Timeline suggestions for practical things to do to help grievers;
Every circumstance is different when people experience loss. Each individual grieves differently. Some people spread their mourning process out over a long period of time while others seem to be very concerted in their grief. Generally speaking, there seems to be similar patterns in the process that can help us understand what to do at different times to be helpful.
The following schedule is the one I tended to follow during my grieving process for both my wives. In no way am I implying everyone should follow this exact pattern, but my journey can serve as a working example of loss.
The day each of my wives died I was fortunate to have friends or family present. I can’t imagine not having them there. My wives’ deaths left me so numb that I could not even think straight for a while. Having someone there, even if they said nothing, helped me function. They took care of the daily logistics of physical things like meals, cleaning, and decisions that needed immediate attention.
Don’t wait or even expect someone to ask for your help at the death of their loved one. They may not be able to even make that simple of a decision. Seek out ways to help by visiting or calling.
THE FIRST WEEK
This time period gets foggy for many grievers. The possible decisions required can be overwhelming. Everything from finding a funeral home to choosing a casket to planning and executing a funeral become monumental things to deal with — and that on top of grief. This week can be very stressful for the individual as well as the family. Even the best of families can have conflict over some of the details that are required at this time. Many of these things are often handled by the family members nearby, but sometimes that is not the case.
Making yourself available to help with the planning for the events of this week can be a first step. Because grievers often have trouble thinking clearly, gentle suggestions as to things that need to be handled and an offer to help can be in order. The little details such as transporting flowers from the memorial service to the cemetery can be on your list of offers to help. Meals for the bereaved and their guests are often a huge blessing during this week. If there is a funeral or memorial service, make every effort to be there. A phone call every couple of days is often appreciated to remind the bereaved that they are not alone in their pain.
Phone calls, sympathy cards and references to my wives took a noticeable decline at about the third week. It seemed like someone made a public announcement and the whole world said, “That’s it. We will forget her now.”
For me, however, the opposite was happening. The numbness had subsided enough that the reality of her absence was finally reaching my foggy brain. I was permanently alone again now. My need to talk about the whole event increased instead of reduced. My deep emotional sobbing sessions had gone from three times a day to one or two. My mind needed to process what my emotions had seemingly been responding to. I needed to talk about her death more than ever. I remember thinking that I would have given anything to have someone ask me, “How did your wife die? Tell me about it.”
Many people would ask me, “How are you doing?” I would answer, “Fine.” However, the ones that helped me the most would be more specific with, “How has this week been?” or “Tell me where you are in your journey or recovery process.”
I remember being stricken with the fear that everyone would forget her. I was clinging to memories of her, but it seemed everyone else was forgetting. So, I did things to ensure a recorded legacy for each of my wives. For Ruth, I wrote an article for a Christian magazine about her life and got it published. For Judith, I asked my two daughters to each put together a photo book about her. One was a legacy book with pictures and information about her family. All eight of my kids’ families were given a copy. The other was a “grandma” book of pictures of Judith and each of the grandkids, one kid per page. Each grandchild received a copy for Christmas that year.
A face-to-face, or at least a phone call, with the intent to talk a couple of hours about the loved one’s death and the grieving process experienced by the bereaved should be offered. Avoid general statements when arranging this. Be specific with, “I would like to hear the details of how you are processing your pain and your recovery.”
Three months from my wives’ deaths the grieving process seemed to release its grip on my emotions. I began to laugh again. I found myself more at ease in public alone. My sobbing sessions had subsided to one every other day. Still, from time to time I had to audibly tell myself that she really did die. The truth continued to sink in. However, I still hurt and felt like I had this visible “hole in my soul” as I lived life. I craved communication, intimacy with an adult, someone to talk to about my feelings. At this point, logic statements began to help more than just the heart comments that I needed before.
Long talks about my grieving process were harder to come by as most of my friends were expecting me to be “getting over it” by now. Finding someone who understood and would not “think ill” of me became harder to do. I set out to relieve this need by talking to other men who had lost a wife in recent years. That helped.
Your relationship with a bereaved friend may not be close enough for you to have conversations about “how are you feeling these days?” However, you could encourage them to have such a conversation with someone they know who would listen. Talking through one’s process and progress can be a big step for them to realize and embrace the steps they have taken towards healing.
A card of encouragement to a bereaved person can assure them that you have not forgotten their pain and are supporting them in their progress towards victory. It can be an aid in helping them cope with their loneliness as well.
I thought I was going crazy. It had been six months since my wife’s death and many days I still felt as hollow and uncertain emotionally as I did the first month after she left. What is wrong with me? I mused. Everyone thinks I am doing so well outwardly, but I still feel like something is missing on the inside.
For me, the six month stage was kind of like the “teenage years” in my mourning process. I didn’t feel quite like I was out of the woods (i.e. an adult) but I had progressed past the seemingly out-of-control emotional times (i.e. childhood) I experienced for so many months. My sobbing sessions were measured by the week instead of per day, and my interest in my future had increased.
At this stage I still had the need to talk to people who would be comfortable with me sharing deep feelings and with people who had been there, done that. One man I had such a talk with told me later that it was a bit uncomfortable for him, but it sure helped me. Another one stopped listening to me after a few minutes. So it obviously takes a special person to fill this bill.
Though I realized both my mental and emotional states were nearing a more victorious place of healing, “relapses” back to the ache stage were common. Assurances that my time in this “in-between” stage of the grieving process was normal would have been great comfort. If someone close to me had “given permission” for me to address the ache that came back periodically, I believe I would have been relieved of some guilt.
During my grieving experiences with my wives at this six-month time period, people “told” me that I was very vulnerable emotionally. My response was bewilderment and even anger. I don’t feel emotionally vulnerable, I thought. And besides, how do they know how I am emotionally? They haven’t even talked to me about it.
Caring words of caution from a trusted friend would have been more effective than a casual acquaintance making a judgment from a distance. It’s important to honestly assess one’s level of relationship with the griever.
