I am a bereaved parent

F A Q  a n d  M y t h s

I am a bereaved parent. My son died 4 months ago. I feel like I’m going crazy. Is this normal?

The one term that we hear more than any other from bereaved parents is exactly as you stated, “I feel like I’m going crazy!” When your child dies you may experience many feelings and emotions that are unfamiliar.

Some of the feelings that many people struggle with are: shock, numbness, anxiety, fear, relief, emptiness, anger, yearning, searching, and of course overwhelming sadness. Rest assured that all of these feelings are normal and might even be considered healthy for a newly bereaved parent.

You may also be finding that you are confused, forgetful, disorganised, restless, exhausted, and are unable to concentrate and are becoming socially isolated. Again, all of these are certainly common occurrences when you are grieving.

You will find that, over time, many of these emotions and feelings will diminish somewhat. They will no longer make you feel like you are “going crazy”, but they will always be with you to some extent. At times, often when you least expect it, you may experience a sudden, intense resurgence of these emotions. Often referred to as “grief attacks” they can be frightening and overpowering. Again this is a very normal reaction to the loss of a child.

C.W. Lewis perhaps describes it best when he wrote in his book a grief observed: “grief is like a long, winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

A couple that we are friendly with lost their six month old baby recently. We would like to be supportive to them, but the reality is that we are avoiding them because we have no idea what to do or say. We feel terrible. Do you have any suggestions that might help us?

These common sense do’s and don’ts are by no means complete but hopefully they will give you the courage to reach out to your friends at a time when your support and compassion is needed most.

Do – let your friends know that you are genuinely concerned for and care about them.
Don’t – let your fear of doing or saying the wrong thing stop you from reaching out to them.

Do – acknowledge the death of their child and also the depth of their pain.
Don’t – say, “i know how you feel”. Even if you have lost a child yourself – do not presume to know their pain.

Do – apologize if you know you have said something insensitive or inappropriate because of your own anxiety or fear.
Don’t – be overly critical of yourself for this. Remember that we are all human so go easy on yourself. You are trying your best in very difficult circumstances.

Do – let them tell you their story and talk about their child as many times as they need to, listening is perhaps the greatest gift you can give to them.
Don’t – say things like “life goes on”; “you have to get over this” “it’s been too long, you should be feeling better by now”. These types of statements will give them the impression that you think they are somehow grieving “wrong”, with the result that they will no longer be comfortable talking to you about their feelings. This makes what is already an isolating experience even more isolating.

Do – talk about positive and loving qualities of their child and the relationship they had with them.
Don’t – change the subject at the mention of the child’s name or avoid mentioning it out of fear of reminding them of their pain (they haven’t forgotten) and it keeps the child’s memory alive in a healthy way.

Do – remember that nothing was worth the price these parents paid when their child died so –
Don’t – try to find something positive (e.g. A moral/ethical lesson, helping some cause etc.) about the child’s death.

Do – acknowledge that the child that they have lost can never be replaced.
Don’t – tell them to be grateful for their other children or that they can “always have another child”. Children are not interchangeable or replaceable commodities. They are already grateful for any surviving children that they may have in a way that many non-bereaved parents will never fully appreciate.

Do – remember that no matter how a child dies a parent will almost always have overwhelming feelings of guilt.
Don’t – make any comments about the love or care the child received from either parents or professionals that will reinforce these feelings of guilt.

Do – remember that certain dates (birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc.)
Will be especially painful for them. Encourage them not to expect too much of themselves. Try to call or send a card on those occasions. Knowing that someone is thinking about them will bring great comfort.
Don’t – tell them what they should or should not be doing.

Do – be available to help with practical matters, baby-sitting other children, running errands, what ever seems to be needed the most.
Don’t – avoid seeing your friends – that only makes an already unspeakably painful situation even worse.

Do – pay special attention to any surviving siblings, they too are grieving and need an opportunity to talk and be comforted.
Don’t – tell them to be strong for their parents or imply that they need to assume new roles in the family to replace the lost sibling.

Do – encourage the parents to attend a support group if this is suitable for them. Remember that it takes great courage to do this. Support groups allow them to meet, talk to and share with others in similar circumstances.
Don’t – tell them that attending a support group is a sign of weakness or their own inability to cope with their grief.

Do – respect their choice about whether or not to attend a group.
Don’t – tell them that if they don’t attend a support group, they won’t heal. Grief is a unique, individual journey and not all people find groups helpful.

I am a nursing student hoping to work in labour and delivery some day. I am having difficulty understanding what the ethical/moral rights are of a parent/baby when a stillbirth or neo-natal death takes place.

Although these are not necessarily legal rights under the law it would be comforting for families to feel that they have privilege to the following:

Parents have the right to the opportunity of seeing, holding, touching and loving their child both before and after death. They have the right to bond with and to name their child. They have the right to take photographs and to retain mementoes of their child.

They have the right to be cared for by empathetic hospital staff; to be allowed to be together during hospitalization and to ask for and receive explanations of what to expect while in hospital. They have the right to ask for an autopsy to be performed.

