When A Child Dies
( chapter taken from Living With Bereavement )
“‘My baby was always happy and contented …….she slept. I blame myself, although the hospital says it wasn’t my fault but I should have known something was wrong…. why didn’t I know? I read about other mothers who say things like they just knew. I keep thinking about her lying there, dying all alone and I never comforted her. It is so painful. I hate myself. I feel so lost, my world has changed forever. I can’t talk about her. Sometimes I think the hospital will call me to go and get her, it’s been a mistake, and she’s ok. I look for her in other people’s prams ……. I still want to buy her things. I think other people think I did something wrong ….. I think I did something wrong. The emergency service came, the police came and I felt they thought I’d caused it. My husband says he knows it isn’t my fault but I think he is only saying that, I go over it bit by bit I think about everything all the time but there isn’t an answer. I don’t want to be with other people’s babies in case something happens, and I feel envious of others too. So jealous – I think why couldn’t it have happened to you? I don’t like myself for thinking that. I want to talk about it over and over, but other people tell me not to keep doing it to myself …….. they don’t understand, they just think they do. This has crucified me …… I feel so alone and empty”
This mother believed that she had neglected her daughter, pleased to have a cup of tea before tending her child and then overwhelming guilt that she didn’t check her child more closely and thoughts that if she were a ‘good mother‘ she might have known something was wrong. Her failure for not saving ,or protecting her daughter. Her guilt for the times that she had left her baby crying, for the times she’d felt over tired and found mothering hard work. She was re-examining every action to try to discover what she did wrong and she needed to say all this and for it to be heard and validated.
‘Don’t keep doing this to yourself’, ‘Don’t keep going over it’, ‘Don’t dwell on it’, ‘It isn’t your fault’, ‘You couldn’t know ‘ – statements that are all so kindly meant and often said, with the best intentions in the world, to those who are experiencing this trauma. It is very difficult to look and to really see, to listen and to really hear and not offer a solution, for there is no solution or easy way through the pain. Acknowledging the pain, being able and willing to hear the story time and time again without seeking to give advice or to offer consolation are not the easiest ways of helping the bereaved mother, but giving her your presence and support at this time is the most valuable and enabling assistance you can offer. You cannot prevent a mother from blaming herself for the death of her child by telling her so. Let her acknowledge her feelings, be present while she voices her thoughts and fears again and again so that she herself can hear them and begin, very slowly, to put them into some semblance of understanding until eventually finding her own way through these paths of pain and self-reproach.
Sudden Accidental Death
In some instances accidental death could have been prevented. A mother called to the phone and distracted whilst her three year old left the garden and was subsequently hit by a vehicle and died. The parents who bought their son a motorbike ,on which he died, the parents who allowed their child to go on a camping trip with friends and where she drowned. We have all read and heard of such incidents. We all make decisions that, with hindsight, we knew may have put our loved ones into a potentially life threatening situation. It is the good fortune of those of us whose children survive such situations that we have the opportunity to think ‘I could have lost him/her’. We never think that dashing quickly to another room to get a towel whilst our babe is playing in the bath could find us attending his/her funeral in a week’s time or that leaving our precious child playing for one moment whilst we answer the phone could provide the opportunity for him to run into the road and be killed. This is only brought forcibly home to us when we either experience such a tragedy of when it occurs to people we know. We cannot take protect our children from every danger at every moment of that child’s life. All parents whose children have died in any situation blame themselves. The feelings of being unable to protect their child are overwhelming and the guilt for not foreseeing the outcome of a decision is torturous
‘My daughter died in a house fire. It was my fault, my husband told me to turn off the Christmas tree lights before leaving for work. They looked so pretty I left them on. When I got a call in the early hours to say there had been a terrible accident at home, I knew it was my fault. I think of my daughter screaming in pain as she burnt …… although my husband was home and he tried to get to her, he said she wasn’t screaming, they say she died of smoke inhalation. I just can’t stop hearing her screaming for me. I let her down, I caused her death’.