The truth is that I really was still emotionally vulnerable. I am thankful to God that I did not make any emotional decisions that I would have regretted later. I would not see that truth for another three months. At the nine-month period, when I looked back at how I was feeling in comparison, I realized that my emotional state had improved and I felt “more like myself.” The possible decisions I could have made during the most tumultuous grieving, both socially and in my career, would not have lined up with my lifetime personal core values.
Much counsel has been given in our culture to not make any major decisions for twelve months following losing a spouse. In many ways, I see the wisdom for that. It provides opportunity to go through one cycle of life dealing with all the “firsts” after losing a mate. For the griever, time is your friend. In the case for both my wives’ deaths, I had grieved in a very concerted fashion. I had “leaned into” my pain and embraced grieving willingly. Not everyone does that, I guess.
For me, the ninth month of grieving was a turning point. I finally felt very secure socially. I felt like my emotions were more “normal.” Remembering my wives did not cause pain or emptiness. I even enjoyed it when friends teased me about finding another wife sometime. I considered re-marriage more seriously.
This stage varies with people, for sure. I have known of some men who were at this point after six months of grieving, while some women I have met have admitted it wasn’t until the eighteen-month time frame that they were open to give their hearts away again in romance.
BIRTHDAYS, ANNIVERSARIES, HOLIDAYS
Among the important “firsts” grievers go through are the first holidays. For some these times can be nearly as difficult to experience as the day the loved one died. Cards, phone calls and even invitations to do something special can be put on your schedule on behalf of the bereaved person.
The first Christmas after Ruth died my family and I appreciated an invitation by a friend to spend the potentially difficult holiday in a location we had never been to before. The first Christmas after Judith died I responded to an invitation to attend a community-wide potluck dinner and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Remembering wedding and death anniversaries with a card, phone call or visit can help the bereaved cope with the day because someone besides them remembered. They feel less lonely due to the fact you shared it with them. Even responding in some way at the deceased’s birthday can have the same effect.
The one-year mark for grievers tends to carry an uncertainty with it. How will they feel the day of the anniversary of their loved one’s death? Will anyone else remember? What should they do that day to commemorate their loved one, if anything? You can come alongside to help with many of these questions.
Be mindful of the possibility that the anniversary can be a significant event for years to come. Many, not only rehearse about the one that they lost, but also the grief associated with that loss.
A phone call or card showing you remember your friend and their loved one will go a long way in bringing comfort. If possible, you can also do something physical with them. Take them out for coffee or dinner and talk about the life of the deceased. Going with them to visit the cemetery and bringing flowers in memory of their loved one will help establish a bit more closure and peace to the bereaved.
I have known of a few good friends and close relatives who have taken the effort to put some of the above suggestions on their yearly calendar and actually follow through with them. Believe me, if you don’t make yourself a note in some way you will most likely forget.
« Point to Ponder »
Knowing the right thing to say is only half of the responsibility of being a supportive emotional care giver. The other half revolves around the doing.
Read More »
Tips for those who are experiencing loss:
I didn’t know a human could hurt that much.
The hole in my soul was huge and indescribable after Ruth died. No one had ever taught me how to mourn or even what to expect. Of course, mourning was not high on my ‘things to learn’ list. Like many, I avoided it as some sort of weakness I didn’t want anything to do with. The various “stages” I went through were surprises to me which often caught me off guard. I eventually had the presence of mind to seek out others who had gone through similar loss to talk about my experiences and pain. It really helped me understand and process my journey.
UNDERSTANDING THE PROCESS
Although many authors have tried to categorize the grieving process, it really can’t be done to perfection. I notice that any list of “stages” or experiences in print may not all apply to every person. Each person mourns a bit differently. However, just because one comes across something that does not apply to their situation they should not discount being made aware of the many options one may experience.
In an article published in Tabletalk Magazine entitled “Mourning with Those Who Mourn” Dr. Archie Parrish explains mourning:
Mourning is one of life’s universal experiences. To mourn means to feel deep grief, sorrow, heartache, anguish, angst, pain, misery, unhappiness, and woe. It is the opposite of joy. Mourning comes from loss that is perceived as irreversible, such as death, terminal illness, and devastating accidents. It is not expressed in the same way in every culture, but no matter where you live on the planet, sooner or later you will face ‘a time to mourn.’ In spite of the fact that all human beings mourn, each person’s experience of grief is always unique. (2007)
HOW IT FEELS
If you feel like you are losing your grip on reality, you might be a perfectly sane person enduring the confusion of grief. Perhaps you suffer irrational fear, dread or even paranoia. You may feel empty or numb like you are in shock. Grief even causes some people to experience trembling, nausea, breathing difficulty, muscle weakness, loss of appetite or insomnia. Feelings of anger can also surface, even if there is nothing in particular to be angry about. Almost everyone tortures themselves with guilt by asking what they did wrong, how they might have prevented the loss, or some other form of self-condemnation. In short, grief makes us feel like our emotions have gone haywire because, in many ways, they have. Over time, however, you will regain a measure of equilibrium.
Having twice mourned the loss of a spouse, I have noticed that I even went through the process differently each time. There were similarities, of course, but the order and severity of some of my experiences differed.
Changes that affected my mourning journeys included the following:
- My level of maturity. I was 41 the first time and 63 the second.
- My knowledge of the mourning process. I was inexperienced the first time.
- The definition of the relationship lost. Ruth and I came from similar backgrounds and grew up together as adults. Judith and I came from different backgrounds and brought years of adulthood into the relationship.
- The level of my life-demands. The first time I still had children at home. The second time I came home to an empty house.
- The amount of mental and emotional preparation for the impending death. Ruth and I never really talked about her death. Judith and I mourned her death together and openly.
- The support group available to me. The first time I only had friends and coworkers near, whereas the second time I had 15 adult kids and spouses to hug me along the way.
- The depth of my faith. I surely had grown in my faith over the years.
- My willingness to embrace the pain. The first time I tended to try to avoid it in the early days.
- My willingness to talk about it. This became a key in both instances to my healing process.
A PROCESS, NOT AN EVENT
My personality tends to be a “fixer.” Consequently, I found it difficult to accept the fact that grieving is a process and not an event. I wanted to do something and get it over with. That is no more possible than it is to put a cast on a broken leg one day and have it completely healed the next. Both take time. Time and pain became my constant companions. Grieving has no quick fix.
I also felt obligated to be strong and right at all times. It was a challenge for me to realize that my deep, erroneous opinion that mourning was a weakness or even a sin, needed to change. It would have been better for me early in my journey had I believed that grieving is normal and necessary for emotional and physical health. Through searching for relief of my inner pain, I did find others who helped me know that for the deepest, long-term healing I needed to “embrace” the pain fully. I liken it to a festering sore that needs continuous draining till complete healing has occurred.
One of the people in my support group circle was a nurse. Early on she gave me counsel on points to help my sleeping. At first I didn’t know why she even suggested that, but soon I realized why. This was a bigger issue for me after Judith’s death. It took me months to return to somewhat of a normal sleeping pattern. Being intentional about taking care of my health had been overshadowed by taking care of my wife. I needed to change that and begin considering my own health. Research has proven the grieving process to be a physical condition as well as an emotional one. To ignore this would be jeopardizing one’s health. Stories abound of grievers who themselves experienced a physical decline in their health within two years of the loss of someone close to them such as a spouse.
I intentionally made goals to develop a regular time to go to bed, schedule in deliberate exercise, and to pay attention to eating balanced, regular meals. There were benefits to these and the results gave me sparks of hope for the future when grief tried to steal it. Slowly I began to feel the renewing of energy, which mourning had robbed from me. My weight began to return to a safer level. Others noticed, which encouraged me. After experiencing death so closely, it was uplifting to feel so alive again.
One of the wise things I did was to schedule a doctor’s visit shortly after my wife’s funeral for a checkup and advice. This was helpful to me in as much as I openly acknowledged the physical part of grieving and received some good pointers from the doctor as well.
DESPAIR VS. PURPOSE
The feeling of despair during grief could easily drag my thinking and feelings down. To combat this, I found it necessary to intentionally, and daily find and cling to purposes for my life. It was easy to let the grieving process define and totally control me. After Ruth’s death I still had four teens in the house to care for and guide. My job at the college soon continued and speaking engagements began to come in. However, I still had to choose to see those events as meaningful purposes for my life in order to overshadow the periods of despair when blindsided by grief.
Many grievers have shared with me that they found diversion from their own despair when they reached out to help others. I also found that to be true. During Judith’s decline and after her death, I found my concern for how my children and grandchildren were processing their own sorrow as a helpful release from my own despair in bouts of grief. Others have orchestrated grief relief groups, while still others volunteer at the hospital or retirement centers.
“Am I going crazy?” “Why am I so tired all the time?” “Who really cares about me now?” “Why can’t I think clearly anymore?” “Why is it so hard to make decisions?” “Will this ever end?” “Why am I the one that is still alive?” “Why has everyone forgotten my loved one?” “Why has everyone pulled away from me?” “What if I had handled things differently?”
If you find yourself asking any of the above questions you are going through a normal experience in the grieving process. Grieving requires a huge amount of physical and emotional energy. It is draining. You are the focal person who is experiencing grief in a concerted way. Your friends and relatives have gone back to their lives; that dominates their attention. It does not mean they have forgotten you or your loved one. In fact, often times they will mourn longer than you because they are so distracted with life that they only mourn in short remembrances and therefore spread out their mourning process over a longer period of time.
RELEASE THROUGH EXPRESSION
Many of my friends have said they were hesitant to bring up the subject of my grief and my wife because “they didn’t want to make me feel bad or cry.” Of course, what many don’t realize is that talking about things can’t make my grief worse. It helps to release it. So, in essence they were thinking about their own comfort. You can, therefore, help them and yourself by bringing up your journey and memories of your loved one. A friend who had gone through the loss of his wife while in a leadership position like me offered some wise advice. He said, “You need to embrace the process of grief. Don’t avoid or stuff it. Your objective is to be healed and whole on the other side.”
The sense of abandonment crept over me as I experienced the loneliness that swelled up on every side. Without realizing it, I began to associate my feelings of abandonment from my wife’s death to my friends and coworkers. Soon, thoughts that no one really cared about me any more opened up doubts about my social associations. This gave way to ideas of having to find new friends and even coworkers. It is true that a couple of friends pulled away from me because our relationship was primarily through my wife. However, transferring my sense of abandonment to my friends and coworkers was unfounded and misdirected. It became important to me to realize that my feelings of abandonment came from the loss of the intimate relationship I had with my wife. It left a big hole.
As soon as my wife died, I began the process of experiencing all the “firsts” in life for me. The first time I talked to someone after she died. The first time I showed up in a familiar public place as a widower. The first time I went out with friends as a single. The first time I broke down emotionally in public. The first time I talked to someone who didn’t know my wife died though her passing had been weeks or months before. The first time of going through each major holiday without her. The first time any anniversary came around. The first season change without her to enjoy it with. The first family gathering other than her funeral and she was not there. The first time I got news of a friend or event and she was not there to tell it to.
There is no best way to experience these “firsts” in life. I handled them in different ways. Some of them I literally “leaned” into by making a point to “get it over with.” One of those “firsts” was the family gatherings without Judith. I purposely made it a point to go see my relatives even though I knew it would be difficult. Some of the holidays, however, I tended to avoid a bit by doing something totally different the first time after my wife died. The Christmas after Ruth died I accepted an invitation to join a friend for a special holiday out of the country. However, for the Christmas day after Judith died, I stayed home alone in the morning and cried most of that time. Then, in the afternoon, I joined in a community potluck and enjoyed it.
As I said before, a very important first for me was the first time I had a conversation with a stranger and did not feel like I had to make sure they knew I was recently widowed. That helped show me the grieving process does not always have to define who I am. So not all “firsts” are negative and hard. Some of the firsts can be steps in the direction of healing and freedom from deep pain.
You may find it helpful to identify your firsts. Please keep in mind that often these firsts are difficult for your friends and relatives as well as for you. Getting past them can be points in your journey of grief that will lead to victory.
