The Grief That Howls
I recently read an article written by The New York Times columnist Jane Brody1 regarding the loss of a spouse and the healing that takes place. It was titled Recovery Varies After a Spouse Dies. The early research maintained that “the vast majority of surviving spouses adjust well.”2 New research suggests, however, that a more varied adjustment takes place.
Brody continues by noting that factors like ‘a general feeling of loneliness’ or ‘problems at work’ go beyond the “. . . limited set of measured outcomes” that were originally used. The conclusions of the newer studies found that “It can take two or three years or even longer for some to recover from bereavement.”3
I don’t know about the reality of spousal death: mine is alive and well, thank goodness. But it made me think in a different vein. What about children who predecease their parents? Someone could write an article about Recovery for Parents After Their Child Dies. Does anyone want to read that? No? Well, it may be that recovery is the wrong word. The better word is indefinite. For many parents, the grief that follows lasts an indefinite period of time.
But I don’t want to write about the death of a child or children or the recovery period of a parent. Instead, I want to write about what not to say to those parents.
For example, when people hear that my husband Ed and I lost our only two children to cancer they look at me and wonder aloud, “How does one overcome such tragedy?” I don’t reply since I don’t know. I haven’t overcome anything.
What often follows, despite the response, or lack of, on my part, are conversations of unsolicited proposals about how to get on with life. And so folks will say,
- Join a bereavement group
- Go to a shrink
- Visit Italy
- Go back to school
- Go back to work
- Play golf
- Take an antidepressant
- Keep busy
I don’t presume to know how others react to these proposals. My personal reaction? . . . I continue to work hard to remain quiet. I want to look as if nothing’s changed, to appear as I once was and to smile though my pain festers inside.
Here also are some other things not to say to bereaved parents4:
- “Your child is in a better place. You should be happy about that.”
- “I know just how you feel. Our pet died this year.”
- “It’s time to put this all behind you. No one wants to be with folks who are always feeling sorry for themselves.”
- “Why don’t you have another child next year so you can put what’s happened behind you?”
- “We have to hold our family gathering at your house or it just won’t be the same. You need to stay busy.”
- “The holidays are a time for rejoicing and giving thanks for what we have. Don’t spoil it for everyone else. Let’s pretend this never happened.”
- “What do you mean you don’t want to decorate your home for Christmas? We’re coming over and will do it. That will put you in the holiday mood.”
- “I know you like shopping—let’s go out together, I have so many people I have to buy presents for.”
Many years later, my head finally said ‘time-out’, and I listened to a bit of advice not asked for but given anyway. I joined a bereavement group. Ed and I differ on how we handle our losses; no less pain, just different, and I went to the meeting alone.
There were about ten of us in the group including parents who lost a son that past week, another two who lost a son twelve years before, the rest with their losses in-between, sons and daughters of varying ages. We told our stories. Everybody cried. And nobody told me how to overcome.
That night, among those mothers and fathers, I recognized, once more, that numbers really don’t count. We have lost our children, whether one child or several, and in the process, we lost a piece of our inner selves. We have been changed irrevocably, in ways that more fortunate parents haven’t, whether that change is noticeable or not.
And I recognized something else that night: the need to remember that human beings are individuals. Those of us in the bereavement group have suffered through a horrific happening, or happenings as the case may be, something that we never expected and that nature, I believe, hadn’t intended: the death of children before their parents.
Although we have our losses in common, we handle our pain in distinct ways. Some of us can’t stop crying. Some of us keep it all inside. Well, yes, we’re individuals! We’re separate spirits! No news there: we’re similar in some ways, different in others. And every one of us needs to be reminded of that from time to time.
So I smile because that’s who I am. I’m feisty. I’m in control—most of the time. I accept that I don’t handle certain situations well but I do my best. I’ve lost my children and suffer my pain my way, because that’s who I am.
Which brings me back to conversations on life and situations that speak to grief. To that end, it’s perfectly all right to say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” And then, let it go.
Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein
*There is a plethora of support groups available for anyone interested. This is not to suggest support groups offer answers for everyone or even partial resolutions for some. But for those who are interested, the Internet affords many examples of bereavement websites including the following:
- www.griefshare.org/. Grief support in general
- www.compassionatefriends.org . Grief support after the death of a child.
1) Personal Health. September 27, 2016.
2) J Fam Psychol. 2008 Apr; 22(2): 203–211.
3) Klass, 1999; Rubin, 1993.
Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein