When a parent dies, you lose your past; when a child dies, you lose your future.
As parents, we do not expect to out live our children. We look to the natural rhythm of life, to play out as we know it should. That our children will be our legacy, to fulfill our hopes and dreams, as well as their own dreams.
Then the unthinkable happens. Something so painful, it will change the course of our lives, and how we envision our future. We lose a child through death.
The Parent Child Bond
The intense parental grief, is due to the parent-child bond that is present. In this relationship, the parent strongly identifies with the child. There is the feeling that when a child dies, a part of the parent dies also. There now exists a void, an emptyness that used to be occupied by the child.
Parental bereavement, by it's very nature, is intense grief. It can be described as deep and painful, almost beyond words. The parents are suffering the loss of a child, yet need to continue with their own lives. Wanting to be free of the pain, yet knowing that it now holds them close to their child, is like grasping a double edged sword.
There are many kinds of grief and different ways to grieve. All grief is not equal. There are some things that are common to all grief and some things that are specific to parental bereavement.
Some things common to all that are grieving, are the feelings that the profound level of grief will never end and that the emptyness of the loss will always be there. Things will never be quite like they were.
The parents are facing an enormous loss. There is a deep emotional attachment with the child, which has been severed. The identity of the parent is meshed with their child. When a child dies, the parents face an emotional and physical strain, that affects all parts of them. The heavy toll is on the parents as well as the family.
Although both parents are going through the same tremendous shock of losing a child, they may each grieve differently. Each parent's relationship with the child would have been unique to themselves.
How a parent grieves will be influenced by their age, personality and experiences with life. Faith and cultural background will also be an influence. Parental bereavement takes many forms.
It is important that grief is not internalized. Unexpressed anger may show up later as a destructive force, if not dealt with. Talking is one way to work through grief. Find someone you consider as 'safe' to vent your feelings. Someone you would feel comfortable with to let loose the tears, anger and words that need to be expressed. That someone could be a grief counselor, your partner, a friend or a family member.
The summer of my son's passing, my husband and I sat outside every evening, together. Sometimes we talked and sometimes there wasn't anything to say. We hurt together and we ached separately, also.
My sister, many miles apart from me, also offered a safe refuge for my weary spirit. We talked on the phone and often I had no words for her. She simply listened to my silence, and I was grateful.
When a child dies, the present is changed, as well as the future, for the parents and family members. The hopes and dreams that we hold within, for those we love, especially our children, are suddenly taken from us.
Parents see a part of themselves in their children. They identify with the role of being a parent to the child. When there is a death of a child, it feels like a part of the parent has died also. All of the energy that has been used for the everyday things, such as school, shopping trips and planned future events, has no place to go. There is a disoriented feeling.
During mourning for my son, I also mourned for his future expierences that would never be. I greived for the daughter-in-law and grandchildren that I had been looking forward to knowing.
The make-up of a family changes when a child dies. In a family consisting of one child, the family is now childless. When there used to be two children, there is now an 'only' child. There may no longer be a middle child or oldest child, to the outside world. The parents have the child's birth order, in a fixed place in their mind. To them, the child will always occupy that space.
Other family children may now try to fill the space of the child who died. They are unknowingly caught up in parental bereavement, expressing it in their own way.
When my son died, he was the youngest of two children. My daughter became an 'only child', of sorts. I still see myself as the mother of two children. I do not see our family as three, as other people might see us.
A Strain On Marriage
Bereaved parents have a great strain placed on their marriage. They must work through their grief together, as well as alone. With all the pressures of adjusting to life without their child, they have to also adjust to a partner that is going through an identity change.
Couples may blame themselves, or their partner for their child's death. The burden may be so great, that a parent may not want to go on with their own life.
A bereaved parent is dealing with all the elements of grief individually, may shut out the other partner, emotionally. Each spouse is struggling to keep their expectations of who they are in balance.
During the initial time of grief, parents may need help with care for their other children. The resources of the parents may be stretched thin, as they are dealing with their own pain.
As time and the grieving process are allowed to work, couples often come together, stronger than ever, having weathered one of the most trying times they will ever face.
Memories To Keep
There is a need , for the parents of a child who has died, to keep the child's memory alive. They want to know that friends and family will not forget their child.
Preserving memories, can consist of making something out of the things that you already have. An example would be to make a scrapbook, to be filled with favorite school projects, drawings and awards of the child. Another would be a collage to hold treasured pictures. A shadow box can hold all the things precious to your heart, displayed in a place you will see it everyday.
After my son died, I was concerned that whenever I saw my son's name written down, by someone other than me, that it would be the last time that person would write my son's name. It really bothered me. I felt that people who knew him, would forget him, because there wasn't a need to think about him.
About three years before my son died, I had made each of my children a scrapbook, consisting of their favorite school projects, awards and pictures. Little did I know, that the scrapbook I loveingly made, would now be my treasured memory book, instead of my son's.
What to say, to someone who has lost a child?
Parents that have lost a child, will be sensitive to all that is around them.
In the weeks and months following my son's death, I avoided contact with people as much as I could. I knew that I would not be able to 'hold it together.' As time went by, the weeks into months, friends would call me to accompany them on outings, such as shopping trips. They were kind, as they did not try to avoid me. They did not try to force me to talk about my son. They just included me and let me come around in my own time.
In the first month, after my son's passing, someone called "Hi", to me , from across the street. I could feel the compassion in that word and started to cry.
What to say to someone who has lost a child?
Whatever you say, be genuine in your concern and love. I had decided that no matter what anyone said to me, the mere fact that they acknowledged my son's death and my own pain, they were coming from a place of love.
There is a desire among some parents who lose children, to reach out to others. The parents may volunteer for organizaions that they identify with their child, or how their child died. An example would be to get involved in gun safety courses, if their child died in a hunting accident. Another would be to raise funds to eradicate a disease, that caused their child to die.
Bereaved parents also reach out to other grieving parents on their own.
When my son died, I started a journal, to remember all the feelings and emotions that were going on within me and surrounding me. It was surprising to me, to look back on how I felt and how I reacted to the events following my son's death. The end result is a book I wrote, based on my journal. It is my way of reaching out to the community of bereaved parents.
The death of a child affects not only the parents, but the immediate family, the extended family and the circle of loving friends. No one can remain unchanged by the trama of the intense greiving process.
The parents, will always be the parents of a child that is no longer here. The future joys and expectations are altered, for all who knew the child.
The bereaved parents find ways to keep the child's memory alive and to fill an empty space within themselves. They see their child as a gift, to themselves and others. The result of surviving a painful process, often leads to a life that is lived a bit more fully and generously.
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