HEAD-BASED VS. HEART-BASED
One of the potential grieving methods I found could be called “head-based vs. heart-based” grieving. The head-based part would be during times when I would use simple logic to deal with my loss. “She’s in a better place.” “I am strong and can get through this.” “I know things will get better for me.” The use of head knowledge and reason has its place. In fact, studies show that many men often use this style of mourning quite successfully. They tend to act or do something in memory of their loved one that “makes sense” in their grieving days. If you find this style helpful, don’t feel guilty about it.
The heart-based part of the grieving process is often what folks tend to expect. Studies again, show that this method is common among many women; however, many men include this in their mourning process as well. Guilt can creep in when sessions of “heart-based” grieving seem either excessive or totally lacking. These are times when your emotions seem out of control and all-consuming. The only thing that really matters to you is your own emotions and grieving. Your pain grips your very soul and swells up on the inside. It feels inconsolable at times.
I have examples during my mourning months where I was misunderstood because I demonstrated one or the other of these methods. During my first wife’s loss I tended to only use the head-based style in public and kept my emotional outburst sessions to myself. Her father later told me that he thought I did not cry at all for her loss. He was relieved to learn differently.
In contrast, after Judith’s death I had the freedom to weep openly at church social gatherings. A couple weeks later, one of the people of the church told a pastor that I was not handling the mourning process well and that I needed counseling.
I say all that to give you freedom to apply whichever method of grieving suits you and your personality — It is okay.
WAVES OF EMOTIONS
The emotional waves during my grieving periods did not always follow logic but were real nonetheless. I could be thinking about circumstances or people, when guilt, anger, relief, regret, stress and jealousy and the like would pop up in my heart in ways that did not necessarily make sense. Because emotions don’t always follow reason, it can be disconcerting to deal with. Time, talking and identification are often aids in dealing with these feelings. Again, not everyone experiences all these emotions the same way. I am just admitting that I had at least short struggles with these.
Learning to cope with my emotions was a new experience for me. Not being known for open expression of feelings, I was suddenly thrust into a reality I had only observed in others. Writing down lessons I was learning through my pain helped me. Finding a safe place to express my emotions was another benefit I learned to seek after. Acceptance, expression and time can be some of your best approaches to dealing with your out-of-control emotions.
Connecting the grieving process to the adjustment of life without my wife helped me understand some of my aches. The day-to-day chores and role responsibilities changed. Suddenly I was doing EVERYTHING by myself, whereas before my wife and I shared what needed to be done. I had to not only do all I had been doing in our daily life routine, but now I had to do hers as well, which included regular communication with our large family. Developing a new routine I could cope with took time. I found it helpful to not make any other major decisions for a while, until I got used to her simply being gone.
Part of this adjustment was relearning who I was. I was no longer Ruth’s or Judith’s husband. I was now single; a different person but still me. So, in addition to the grief and loneliness, I was going through an identity crisis. This adjustment included simple things such as the style of music I had playing in the house, what type of movies I watched, how often I went out in the evenings and what social events I chose to attend. I took advantage of this time to sort some of our things in storage and reassess their value and relevance in my life with her gone.
BEING SINGLE AGAIN
Being single again and the struggle with loneliness became bigger hurdles than the deep mourning. The deep mourning and grief is understandable, and there’s the hope it will subside. Being single again and lonely looked endless.
Much of our society revolves around couples. The majority of our friends were couples. The challenge for both those couples and me was to reach beyond viewing me as half of a couple, to seeing me as a whole single. It was quite the process before I was able to think of myself that way. For me to even have a conversation with someone and not be constantly referring to something about my wife was a battle.
Loneliness was harder to cope with than grieving. At first I was lonely for Judith. I wanted HER back. I missed HER. As I worked through that sense of loss, a deeper empty feeling began to haunt me. I remembered this phase from my grief for Ruth (at about the six month point) and remembered thinking I was going crazy or something. I had come to grips with losing Ruth (and Judith) and wondered if that was okay, but at the same time I felt even deeper emptiness.
This general loneliness is hollow. There was no one who really noticed — or really cared if I came home at six or seven at night. If something unique happened in my day, I had no one to share it with. No one would call me after an important meeting to see how it went. I always came home to a silent house. I had no one close to validate my life or share it with and so on. It was this phase that drove me back to the Lord for answers. Missing Judith was logical and made sense. THIS felt hopeless.
A few weeks after Judith’s death I was invited by a friend to go with him to a grief support group. At first I was resistant, thinking I had enough pain of my own without going to hear about other people’s hurts. However, since the topic was on losing a spouse, I decided to go. The safety of being with others who were very understanding of my mourning process brought a sense of security to me. It helped me release some of the tension I was feeling. So, I recommend that you seek one out in your area and attend some of the sessions. A very reputable one I have found is called Grief Share.
THE LEGAL STUFF
Especially in the case of losing a spouse, the grieving process can be compounded by all the physical and legal matters that need to be tended to. It seems never-ending. Legal matters such as getting jointly-held property into my name only added to such things as changing names on jointly-held bank accounts. I had to change the beneficiary on my life insurance. Business and individual-held credit card accounts had to be adjusted. Auto and home insurance ownership had to be changed. Dentists’ offices and other doctors’ offices had to be notified so they would stop sending reminders of future appointments for my wife. I even had to make a new will for myself. If these matters are overwhelming, seek out a trusted family member or friend to help you with a list of to-dos in this regard.
One of the ways I “plowed” through the mourning process is by watching for signs of improvement from my deep despair. It took over two months of near-hopeless loss, pain and loneliness before I saw signs of relief. First, I was able to watch the slide show of Judith’s life all the way through without sobbing. Then I found myself able to remember her outside the eulogy mode (only saying positive and glowing things about her). I was able to remember some of her weaknesses without feeling guilty about it. Then on the Sunday before Christmas I felt myself feeling frustrated with the “selfishness of mourning.” Now, that is not a negative because mourning IS all about you and your loss AND it is RIGHT. But for me to feel that way, I realized that in order for me to see that perspective I had to be at least a step outside the bubble of mourning I was trapped in. It became a moment of self-encouragement.
LEAN ON OTHERS
After the third month of my grieving process I felt like I was getting life back together. I even resented people who implied or even outright said that I still had a ways to go before full emotional healing. Looking back now I can see that they were right.