How tempting to tell this mother it wasn’t her fault and that she didn’t cause the fire to make it easier for her bear or for ourselves to hear. No words, make the fact that the lights were faulty, and she made a choice to leave them, can ease the pain of knowing that her decision caused the loss of her child’s life. There is only one way to assist this mother. There is no rescue, and it is vital that those feelings of wrapping this mother in the hush of comforting words are restrained. There is a need for this mother to talk about her daughter’s death, to retell and revisit its painful experience and to face her own accusation, if she had turned off the lights it would not have happened. In revisiting she works through the painful and different aspects of it, by enabling her to say what she really thinks and feels without attempting to rescue, to tell and retell the story to someone who listens without judgement, to talk of her guilt and selfpunishment she begins to work through it, to process it and to eventually accept and hopefully to manage some parts of it.
“I always felt something would happen. He was a special child always funny and loving and very adventurous, it’s strange really, I know it sounds strange but I knew something was going to happen to him “
Often parents tell me that they had thought about losing this child, that they had felt that something might happen and struggled to communicate to me the strong sense of something different about this child, perhaps this child was more adventurous, more daring and caused its parents to fear they could not always protect their child .
‘He was always in trouble of some sort or another, I was always worrying about his safety, I’d shout at him to take care and he’d say ‘ Yeah, yeah Dad, give it a rest’. I went to his grave and I said ‘You see – I told you, now look what you’ve done’. My wife blames me, I know she does. I didn’t want him to have a bike either, not really but he was settling down …. not so mad and he wanted it so much. It’s my fault, I shouldn’t have given in’ .
‘When the doctor told me it was a routine op I believed him. I was a bit tearful though when she went to theatre, I had a feeling, just a sad feeling inside. .I wish I’d said ‘No, don’t do it now’. I‘ll never forget the look on her beautiful little face as they put her asleep. It’s my fault. I let them do it’.
So many parents believe that they should have known or been able to stop their child’s death. They struggle to come to terms with and to justify the choices they made at the time. Offering solutions or answers and trying to give a ‘feel better’ factor can prevent the bereaved parents from voicing their innermost feelings and thoughts. These raw and anguished emotions only multiply and fester if they are trapped within the person, by releasing them in the form of words and perhaps, actions, such as frenetic cleaning of the house or gardening, in the presence of a person who can listen and accept and not judge or console are the parents’ first steps towards a clarity of thought regarding their loss.
The Feelings of Parents
The word ‘child’ or ‘children’ conjures up the image of a young person, but if you are 60, 65, 70 even and your parents are still alive, you are still their child! Every parent who loses a child, no matter how old the child or how they died, share similar feelings of guilt and failure because they did not or could not protect their child from pain or death, or, in some cases, because they were not present when their child died, We all hope that if we were to experience such a tragedy in our family that the parents would support each other during their shared grief. These are the words of many parents, whose children of different ages died.
‘The pain is so great that when it overwhelms me I rock from side to side, I bang my head on the floor and against the wall. I hit the pillow, I pinch and punch myself, I pull my hair but it doesn’t relieve the pain I feel. I scream out to anyone, to God, space, WHY? I sob, my nose runs, my eyes swell, I want to wrap myself in sackcloth and ashes. I feel jealous, envious of others whose lives are still intact.
I feel a sense of comfort when I hear of others going through this pain, though I would not wish it on my enemy.
I feel guilty for feeling envious. Everything in my life is changed; everything has lost its meaning. I don’t recognise my life or myself anymore.
I am afraid, I am afraid of my future. I long with physical pain for the past. Change disturbs me, it distresses me.
The world is changing too quickly, it isn’t the world my child knew, each day something changes, I don’t want change, I want things to stay the same. I don’t want to move forward. Friends – no-one can understand ……. I cannot tell them, they will think I’m going crazy. In my moments of complete anguish I feel crazy”.
“I am alone …….it’s like I’m on another plane, in an alien world. I want comfort. Others say they understand but I know they can’t. Time drags quickly. I am not aware of its passing but it seems so slow”
. “In every part of my life there is a memory. He loved beef burgers ……… I cannot bear to cook them now or to throw them out. I want to wear my pain so that the world will bow its head as I pass and acknowledge that my child has died”
The Relationship Often women tell me that their husbands don’t talk and refuse to listen or that they feel rejected, unloved, alone and angry. Men tell me they hurt, that they are afraid to let out their ‘real’ feelings, that they feel a need to be strong. There are, in my experience, huge differences in the way that men and women who experience a shared bereavement handle their emotions. It is common for there to be marital difficulties after the death of a child. Any death can create division between couples and where there are already difficulties the problems may become exacerbated and consequently, some couples can separate. Women often lose the desire for sexual intimacy, whilst men may seek comfort through closeness, but there may be guilt that they have indulged in sexual intimacy so soon after the death. The heightened emotions and tensions within the relationship can be relieved by sexual intimacy and a release for feelings that have been contained.
