Cherish Corner - Family Bereavement Resources

Moving on after
losing a child

By Cathy Babao Guballa
October 29th, 2000 Issue
© 2000 Philippine Daily Inquirer

LOSING a child has been described as the worst kind of loss anyone could possibly go through, a searing and unspeakable pain. The emotions that accompany a loss of this magnitude is much like plumbing the depths of an abyss, not knowing if one will ever be able to climb out of it one day, unscathed and whole. When a child dies, a part of the self is cut off and many bereaved parents like to use the metaphor of an amputated limb.

I once read an account of a father who had lost his only son and his words were poignant. "For the amputee, the raw bleeding stump heals and the physical pain does not go away. But he lives with the pain in his heart knowing his limb will not grow back. He has to learn to live without it. He rebuilds his life around his loss. We bereaved parents must do the same."

A 'new normal'

The first year after a child's death is the most difficult. In any loss, the first "everything" is always tough. Anniversaries, birthdays and holidays are guaranteed to trigger a deluge of pain and tears.

It's been two and a half years since my son died and yet the ache remains. Like amputation, parental bereavement is a permanent condition. The hopes, dreams and aspirations you had for the child now gone is lost forever.

The pain, though, subsides with the passage of time in a way. The adage "Time heals" has somehow proven true, though when my mother, who had been widowed for close to two decades, first told me about it, I was incredulous and refused to believe that it was even a possibility.

Two years down the road, when I meet friends whom I haven't seen since Migi's death, the first question that invariably crops up is "Have you recovered?" My response to that query is usually a knowing smile, quietly thinking to myself, Does anyone ever really recover from the loss of a child, or a loved one for that matter?

Perhaps "recover" is not quite the correct term. I'd like to think that "moving on" is more like it. Bereaved parents eventually find resolution to their grief in the sense that they learn to live in their new world.

Dennis Klass, professor of bereavement studies at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, says, "Parents who have lost a child 're-solve' the matters of how to be themselves in a family and community in a way that makes life meaningful. They learn to grow in those parts of themselves that did not die with the child. They learn to invest themselves in other tasks and other relationships. But somewhere inside themselves, they report, there is a sense of loss that cannot be healed."

>From my own experience, I have learned to make the loss of my son a part of my life, and to try to forge a new meaning out of it. In the first year after he died, I would often ask myself, "What is the meaning to the loss?" I would crack my brains trying to make sense of his death. I had to find a reason, a meaning to it, or else I felt his death would have been in vain.

After a loss, be it a child, a parent or a sibling, life can no longer return to normal. Instead, in its place, a "new normal" is established. This is what I have found most helpful in my grief work these last couple of years: finding that new meaning and building a new life around the loss has helped me tremendously in moving on after his death.

For many of us, it is very difficult to let go of the pain because we sometimes equate letting go with forgetting. However, I've learned that healing, or letting go of the pain, does not mean forgetting because moving on with life does not necessarily mean that we don't take a part of our lost love with us.

Allow yourself to grieve

Give yourself time to grieve and do it well. There is no need to rush back into the stream of things after the death of a child. Your life is in disarray, nothing makes sense. A bereaved parent needs all the rest that he or she can possibly have. I know this may not be possible for many families, but the workplace and school need to be sensitive to the needs of a family that has just undergone a major loss.

The grief after a week is not the same as after a month. Oftentimes, after the family support-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins have left-is when it becomes most difficult. I remember the loneliest night in my life was the evening of Migi's funeral when everyone had gone home and all that was left was my husband and I and our daughter, and suddenly we were all hit with the reality that he was gone. It's a memory whose emotions remain raw to this day.

Don't be afraid to cry. Tears are a release and an essential part of the grief work. Bear in mind, too, that men and women grieve differently. Women are more open and willing to cry and talk about their pain. Men tend to internalize the sorrow and have different styles of coping.

Be easy on yourself. There's no rush and no one should put a timetable to your grief. For some, it takes a year, for others, two, a few others, three. Only you will know when you have found a resolution and come to terms with the loss. So long as you do not harm yourself or become dysfunctional (initially though, disorientation is a normal part of the grieving process) over a long period of time, then you are fine.

If you feel that your emotions are spinning out of control, do not be afraid to seek help-from your church, an older family member, your priest, pastor or a counselor. Bear in mind there is nothing wrong with seeking help.

If you are the type who likes to write, journaling is also a good release. Scribble your thoughts, write your pain away. Shed all the tears that need to be shed.

One of the nicest cards I received from a friend said, "Grieve well. One day you will cease to remember him with tears and instead remember him with smiles." The ache and the empty space in your heart will always be there but the pain will somehow ease up through the years.

You also do not need be in a rush to keep your child's toys, photographs or possessions, or clothes right away. Do what you can one day at a time.

It was more difficult to put away my little boy's clothes because there were so many memories attached to it. It was only after a year that I could bear to look at them and store them in a cabinet. To this day, his toys remain in a chest beside my worktable. Each of us have our ways of keeping the memory of our children close, that is part of a bereaved parent's quest for solace.

With help from friends

The kindness of strangers and the love of family and friends were most crucial in getting through the first few months after Migi died. It was most comforting for me to constantly have my mother and parents-in-law by my side.

My husband and I found it difficult to lean on one another that first year. To do so would have been like leaning on one who was already doubled over in pain. Yes, the loss eventually brought us closer, but at the start it was a tremendous pain and a huge strain, but now we have been made stronger by it. It was such a blessing to have family and friends who constantly and patiently loved us through the pain.

