would be useful to share some thoughts on my own personal experience of the loss of a child.

My son was seventeen when he was killed, suddenly, in a road traffic accident. At the time my family was living in Germany so that is where he is buried. His death had an immediate impact on my family and myself. I no longer had my beloved son by my side, instead a new, and darker companion – called grief.

In the weeks and months after my loss there was no specialist help on offer for me or my family. Elsewhere, relatives, friends, and colleagues seemed awkward as they struggled to find something appropriate to say, or do. Let’s face it this is not how the story should have been. This isn’t the life script I had envisaged. We all die, but no parent wants or expects to outlive their own children. Any book on raising a child that contained a chapter in the middle describing what to do if your child dies would be an unappealing read for anyone who has a child of their own.

The death of a child is surrounded with fears and taboo

The discovery and authorship of this “missing” chapter is the unwelcome task of any bereaved parent. The labour is full of challenges and questions. What, for example, is the function of the invisible wall that comes between bereaved parents and those who have not personally experienced the death of one of their children? I realise this is nobody’s fault. This is the way it is, particularly in our Western society where death, and especially the death of a child, is surrounded with fears and taboo. How to feel or what to do are just not taught to us, and for myself, I was left scrambling for the social and internal resources to enable me to engage with my grief in ways that would help me survive, how to go on living after the death of my boy.

Grief is painful and emotionally and physically exhausting. It is also very confusing. But I have learnt from it and it has informed my ideas around the grief of bereaved parents and how, as a therapist, I can draw upon my lived experience and counselling training to help others, not only grieving parents but also my counsellors and psychotherapists who are interesting in working with clients in this particular aspect of bereavement.

Grief is not an illness

It is important to remember that grief is not an illness, nor is it merely an obstacle in the way of a ‘normal’ life. For bereaved parents here to stay. Our child is no longer with us but we will always love and remember them. As a result, I feel any therapy should not aim to fix or remove the grief but acknowledge it and bear witness to the parent’s loss. Our loved ones will always be there in our hearts and minds and we need help to learn how to memorialise them not banish all thoughts of them. Grief is the form love takes when someone dies and our grief is important to us – it is how we are learning to live inside our loss, how we carry what cannot be fixed. In a strange way we need our grief – it is how we survive. We don’t need to feel more broken by people saying or doing things that they think will make our grief go away.

Some of the things people have said to me about my loss have been less than helpful, especially the one about “time healing the pain”. I would say my grief is for life. It’s not something I will “get over”. I experience grief as something that comes and goes like waves on the ocean. In the early days, it felt like a Tsunami, other times the seas are calm but the waves can become more powerful when bad weather sets in, by this I mean the feelings that can swell up inside me, for example, on my son’s birthday, at Christmas time, or when I look at photos which stir the memory.

So I would suggest to anyone who knows or works with bereaved parents to avoid judgments or assumptions on how long grief should last. That is for the bereaved parent to decide how they should get on with life – consider the following platitudes;-

“your child would not want you to be sad”

“they are in a better place”

“you still have your other children”

“you should be getting over this by now”

“life isn’t fair’

and so on………..

I know that people mean well, but I would caution against people saying that they understand something unless they really do.

Arguably, many of these sayings could apply to any loss, but I would suggest that the loss of a child has an additional element. When an adult lives their full life span we can look back on their personal history and perhaps on a life fully lived. When a child dies it’s not only their history, it’s their future also lost. For some parents get the shortest of histories to reflect upon if they experience loss to miscarriage, stillbirth or perinatal death.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

I would also like to explain that people who know or work with bereaved parents should not be afraid to ask about our children or use their name because, even if we are moved to tears, they are probably tears of relief that someone want to share in our memories of them. When bereaved parents are allowed to share their stories we are helped to accept the loss and make it more real – and that they and their children are still cared about

Since joining UKCN as Director in January I have been keen to continue my work and thinking around parental bereavement and I know some of our therapists share this interest. It has also been important to establish “Charlie’s Corner’ a niche bereavement service that I hope will continue the great work of Charlie’s Angel Foundation, a charity I worked for five years and which sadly will finally close its operation in summer 2023.

From a therapist’s perspective, I hope to establish some training or workshops around the issue of parental bereavement over the coming months so that I can share some of my ideas about working therapeutically in this area,

There is no rule book for how to grieve after the death of a child, but some general knowledge of the subject I think might help us as therapists to engage with more empathy.  

Additionally, there is a wealth of literature available on how bereaved parents adapt and survive after the death of a child. In the UK, The Compassionate Friends is a good resource. In the USA there is a wonderful website Refuge in Grief, which while not specific to child loss, is good for an understanding of the day to day concerns of the bereaved.

LINKS:

The Compassionate Friends   https://www.tcf.org.uk/

Refuge in Grief   http://www.refugeingrief.com/

Continuing Bonds   https://www.amazon.co.uk/Continuing-Bonds-Understandings-Education-Health/dp/1560323396

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