“It sounds odd but whilst we were making love I kept thinking ……. could our child see us?” “I felt awful afterwards …….. how could we make love while our child lay in the chapel of rest?”
“Making love was a release, afterwards we sobbed together …it was almost like we needed the release to enable us to be close enough to share our feelings”. There are many thoughts and feelings that are too intense to share, even in the closest of relationships. Parents don’t talk openly about their grief with each other or outside of their relationship because the feelings are so very painful and intense that they do not know where to start and are concerned that those they tell will not be able to understand or find the capacity to hear their pain which to them is too overpowering. Between partners it is often about protection of each other and of self.
“I don’t think my husband feels like I do, he says he doesn’t want to talk about it or keep going over it. He gets angry when I cry and says I have to ‘Get my act together‘. He says that he can’t stand it, he even said maybe we should separate. It feels like everything is going to pieces, I just feel so alone”.
“What good is talking about it? It won’t change anything, I am trying to survive it but it feels like I’m crucified. My wife cries all the time, she is always trying to talk about it but it scares me, if I start to talk, if I really think about it, I don’t think I’ll get back”.
“Sometimes I’m just doing my work and I start crying ……. I think ‘My God it’s really true’, and I just feel like my insides are falling out”.
“If I tell my wife or husband how I really feel it will scare them, they won’t be able to manage it on top of everything else and some of the things I think are just too unbearable. Also if I begin to talk about it I might not be able to manage it, it feels like it might drag me too far down and I’ll never recover”.
Grief brings with it so many intense feelings, anger, despair, anxiety, guilt, hate, blame, jealousy. One of my clients told me she wanted to tell other mothers how unfair it felt that they still had their child or to shout at a mother who was smacking her child. She had anxieties about other friends and their children aroused feelings of envy.
“The part of me that genuinely shared in the joy of others died with my child. I can’t talk about these feelings, I’m ashamed of them but they are there. I have this hard lump in my chest, it isn’t like I can touch it, but it’s there, a weight, a stone. The pain is unbearable. If anyone knew how I think they wouldn’t like me … I don’t like myself”.
The bereaved are often the protectors, they are too aware of the inability of those around them to understand and hear their pain which often forces them to keep it locked inside them. They think their thoughts and feelings are too shocking to voice for fear of being judged.
“Why did it have to be my child, why me, why us? Why not ******, my sister’s child, he is a handful”. “Why did it have to be our son, we have three daughters …… I wouldn’t chose any of them but why wasn’t it one of the girls?”
It is not unusual for couples/parents to blame each other or to feel resentments towards each other about the death, the past, the present and to have little hope or thought for the future. It can feel selfish or inappropriate to grieve for loss of self or to feel anger that a relationship with a partner has changed. Old grievances and unresolved issues may rise to the surface as the parents struggle to survive whilst their world is collapsing around them.
“He never wanted children …. I know secretly he’s glad”.
.“He never wanted children …. I know secretly he’s glad”.
“I didn’t get on with our son ………we argued most of the time. I told him I couldn’t wait for him to leave home – now he’s gone forever”.
“I blame him ……my husband ……he wasn’t watching our childlike he should have, if he had been it wouldn’t have happened”.
Alongside their individual feelings, the feelings for each other within their relationship there may additional pressures. There may be the grief of other children to support or if their deceased child was adult there may be a partner or wife /husband and grandchildren to consider. In my experience each parent may feel that they are the principal support mechanism. Men often don’t express their feelings openly and try to support their female partners by trying to instil a sense of continuity or normality within the home often by returning to work
“He was our baby, a beautiful baby always laughing, giggling, contented. When I went to the hospital and saw him he looked like he was asleep he had that contented look, it’s hard to believe he had died so violently in that crash. His hands were damaged though because he was thrown over the handle bars of his bike. I wanted to hug him, to kiss him, to tell him I was there but I couldn’t, his wife was there and I felt excluded, denied my son. I felt in the way. I had to hold on to my feelings so that we could support his wife”.
“I have to go back to work… I don’t like the thought that others may see me going back to work and think I’m ok, that I’m over it, but if I don’t go back I might lose my job and we have bills to pay. Work has been very good they gave me 6 weeks off but I am scared that I might lose my job. Money is worrying me ……..I wish it wasn’t, sometimes I think ‘What’s money now’, but I have to pay the funeral costs ………..it’s just so unbearable”.