They have the right to observe their own cultural/religious practices and to plan for their child’s burial or cremation if desired.

They have the right to be informed about the grieving process and to feel and have acknowledged the intensity of their loss and pain.

They have the right to do whatever is right for them.

The baby has the right to be recognised as a person who was born and died. As such, the baby has the right to be named, seen, touched, held and loved by its family. The baby has the right to have its life ending acknowledged.

My friends seem to be giving me the message that, following the death of my child, my goal should be to “get over” my grief and get my life back to “normal”. I have no idea what “normal” is anymore. Is it possible to “get over” this pain?

Our society today is, on the whole, very uncomfortable with grieving people. Most of the “helpful” advice given to the bereaved encourages them to deal with their grief issues as quickly as possible and move on. Shortly after the funeral there is an expectation that the bereaved person will return to “normal”.

Many people view grief as an event be dealt with quickly and not a process that needs to be experienced. However it is only through the experience of that process that healing can begin.

Many bereaved people are not given permission to mourn, express their feelings, or verbalise what they are really thinking. This makes grief a very isolating experience. They are afraid that if they show their grief to an outside world they will be perceived as being weak, or “stuck in their grief”. Being stoic and suppressing emotions are considered to be more admirable qualities than tears and distress. When asked how they are doing the bereaved often replies “i’m fine” and this is a far easier response for most people to hear as it avoids a conversation about their grief and how they are coping. In other words, it is more socially acceptable. However this does not meet the emotional needs of the bereaved and they are often left feeling that their reaction to the death of a loved one is abnormal.

The expectation that you can “get over” your grief is a ridiculous one. Death changes the person we once were forever and we can never return to be that person again. It is possible to heal, you will always carry the scars of your loss, but to recover would mean to continue life without those scars. To think that your goal is to completely recover from your grief can be very damaging and destructive to your healing process. With time, your pain will not be as overwhelming as it is now, you will find a safe place in your heart for it and you will find renewed purpose and meaning in life once again.

My husband was recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. What can I do to help my children, age 6, 8 and 12 years, during the very difficult times I am sure we will experience after his death? They are very close to their father and I am concerned about how they will be able to handle this crisis.

Children are often considered to be the “forgotten mourners” and you are to be commended for your obvious concern and support of them in what must be a devastating time in your own life. Perhaps the most important advice that we can offer is not to avoid the topic of their father’s illness and death. Many children suffer from a lack of understanding of death simply because we, as adults, won’t explain the facts to them in age appropriate language.

It is very important that communication be kept open and honest. Explain what is happening, how it is happening and what is going to happen next. Be truthful, if you lie they will eventually find out and this may affect their ability to trust in the future. Refrain from using euphemisms such as “he’s gone to a better place”.

Give your children the chance to be involved with the rituals of death. Encourage them to attend the funeral or burial service. Explain why this event is important and inform them of what they can expect to occur. Let them be involved with the planning process if they seem interested.

Children experience many of the same feelings and emotions after the death of loved one that many adults do. You may have to role model that it is okay for them to express those feeling. Let them know that you are sad and that you miss daddy too. Let them know that is okay to cry when they are feeling sad and that their tears will not make you any sadder.

Be available to your children to offer them whatever comfort you can give them. Remember that they may be afraid that they will lose you also and you may need to assure them that you are not likely die too and that there will always be someone to love and care for them. It is important for them to understand that they are not responsible for their father’s death, that it was not caused by anything they said, did or wished.

Make sure that the school is notified of the death of their father. Staff is often trained in giving support during bereavement but it can only be made available if they are aware of the circumstances. You might like to suggest that the teacher speak to your child’s class about what has happened before your child returns to school.

Be aware that a child’s role in the family is often altered after a parent dies. Try to avoid this happening. It would be a great burden for one of your children to suddenly be expected to assume the role of “man of the house”. Instead encourage them to maintain their familiar places in the family and continue with the activities and friends they had before their father died.

It extremely important for the children to have someone they trust to confide in. Someone who can address their concerns and answer their questions. But children really need to be listened to. Just like adults they may need to talk about what happened or what they are feeling over and over again. Be patient with them and encourage them to remember all the happy, joyful times they spent with their father not just the events leading up to his death. When you have no words to offer them, hug them. The physical reassurance of your love for them will be especially important now.

No matter how hard you try to support your children you may feel that your efforts are not helping enough. Remember that you are also grieving and struggling with your own loss. Consider seeking professional help if you have serious concerns about your children. Support groups for grieving children are extremely helpful even if your child appears to be handling his or her grief appropriately. Many children have difficulty speaking to their parent about how they are feeling. They are frightened of making their parent feel worse than they already do. Bereaved families of Ontario – Halton/Peel runs support groups for children who have suffered the loss of either a parent or a sibling. Here children have the opportunity to meet and interact with peers who have also suffered to the loss of someone significant. This helps to lessen their feelings of isolation and lets them know that they are not alone in their grief.

Finally, try not to let their father’s death overshadow every event in their lives. Allow the children to shine in their own right and to find joy in their lives.