During this time, what was most helpful were those friends who constantly called-a month after the loss, two months, three months after and so on. The friends who tirelessly tried to cheer me up and brought me out to lunch, or those who simply sat with me and listened to my pain.

Sometimes that is all that is needed by a bereaved parent, for someone to be there and listen to them talk about their child. There aren't too many people comfortable with that, and I think it is such a gift if you can do that for a friend who has just lost a child.

However, the bereaved parent must also realize that his/her experience goes against the grain, distorts the normal order of the universe. Children under normal circumstances are expected to outlive their parents.

A bereaved parent becomes every parent's worst nightmare. They feel sad for you but cannot quite comprehend your pain. A few times I found it helpful to reach out to friends and call them, to show them that "Hey, it's okay, you can talk to me."

Normally, people do not know what to say or how to behave when they are around someone who has just lost a child. For them, being around a bereaved parent is like walking on eggshells. They are just so afraid to add any more pain to the existing grief.

Talking to someone who has likewise been through the same experience is a very big help. The best person who can understand the pain of a bereaved parent is one who has been through the same trenches. Bereaved parents speak the same language, their hearts know the same sadness.

It's a pity there aren't any support groups that exist where one can be with others who have walked the same path. I have thought of setting one up. Perhaps I will someday.

My biggest support that first year came from another bereaved parent, the father of a friend who lived in New York. Though I had never met him, Sarah put me in touch with her dad and we became e-mail pals. He had known the pain of losing a young son, too, and also to congenital heart disease. He answered my numerous questions, quieted my fears and, above all, he showed me that, yes, there is still life after the loss of a child.

Healing on the Net

When Migi died, it felt as if my emotions spun out of control and my life was turned in disarray. It did not help that I was six months pregnant and so there were all those hormones to contend with. I felt very much alone, and though I prayed a lot and had an unswerving faith in Him, I felt it wasn't enough.

I wanted to understand the emotional roller coaster I was perennially on. I needed to fathom the depths of my grief and learn what this thing called grief work was all about.

Since there were no formal support groups around, I turned to books and the Net to help me through. Spending countless hours on the Internet, I sought out support groups and, to my great joy and surprise, found a wealth of knowledge from websites dedicated to grieving parents.

Some of those I found particularly helpful are: www.babysteps.org - a site dedicated to guiding you through the long and difficult road to recovery after the loss of a child; www.groww.com, or Grief Recovery Online, a nonprofit site offering a wide variety of grief and bereavement links; www.misschildren.org (Mothers in Sympathy and Support), a site committed to providing support to parents after the death of a child.

You can read about the Kindness Project on this site, a wonderful project begun by Joanne Cacciatore after the loss of her daughter Cheyenne; www.penparents.org, a support website that employs a penpal-type service or networking for bereaved parents; www.griefnet.org, an Internet community of persons dealing with all kinds of grief, death and major losses. It is an excellent site offering support to help people work through their grief.

Bibliotherapy

In addition to the Net, I also tried to read every book I could get my hands on that talked about surviving the loss of a child.

An all-time favorite is one written by a bereaved parent, Harriet Sarnoff Schiff. "The Bereaved Parent" is such a great source of consolation and hope especially in the first few months. Speaking like the wounded healer that she is, Schiff walks you through your grief and tells you more or less what to expect that first crucial year.

"The Courage to Grieve" by Judy Tatelbaum is another personal favorite in the sense that it is empowering and, as its title indicates, fills you with courage for the task of grief work and the life after loss.

A daily devotional called "Streams in the Desert" is particularly helpful especially during the darkest moments and is very good reading for people undergoing stress or any major loss.

All these books are available at local bookstores. There are not too many titles dealing with loss, particularly with the loss of a child. The Christian and Catholic bookshops occasionally have some good titles.

Celebrating the memory

To let go of the pain does not mean we have forgotten the child who has gone ahead of us. There are many ways to keep our children alive in our hearts and in the hearts of other people as well. There are rituals we can perform or little things we can do to keep the relationship with the one who has gone ahead of us.

Migi had always been fascinated with dinosaurs, and in the first year after his death, I found myself buying every little dinosaur book that I could find in the bookstore. Perhaps this was my way of coping and remembering him. I've since ceased to shop for the books, but the collection remains in a chest filled with his favorite toys.

This experience reminds me of a sad story I heard about a lady whose only daughter died at birth. For many years until she had a child again, she would buy a doll during her daughter's birthday and bring that to her grave. Her family and neighbors could not understand the gesture, and thought she was going out of her mind.

It was only many years later, when she told the story to her counselor, and the counselor said, "What a lovely gesture" that she broke down and cried. All those years she had been hurting from the comments of neighbors and friends, and it was only when this one person appreciated and understood what she had been doing, was she able to work through her grief.

There are countless ways to celebrate the memory of a beloved child. On a birthday, for example, you can release balloons or plant a tree in your garden in his or her honor.

You can also do something nice for the young patients at the hospital where your child died (if the child passed away in a hospital), or celebrate his memory by spending the day with less fortunate children and doing your bit to help them. You can also begin a crusade or an awareness campaign if the death was a violent one or a tragic one.

I have found that it is in reaching out to others, in stepping out of the shadow of one's sadness that one is also able to heal. Investing oneself in activities that give meaning to the loss helps alleviate the pain and aids in building a new life that would keep the memory alive and well in our hearts and, I am certain, make our children proud.

 

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