There are many different aspects to the feelings of ownership, not only of the deceased person, but also of their remains. This can also extend to the details of what and how events happened and once other people know, the lack of privacy this causes equates to a lack of intimacy and a lack of control. The pain of the mother of the man who died in a crash was increased because she was not able to touch her son or have her space and time with him. She felt unable to share these feeling with anyone as she wanted to appear supportive of her daughter in law and was concerned that others would think her selfish or disregardful of her daughter in law and of her daughter in law’s position as next of kin to her son. This was the beginning of resentments that over time festered beneath the surface.
“I felt like I had no rights, everyone seemed concerned about my daughter in law. He was my baby, my son, my child but because he was older I was forgotten. I had to ask for information I felt excluded ………so alone .When he was little and he hurt himself I would kiss him better ………. I still felt I wanted to kiss him better. Instead I stood by his side – no one said I couldn’t touch him but I knew it wasn’t my place”.
It isn’t unusual for parents of older children to feel excluded. The loss of an older child can present them with many other issues.
“We feel guilty, we are in our seventies he had his life ahead of him …….. it should have been us first”. “I feel so alone now, the grandchildren don’t visit us as much either, it’s as though when our daughter died the whole family died with her”.
Equally, the partners of the deceased may feel that the parents have too much involvement and the deep feelings of exclusion and lack of ownership can create huge breakdowns in communication. Regret In some circumstances the relationship with the child was difficult.
“Our daughter changed when she was 15, she became a person that we didn’t know, couldn’t relate to and we didn’t like her much. Some nights she didn’t come home and we’d go out looking for her. Our lives were so awful …….we never knew what would happen next. She stole from us and would tell lies all to feed her drug habit. Last time I saw her she said she hated me ……she wished we’d just go away leave her alone. Now she’s gone ……..I feel I failed her”.
“I had a row with my eldest son, 23, last time I saw him ………I told him it would be better for us if he just stayed out of our lives ……………..I wish I hadn’t said that now”.
In all families there are times when there is friction between its members, where parents question their decision to marry and have a family and whether they will be able to survive the family emotional rollercoaster. Children grow and develop and move away from the family unit. They become influenced by the outside world and begin to develop their own thoughts, values and opinions which may be alien to those of their parents. This can be the catalyst for a breakdown in communication between parents and children. Both parents in the instances quoted have been left with a very mixed emotional response to their bereavement. They felt guilt because they felt that they would be better off if they had never had their child, that life would be easier without them and the problems brought to the family by their existence and also because they feel relief that it is over, that rows and disagreements will no longer occur, and no more worry because what they always feared for this child has happened and guilt for all that has been said in the heat of the moment and more guilt for all the words of love and support that were left unsaid.They felt anger that their child has finally inflicted this unending pain on them and that others may condemn them if they feel any form of relief.
“We were always on this rollercoaster. I half expected this to happen one day …….I feel like we finally have gone over the edge”.
“It feels so unfair, after all the trouble we’ve had in the family. He was just beginning to come through it, just starting to talk to us to be my friend. I feel I lost the opportunity to make it right between us ……….he’ll never know how much I loved him”.
There is nothing that can be offered to these families except a listening ear, allowing these parents to express their feelings and their regret, anger and sadness without fear or judgement. By talking and retelling their story, they begin to make their path through their pain, face their worst thoughts and to begin to put their feelings into a more logical form. It’s really not about rescuing or feeling better, it is about allowing them to survive the immediate torment of the bereavement and interment and manage the days, weeks and months following their loss and allowing them to slowly develop a more positive aspect on their life.
Searching For the Child
“I am concerned about where my child is, I know it sounds crazy, I know she is dead, gone – and I don’t have a religious belief, I wish I did. I worry about her being ok. I worry that she might be alone, lost somewhere, It’s all so big, too big. I mean how could she be gone just like that?”
The need to know that a child is alright, although the parents know that their child is dead may sound irrational, but is a very real and common need. They contain this need within themselves and often will not speak of it which contributes to their sense of isolation and belief that they are going crazy.
“I noticed a black bird in the garden the other day it looked different from other birds, I know this sounds ridiculous, but my son always loved the birds in the garden … I was thinking could it be him?”
The search for the child, the longing for some contact that might confirm that they are still around, safe and well is a natural need. It is painful it is to accept that someone you loved, who has been with you, that you have held, loved, laughed and cried with can be gone forever leaving only memories. These feelings are often expressed in the early weeks and months of bereavement, when the realisation of the permanence of the child’s absence is just too powerful. Searching for and believing that they have seen their child is also usual in bereaved parents. A religious belief may offer some comfort, but for those without a belief there may be fear about their child’s whereabouts. There may be pressure to have a belief from many, different well-meaning friends or family ‘God only takes the best’ ‘He’s in heaven with Jesus’ are common examples. There may be some feelings of anger with God or the parent’s Supreme Being, ‘Why me?’, ‘How can this be acceptable, my child belongs here with me, not with God’. Some bereaved parents seek comfort in spiritualism or visit clairvoyants in their desperate need to know that all is well, when actually all feels far from well. Their desperate need can also manifest in dreams or nightmares.
“I see my child but when he sees me he runs away, I call to him please come back, but he just keeps looking over his shoulder and running …. I wake up so anxious and sobbing”.
“I dream that it’s a mistake, I’m holding my child in my arms and telling everyone … look she’s back ……. not dead at all. In my dream I feel such relief and then I wake up and, for a moment, I feel ‘Oh, thank God it’s not real’ I feel so light, well relief, like a weight is lifted from me, then it’s there, I realise the truth, she is dead and I feel beaten to the ground”.
It is not abnormal to experience dreams such as these and some parents tell me that when they see their child or hold them in dreams, though distressing, they gain comfort from them, but where the child is running away or is crying or calling for the parents, the parents often say that after such traumatic dreams they feel empty.
“I feel drained after those dreams, I feel like I’ve emptied my grief and for a while the feeling is manageable”.
“I long to dream of my child, but have dreamt nothing, feel cheated that he doesn’t come to me ….. Give me a sign. I speak to him, I ask him to just let me know ……but nothing”
You cannot offer these parents comfort, you cannot offer them any hope or take away their pain, all you can do is listen or sit with them, often in silence, offering companionship in the deep, dark pit of grief.
“I worry about the pain my child went through when she died, I wanted to ask about it but no-one would say. I know she was crying for me but I wasn’t there, she died in a freak accident, a tree fell on her. I got there too late. I think about her in such pain, it’s like I need to feel it with her. I feel like I let her down. I can’t bear to think about her alone, lying there beneath the tree but it’s all I think about”
For some parents who are present at the time of their child’s death, such as at a road crash, their deep shock, trauma and hysteria can to onlookers seem unmanageable and in some circumstances they may be removed from the scene by attending services. In my experience this is only useful if there is an immediate danger, vehicle fire for instance or where the scene presents a further risk of injury. Those parents that I have worked with that were denied access to their child in those final moments are further traumatised by that denial and are often left with overwhelming feelings of desertion and total loss of control, privacy and choice .
“I was there but I didn’t hold my child , I was screaming at the paramedics to do something, my wife was kept back by police I was taken to a police car nearby, all I wanted to do was get to my little girl but they wouldn’t let me. I could hear my wife screaming but they wouldn’t let her near either. Even when we were at the hospital we weren’t allowed to see her right away, we felt we had deserted her”
“At the hospital we were not allowed to touch our child, he was kept in a room I think, my husband identified him but we only saw him through a window. It was so awful, we wanted to hold him, to love him, to let him know we were there but they said we couldn’t do that yet, we felt that he belonged to them”
The feeling that their child was taken from the parents not only by death but by those in official roles are common. Parents frequently tell me that they felt they couldn’t ask what happened, or that touching or moving their dead child was not permitted and that in some way their child was no longer theirs and their desire to be with their child might be viewed as strange or morbid.
When a child has died traumatically, in an accident or has been the victim of murder, details are often revealed to the press and alongside the information given by police there will be added information about the family, the child’s life or the story behind the child’s death. Families often find this intrusion difficult to manage and many are further distressed by reports and concerned about the reactions of those who may know them. There is little that can be done about reports and information made public but a great deal can be achieved by forward planning and talking through possible reports and reactions, thus aiding the manageability of situations and avoid additional trauma
Your Child’s Room
I have written on numerous occasions throughout this book about the individuality of grief and the diversity of feelings experienced by each and every individual. I have also acknowledged that males and females grieve differently, setting aside cultural, religious and genetic backgrounds. Alongside the differences of gender is each parent’s individual relationship with their child. This can often be the cause of added stress and misunderstandings, resentments, blame and anxieties.
“After our daughter died I used to sit in her room for hours, just breathing in the smell of her. Sometimes I’d take her clothes from the cupboard and bury my face in them just to get a sense of her, a familiar piece of the reality ……yes, she was here. I sometimes got into her bed too and that is where I did a lot of my crying. I always waited until I was alone in the house then I’d give myself permission to go to pieces. I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone moving her things or taking them. I’m so grateful that my husband didn’t try to stop me, although a friend expressed concerns about my behaviour, she couldn’t understand. It wasn’t about shrine building, it was about accepting and letting go of her slowly in my own way. It was five years before I felt able to begin to change her room and ready to put her things away”.
“I felt this need to pack up my son’s things after we came back from hospital after he’d died. My husband sat there in his room on his bed. I washed his clothes and ironed them, it was as though I needed to do it although I knew he’d never wear them again. I put his shoes and coat in a suitcase under the stairs. I can’t bear to look at them. I don’t know when I’ll move the rest of his things – is there a time limit?
“My son committed suicide in his room. The police went into everything, it felt so intrusive, and we have just left it like that for now. People keep offering to sort it out for us but we aren’t ready to do it yet”.
For some parents the room was not the focus of their grief and for others the room was a significant focus, a place where they felt their grief was permitted. Some put their child’s possessions away quickly and sometimes that’s alright, others find comfort in surrounding themselves with the room and belongings of their child, taking comfort and releasing their grief in the smell and feel of the child around them. Some close the door and cannot bring themselves to cross the threshold. Change is not easy to manage and a task such as changing the bedding or washing the clothes can be overwhelmingly painful.Is there a right way to be? In the early days it is a case of getting by in which ever way you can. By the minute, by the hour if that is what it takes. It’s allowed to close the door on your child’s bedroom, leaving it just as it is so you can spend time in the room in the early days. It is also important to recognise the choices of other family members, if the room was shared for instance it is important to ask the sharer how they might like to see the room change or stay the same. Some families decide to change the use of the room to something else, again, time, space and consideration for all involved is essential. Decorating the room can be as hard as changing the bed linen or packing up toys and belongings as by physically changing something from the way it was is a final confirmation that the child will not be returning to their bedroom. Some parents feel they are deserting their dead child by getting on with their lives.
“It was almost a year before we decorated the room, it was incredibly hard. We felt like we were leaving part of him behind, moving on, removing him. Our daughter has the room now, but it’s hard not to keep calling it Johns room”.
When I am asked by those I support about change, when and how to do it, I suggest that they think about what they want to change. It is all about giving yourself permission to do something your way, if it feels too hard – it’s ok as maybe it is not the right time yet. There are no hard and fast rules that say you must clear out the belongings and make changes until you feel able to do so. It will never be easy but in time it becomes more manageable. Keeping memory boards, a journal or memory box with a few favourite items is a way of keeping memories together and easily accessible and can be useful in enabling you to progress through the grieving process. Sometimes, in the early days it can be tempting to want to give others a memento of your child. Of course you can do this, but sometimes it’s better to wait a short while as it can feel right to give something away one day but the next wish you hadn’t done so.
“I am finding even small changes hard to live with, it feels as each day goes by something changes and the world as my son knew it has changed so much even in a few months. You don’t notice change normally but now I feel like I’m moving on from him”.
It can be incredibly difficult to express and manage the feelings that can be evoked by change.
“It may sound crazy but I don’t want to cut the grass, I know my child stood on that grass and it’s another feeling like there’s this blackboard with her life on it and slowly it’s being wiped out”.
These are not crazy thoughts, but thoughts that have not been expressed in the open, but felt, thought and feared in the mind and in isolation in some degree by each and every bereaved person with whom I have either worked or who has contacted me.Bereaved parents are also very conscious about what people on the outside think of them.
“Do they think we are ok ………over it …….moving on?” “If we go out do they think ‘Ah …. life’s back to normal now?”
“We had to get a new car after the crash, a neighbour saw us out and said ‘ Oh, lovely car ……did you win the lottery?’ Before I could answer he said ‘Nice to see you getting etter’. I know he didn’t think about any of his words, but it caused me so much distress, anger and frustration that actually no-one understands how we really are”
The diversity of feelings experienced by the bereaved are complicated. On the one hand they want the world to acknowledge the loss of their child and their grief and on the other resenting the intrusions into their privacy. They feel anger that those that have no understanding of the depth of their grief and perhaps offer words of comfort in what may feel hurtful or inappropriate ways.
“I was doing the garden when a neighbour came over. I felt very anxious like my chest was getting so tight. She said ‘I’m so sorry to hear about your little one’, I said ‘Thank you’, all the time my chest tightening like a fist was there squeezing it. I said something about the weather, she said it was nice to see me out and getting on, then she said ‘You have other children don’t you?’ and I said ‘Yes’ and she said ‘Oh well then, they’ll keep you busy’. It’s not the first time that I’ve felt like it’s ok because after all, I’ve got my other children”.
The hurt was not intentional but said by way of offering something positive. As a society our reaction when faced with someone who has been recently bereaved is to bring out the ‘doing well’ blanket, to offer our condolences alongside some promise of brighter days so reassuring the bereaved that they will get over it. Are we really reassuring ourselves? The realisation that bereavement is that it cannot be got over easily but in time it may become, on some days, a little easier to live with. However, the acknowledgement that the death has changed things permanently may just be too incomprehensible and uncomfortable for those less involved to accept. For each and every person there is always the knowledge that in one moment some tragic event could impact on your life and steal away your children leaving devastation in its wake and causing unforeseen and unimaginable changes. The most immediate change is to the family, their relationship with each other and with the outside world. This reality is often felt but undisclosed by the bereaved …….why? Our society has no time for circumstances that cannot be healed or cured, not even by the passage of time, it makes all of us feel vulnerable, exposed and out of control. What is the old saying? What cannot be cured must be endured. That is what we expect the bereaved parents to do, to endure their loss and grief, preferably in privacy and out of our sight so we do not have to suffer alongside them and face the reality of mortality.
When a child dies the dynamics within the family are changed. A child who was once an elder or younger sibling may now be an only child and children who have lost an only sister or brother now become the ‘only’ boy or the ‘only’ girl. Parents who lose a child can transfer their understandable anxieties to the children they still have, trying to offer those children the protection and love they may feel they did not give the child who died.
“We were a very laid back family, relaxed. Now I feel anxious all the time and I don’t like the children to be away to long or to go out alone. I know it’s hard on them but I’m scared something might happen”.
The feelings of loss of control, the anxieties caused by the upheaval to what was once a secure and stable family relationship are overwhelming. The effect on the family can be extremely destructive as each person tries to manage their own grief and still present a positive outer image for the other members of the family. Parents often feel the need to keep their remaining children close to them and remaining children may feel resentful of this new and restrictive regime and lack of freedom. There may be arguments and outbursts of anger that previously were never experienced by the family. Disagreements and pressure from other family members can cause additional anxieties to the grieving parents and these in turn can contribute to a breakdown in the relationship and their ability to communicate with each other. Parents may feel responsible for the death or may blame each other or other family members. There may be feelings of animosity towards older family members, who are still alive, when the younger member has died.
“I feel angry with my husband’s mother she has all these health problems, if anyone should be dead it should be her. Now she is even worse, I feel angry that she is using our son’s death to get more attention”
It is not unusual for feelings like these to be present or for previous grievances unconnected to the death to become magnified and become the focus of the emotional impact of the death. Grandparent’s health is often greatly affected by the trauma caused by the death of a grandchild. It can create many issues for them – not least that the perceived order of things has been changed, the younger dying before the elder, and they may find themselves feeling guilty for living. Where once a family may have been sympathetic to the older person’s ailments now these may be triggers for feelings of deep resentment.
If the family are to survive this together it is essential that they communicate and that each member of the family has the opportunity to talk as much or as little as they feel able. Parents need to share their grief and do not attempt to conceal it in order to protect the remaining children. Each person in the family needs to feel able to voice the feelings, thoughts and fears they hold inside themselves even the youngest children who are often forgotten or feel they must be strong because that is what ‘grown ups’ do.
For more on the subject of grieving children please read the remainder of the chapter 4 When a Child Dies In Living With Bereavement Our Free e book . There are also other srticles on our website .
If you would like to share your experience or would like our free 121 e mail support please contact us . There is also a list of agencies offering support on our support page. You may also find our audio podcast interview helpful