Pastor Rick Warren of California gives wise counsel in his article, “In a Season of Loss, You Need God’s People:”
When you’re going through a season of loss, you need not only the support of other people; you also need the perspective of other people. When you’re in a season of loss, you don’t see the whole picture, your pain narrows your focus, and you need other people who can help you see the big picture. We need each other desperately in the season of loss.
After you release your grief, it’s time to let other people minister to you. Let them help. Let them comfort. Let them offer suggestions. Let them sit with you and grieve with you. And don’t be embarrassed about it! That is one of the reasons God created the Church. We are a family, and we are to care for each other.
So, how do you know if all you’re going through is the “normal” process or that you need professional help? Friends, relatives and other professionals can often give insight to that. Theresa Karn (April 27, 2013) provides some helpful signs to watch for. Signs that grief has become complicated and that someone needs professional help are:
- hyper-sensitivity to loss experiences
- restlessness, agitation and over-sensitivity
- intrusive anxiety about death regarding yourself or others
- rigid, ritualistic and compulsive behavior
- flattened feelings – no emotional expression
- fear of intimacy or impulsive relationships or a lack of basic self-care.
She goes on to recommend the book Treatment of Complicated Mourning by Therese A. Rando.
IT WILL HAPPEN
In the throes of deep grieving, there are times it seems like there is no bottom to the despair. Be encouraged that it will not always be so bad. Life will renew and you will laugh again.
Vice President Joe Biden is no stranger to grief. A week after he was first elected to the Senate in 1972, his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. Then in May of 2015, his son died from brain cancer. MSN news reporter Ezra Klein reflected on Biden’s losses and a speech he gave to the parents of fallen soldiers on May 25, 2012:
In that 2012 speech, Biden talks about the constant weight of grief. “Just when you think, ‘Maybe I’m going to make it,’ you’re riding down the road and you pass a field, and you see a flower and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up in the night. You know, you think, ‘Maybe I’m not going to make it, man.’ Because you feel at that moment the way you felt the day you got the news.
Biden doesn’t end the speech easy. He doesn’t say the grief ever goes away. He just says, eventually, it makes room for other things, too.
“There will come a day – I promise you; and your parents as well – when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye,” Biden says. “It will happen.”
So, it will happen for you too.
« Point to Ponder »Beware of time in words of comfort. Avoid time limits and be sensitive to timing for comments.
ORDER YOUR COPY OF “I Didn’t Know What to Say” today.
Read More »
Cross-culture difference tips for helpers:
In today’s world many of us are multi-cultural in a number of ways. You may find yourself interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds through work, church, clubs, your kids’ schools or even where you live. It would be presumptuous to conclude that all people grieve the same. All humans grieve, but how they do it can be based on teaching, religion, worldview or their own observations. Even if you disagree with their methods of grieving, the early mourning process is not the time to criticize them or to educate them to what you consider a better way. Your best plan would be to simply help them grieve well and then be open to help them if they have questions about their own perspective versus yours at a later, less emotional time.
I traveled to a very remote part of central Brazil visiting missionary outposts. While there, I witnessed two different approaches to grieving. The first one happened in the semi-civilized tribal village of the Karaja. One of the tribal elders had crossed the river in his six-foot, standup canoe to drink beer in the town bar. Late at night, on his return attempt to home, he fell in the river and drowned. I arrived on the village side of the river shortly after they pulled his body from the muddy water. I observed that no one was weeping. Many were whispering, but there was no deep emotional expression. They just did not do that there. The only emotion revealed seemed to be a worried look on the faces of a few women as they held a clinched fist to their mouths.
A few days later, back across the river in the small Brazilian town, I witnessed another death scene. There in the sun-drenched town a processional of kids dressed in white were accompanying a small coffin. I asked the missionaries to explain what I was seeing. They informed me that a child under the age of two had died and was being buried that day. No adults walked with the coffin. In fact, the child probably had no name. The town’s people believed that a baby did not have a “soul” till about age two so the baby was not considered a real person until then, when it was given a name. Since, in their minds, this infant was not a real person, no adults bothered to mourn for its loss, not even the parents.
The concept of grieving a loss due to death often can be affected by the cultural perception about death itself. This varies from country to country as well as from sub-cultures within those countries. Finlo Rohrer published an article in the BBC News Magazine (2010) entitled, “How Much Can You Mourn a Pet?” In it, he admits, “The UK has what is seen by many non-Britons as a slightly repressed attitude towards death.” Other European countries tend to have reputations for emphasizing death (i.e. the vampire stories).
THE GROUP EFFECT
Grief in a culture grows from a society and belief system that prizes and cultivates individual experience. Some languages have no equivalent to the term grief. In parts of Japan, the concept of emotions that are solely expressed on the part of an individual are not common. In those societies, individual identity is a function of social and communal harmony. A harmonized atmosphere as part of a family or community is sensed among the members. Personal grief is therefore more of a shared event.
In some traditional Chinese cultures, death presents the problem of pollution as understood in terms of their religious world view. One of the purposes of funeral rituals is to protect the men from that pollution, while on the other hand the women take the pollution on themselves. In turn, this practice results in purifying the deceased for the next life. Other than mourning, any other practices revolving around death would seem to be culture-specific. Death presents pollution or powerlessness in some cultural contexts as much as it presents separation, loss and sometimes trauma in the modern West.
THE INDIVIDUAL EFFECT
Western individuals, on the other hand, who successfully come to terms with a traumatic death, may change how they think about themselves, how they relate to others, and how they view life in general. As our world changes and becomes more of a worldwide community, so views on death evolve. Changes experienced by individuals in other cultures might be just as wide-ranging but cover spheres not experienced in the West.
When something important happens in individuals’ lives, they do not just think about it; they talk about it with others. Grief and mourning do not just happen inside a person; they happen in the interactions between people. In most cultures throughout human history, myth and ritual provide the intersubjective space in which one can construct the meaning of the deceased’s life, death and influence over the survivors’ lives. Understanding these concepts can give direction in how to talk to the bereaved. Conversations about the definition of the relationship lost can validate the lost life and aid the mourner in processing their own pain of loss.
One cross-cultural project sought to compare the rules about the emotional expression of grief. Anthropologist Unni Wikan, for example, compared the rules in Egypt and Bali, both Islamic cultures. She found that in Bali, women were strongly discouraged from crying, while in Egypt women were considered abnormal if they did not incapacitate themselves in demonstrative weeping.
Asking a grieving friend from another culture what their traditional methods are can be one way to show concern and empathy. This gives you a chance to at least acknowledge their hurts whether they are the same as yours or not.
The traditional Jewish culture found in the Old Testament of the Bible had many practices continued in many places today. Even though their existence revolved around their God, the expression of grief in the time of severe loss revealed their human experience. Weeping, a primary indication of grief, was referred to a great deal. Time (30-70 days) was set aside to mourn deeply. The physical appearance of the mourners was altered to indicate their condition. Ashes or outer garments often symbolized a grieving heart. The realization of the gift of the presence of friends and family regularly induced comfort. (The Holman Bible Dictionary, 1991)
Judaism today calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.
LIVING IN ANOTHER CULTURE
Cross-cultural effects on how one mourns also come in other packages besides historical traditions. Families living abroad, outside of their home country and culture can be very confused about the mourning process. Jonathan Trotter addresses this confusion in his article “Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised” (December 22, 2013):
Living abroad is an amazing adventure, but it comes with some baggage. And sometimes, the baggage fees are hidden, catching you by surprise, costing more than you planned. You thought you had it all weighed out, you could handle this, squeeze right under the limit.
But then it got heavy. Your new friends moved away, or your child’s new friend moved away. Far away. Like other continents away. And your kid’s broken heart breaks yours.
Someone died and you didn’t get to say that last, fully present, goodbye. Family members celebrate a birthday, or the whole family celebrates a holiday, and you’re not there because the Pacific’s really big, and you’re on the wrong side of it.
Or your child can’t remember her cousin’s name, and she doesn’t even know that’s sad.
Facing the subject of death and life beyond often brings out the definition of one’s “worldview.” Some individuals and cultures see death as final with no existence beyond. Others think that following death one is simply in a spirit world quite different than our own, which interacts with ours. Still others view life after death as a paradise existence that is very similar to our own, but unimaginablys better. Many hold to the concept that a judgment or evaluation of one’s life follows death and that either reward or condemnation awaits each person who dies. A large number of the world’s cultures and religions hold that a person immediately faces God in some way upon their death.
I have noticed that it is not uncommon for the bereaved to default to what their worldview is only to have questions about it. If they request it at this point, you can take the opportunity to help them answer and adjust their worldview where they have confusion. However, unless asked, you will be the most help to them by addressing their pain of loss.
But being aware of one’s worldview can help you choose what to say. If they believe that death is the end of existence comments like, “Your loved one is in a better place.” will be of no comfort. However, a comment such as, “Your loved one has no more pain.” may help more.
Worldview is often influenced by religion. Understanding a griever’s religious views can be a big help in your knowing what to say, or not. The beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, for example, hold that the state or even future of a departed soul can be affected by intercessory prayers. Comforting folks who cling to this hope for their lost friend or relative can be more effective by you emphasizing the bereaved person’s current pain and not saying things about the state of the departed.
Other religions such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, view the state of the deceased to be in a form of unconsciousness until some future resurrection. Many Judeo-Christians believe the departed is instantly transported to the presence of God in a “heavenly” state of paradise. In making comments to these folks about their one lost, you should be politely aware of these beliefs. Again, remember that your role is to aid them in processing their grief and not to change their religious beliefs unless they specifically ask for your opinions on the subject of life after death.
Members of Islam believe that any form of suffering, including grieving, is a result of the griever’s sins in some way. Their Prophet Muhammad declared: “By the One in whose hand is my soul (i.e. God), no believer is stricken with fatigue, exhaustion, worry, or grief, but God will forgive him for some of his sins thereby — even a thorn which pricks him.” (Musnad Ahmad, You-Tube) So, you may aid such a person with words of assurance that will help them deal with guilt that may be unjustified. Physically showing grief with the bereaved would be in order, however, Islam discourages very loud crying and wailing at funerals. During the mourning time after a death, mourners expect to have visitors. Be sure to pay a physical visit to your Muslim friend within days following their loss.
In the case of Buddhism and Hinduism, the deceased is believed to be on a path to being re-born again in another physical life. Helping such a one cope with their grief could revolve around assisting them celebrate their loved one’s life. Emphasizing the accomplishments and good traits in the form of scrapbooks and photo displays can bring inner comfort to the griever.
The “Why?” question is a common expression when anyone experiences a loss. Whether it is the loss of a job or the loss of a child in a custody case, the “Why?” issue can creep in, or crash in. The emotional hurt from the loss can make a logical answer seem irrelevant.
When that question does loom over the griever, be slow to assume you have an answer. Remember, the one grieving is experiencing an emotional hurt and a logical reply may not be of help. They mostly need you to identify their pain and support them at this time. Don’t play God.
Genuine concern goes a long way in helping the bereaved. Sensing your authentic caring is more help to them than a long prepared speech. Polite awareness of their worldview or religious persuasion will be helpful in aiding their grief.
« Point to Ponder »
Comments that imply a judgmental nature are of no comfort to the bereaved.
ORDER YOUR COPY OF THE BOOK, “I Didn’t Know What To Say” today.
Read More »
WHAT TO SAY
WHAT NOT TO SAY
Taken from the book by David Knapp, I Didn’t Know What to Say: Being a Better Friend to Those Who Experience Loss, 2015. For a better understanding as to why the comments in black are more helpful than the statements in red, get the entire book at www.
Your loss is a very difficult thing to go through, I am sure.
Get a grip!
I will always remember him/her.
I don’t want to talk about the dead. Let’s talk about the living.
Do you need someone to go with you to choose a casket or marker?
I know what you are going through. I lost a kitten once.
Can we go for a walk on Sunday afternoon and chat?
You need to take your mind totally off your pain.
Tell me something special about your early days with him/her.
You should be thankful he/she is out of pain.
It’s so good you have the freedom to cry/express your feelings.
You need to get over this.
No, you are not crazy. You are grieving and it is okay. This will pass.
I know EXACTLY how you feel.
I realize this must be hard for you.
Call if you ever need anything.
So, how are you feeling today?
Let me tell you what you need to do.
I understand that you feel the way you do…and it is okay.
You can’t bring him/her back. God is in control.
Can I help you find others who have had a similar loss?
This happened because God had something/someone better for you.
Can you join our group for dinner this Friday?
Call me sometime.
His/her memories are a legacy of love.
You need to let go of him/her so you can start living again.
Are you up for a chat now or next week?
You look great. You must be over it.
Thanks for having the freedom to talk to me about your feelings right now.
How are you holding up?
Here is a favorite memory I have of him/her.
So now you are all alone. What a shame.
You made the right decisions surrounding his/her death.
At least he/she is not a vegetable.
Can I call you on an anniversary that is important to you?
You need to get all his belongings out of the house as soon as possible.
Can I come by and get your grocery list on Friday?
You are not making sense. Snap out of it.
Can I come by and help clean on Tuesday?
How does it feel to have survived his/her death?
You should be thankful it wasn’t worse.
Tell me about your child/loved one. What was he/she like?
Your child is in a better place. God needed another angel.
I miss him/her too.
You should be happy for the time you had with him/her.
You did all you could do at the time.
How are you ever going to forgive yourself?
I am praying for you and your family.
Well, at least you won’t have to potty train that child.
I have no idea of the depth of your pain but I am here for you.
You can always have/adopt other children.
You are lucky to at least have other children.
His/her memory will live on in my heart.
His/her time was up. His/her death was meant to be.
Can I take the kids to the zoo on Saturday?
(say nothing and avoid all contact)
I have been remembering you a lot lately and I love you.
You are lucky to have had them in your life for as long as you did.
I know he/she loved/relied on you a lot.
At least they had a good life.
He/she knew how much you loved him/her.
I understand your pain. I lost someone once.
You need to only remember the good and forget all the bad.
Your hurt must be big right now.
Grandpa is sleeping.
(say nothing but give a hug)
Keep your happy face on.
What was it like when…?
Life must go on.
I love you and am proud of you.
Now you are the head/leader of your house.
I loved him/her too and will miss him/her.
God needed him/her in heaven.
Can I help you write a letter about your loss/grief?
You must not speak ill of the dead.
You are the man (woman) of the house now…buck up.
I wish I had the right words. I just want you to know I care.
I don’t want to hear details. I just want you better.
Can I come by Wednesday evening to visit?
Wow. You look sad/awful.
I can’t take away your pain but I can be a friend.
You need to keep a stiff upper lip.
Have things happened to ease your pain?
I could NEVER go through what you are right now.
What have you done to deal with your grief/loss?
Now that she/he is dead, you should get a pet.
I was shocked to hear of your loss. I’m a friend who cares.
You must feel as bad as I did when…..
I am so sorry for your loss.
Just stay busy and you will get by.
Tell me about him/her.
You must stop crying. You might upset someone.
I feel so sad for you.
You must be strong for others.
What is something I can do for you this week?
He/she must have brought this upon himself/herself.
Your heart break must go deep.
You need to be alone when you grieve.
It breaks my heart to see you in such pain.
You need to stop feeling bad/crying.
I’m sure you cherish your time with him/her.
Don’t burden others with your feelings.
How have you been feeling this week?
He/she is with God now.
Is today a better day for you?
All things must pass. Time will heal.
I’m not sure what to say but I want you to know I care.
You will find another to replace them.
I can’t fix your hurts but I can be here for you.
You can’t fall apart.
Can I call you to chat on Saturday evening?
“What is done, is done,” I always say.
I am so sorry this is happening to you.
This is a blessing in disguised.
We have missed you lately.
I have had a bigger loss then you so I know it is not as bad as it could be.
May God bless you and give you strength and comfort.
If you had more faith, he/she would not have died.
What do you need most today?
God does not give us more than we can handle.
What would you like to say to him/her right now?
You need to forget about him/her and move on.
You must be hurting deeply.
He/she is in a better place now.
God mourns with those who mourn.
It is too soon to face your grief.
ORDER YOUR COPY OF THE BOOK: “I Didn’t Know What To Say” today.
Read More »
When Loss Steals A Child
Comforting those who have lost a child by any means
“When a child dies before the parent, the world is upside down.” (Old Chinese proverb)
Ruth and I did not talk very much about her impending death those seven years she battled cancer. I am sure it would have helped us some had we done more. One of the times we did have a serious talk about her going to heaven revolved around our children. She mourned her own death often and alone. She commonly said she felt like she was being “replaced” in life. The one painful topic we talked about was her mourning her loss of our children. “I probably won’t be able to see their children,” she muttered through her sobs. “I’m going to miss….” She rehearsed many things about our kids that she would not be there for. I watched her affectionately rock our youngest with a faraway look in her eye. I knew she was “missing” that bond in the future and trying to enjoy it now.
This level of loss was all so new to me. I would just listen to her as she reviewed her losses. And likewise, listening is the most powerful thing a friend can do for parents who have lost a child. The hurt comes across as unusually sharp and persistent. A thoughtless comment like, “Well, it must be God’s will,” is not a help at all. Their pain is deeply emotional and not theological.
The study I referred to in chapter four on life’s stress factors listed the loss of a child as being a close third behind losing a spouse and public speaking. There are factors about losing a child, however that can be permanently stifling. No matter how many children one has (I have eight), each one is unique. There will be always enough love for each child. Each one has their own permanent place in a parent’s heart. The loss of that child can never be replaced nor a substitution found. A child is irreplaceable.
I have heard well-meaning friends doing more harm than good to a grieving parent by saying thoughtless things like, “You can always have another one,” “Maybe you can get a dog,” and “Well at least you won’t have to go through … with this one.” You will find it always much better to identify the pain of the parent with simple statements such as, “I have no idea of how much you must be hurting right now.”
Recently I was privileged to meet Daniel Parkins in Southern California. Our get-acquainted conversation eventually exposed our recent losses. I was intrigued while listening to his process of dealing with his loss of a very young son to a serious illness. He lays it out well in his book about their journey entitled Nineteen Days:
I’m not sure I can explain the feeling well. It’s too impossibly deep for words to express. It’s as many writers and poets have said throughout the centuries — the breaking of the heart in two. It’s worse than anything I have felt, anything that I have heard, anything and everything cannot be compared to it — to take my son off life support, the beautiful Samuel whom we loved so desperately. Samuel, whom we prayed so fervently for and hoped for and dreamed for. Samuel, the younger brother, was now going to be missing in our lives for the rest of the sentence we were called to live. It really felt as though my son was being murdered; only I could not prevent it. I felt helpless. (pg. 144)
The Parkins were blessed with a circle of friends and colleagues who felt the pain with them and gave them lots of time and freedom to work through their grief. Their heart ached, not their long-term logic. Daniel pointed out to me that one of the very best thing received from others was that many were simply present for them and even gave silent hugs. Their loss and pain needed to be acknowledged, not explained away.
The loss of a child can be one of the most difficult losses. Even the Bible sees it as a severe experience. “…make mourning, as for an only son, most bitter lamentation…” (Jeremiah 6.26b)
Helping a friend or relative grieving the loss of a child may be a long-term commitment. Unlike other losses, the loss of a child returns to the mind of the parent in a fresh way when unmet milestones come along for the life cut short. You can be most helpful by supporting these times of prolonged grief. Just remembering with the parent can help soothe a broken heart at the child’s birthday or death anniversary. A card or text could go a long way to add comfort.
Loss is indeed a part of our human existence. Helping each other through these normal times increases our bonds to each other and fulfills a purpose for us being in each other’s lives.
LEADERSHIP MISSED IT
A few months following Ruth’s funeral, I met with a missionary couple who had been students under my teaching a few years prior. They had just returned from abroad where they served as missionaries in a remote area. While there, they had suffered the loss of a young child. During the year following that tragedy, their leadership had counseled with them that they should “get over” their loss and get on with life. This unwise counsel only deepened their emotional pain so severely that they packed their belongings and returned home.
I listened to their story in its entirety and expressed my empathy for their grief. The few comments I made came from the depths of my own mourning experience. At one point the wife burst out, “Finally, a leader who understands! No one else has indicated an understanding ear.” Her sobs flowed freely. The leadership in that area did not know what to say. Consequently, saying the wrong thing drove this dear couple away from their life’s passion.
Finding oneself aiding a friend or relative who has lost a child can be a shocking place to be. Knowing what to say can be a huge help in the healing process for them. It is important to remember all the standard things about the grieving process found in chapter two. In addition to these points, a few special considerations can be beneficial both to you and to the mourner you are helping.
It is very human for parents to hurt following the loss of a child. Emily Rapp, frequent memoir blogger and author, described her experience of losing a child:
My son Ronan died last week before his third birthday. He’d been sick with a terminal illness for his entire life, but as a friend of mine wisely noted, ‘Death and dying are very different.’ Now he is dead, which has marked the beginning of a new stage of grief, one that is characterized by deep sadness and longing, but cleaned of the mania of panic that is part of anticipatory grief.
Ronan is released from a body that could not live in this world; as his mother, I am released from watching him suffer. But we are still divided, forever and for good. I mourn him, I miss him, I’m sad. I’m angry, I’m confused, I’m scattered. I’m elated that he is free; I am ready to be happy. I’m human.
Nothing you say can make the pain go away. A caring comment cannot make it worse.
Helping to deal with the loss of a child may be a permanent part of your relationship with the bereaved parent. You can do things like sending ‘thinking of you’ cards on special occasions such as Mother’s Day and the child’s birthday. Offering to talk about the surge of feelings that can come over a grieving parent may bring tears, but remember those tears are not from hurt you created. The tears are part of the release process.
Parents feel responsible for the welfare of their children. Parents believe they are to protect their kids from harm and even failure. In addition to the “normal” attributes of the grieving process, we need to understand the complications possible with the loss of a child. At some point, some parents need to work through guilt. The feeling that there was something they should or could have done — or not done — to prevent the death commonly emerges. This is not abnormal. Here, again, concepts from logic statements may not help the loss of the heart.
I saw this truth first-hand one evening. At the end of a concert I noticed that the mature gentleman sitting beside me wore a sweatshirt indicating he hailed from the same state I grew up in. So I asked him what part of Iowa he was from. As it turned out, he lived not more than 30 minutes from where I grew up.
Early in the conversation he made it known that his daughter had died. He and his wife subsequently moved to their present home to be near her grave. I later learned that this all happened over five years earlier. As I listened, he unfolded his pain. A week before his daughter’s fatal car wreck she had been date-raped and the dad felt he could have done something to prevent it. It became obvious to me that his ongoing guilt had suspended his grieving process in time, keeping it very much alive. I encouraged him to find someone he could talk it through with. He assured me a local pastor was available to him. As we parted, I felt sad that his guilt (whether imagined or real) prevented his soul from healing.
A DIFFERENT LOSS
The loss of a child carries very different connotations from the loss of a parent, sibling, or friend. Parents may even tell you that they wish it could have been them instead of their child that died. This feeling can haunt them for years. The pain after the loss of a child differs from any other loss of a person you may know and love. Accept this and acknowledge it where needed. Be very careful not to try to compare your loss of a job, marriage or pet with it.
Also, telling a grieving parent that their child “is in a better place” may be more of an insult than a comfort. Showing concern for the parent’s pain is more helpful. A simple, “I have no idea of how bad you hurt but I am here for you” is much more supportive. You may even be able to offer to help them do something physical such as house work or cleaning the garage during difficult days. Inviting them to talk about their current thoughts about their child can be of help no matter how long it has been since the child’s death.
Anger can often be a part of the grieving process. In many cases it is even directed towards the deceased for leaving. Judith told me she felt a bit of anger towards her first husband for leaving her in death.
With the death of a child, anger isn’t usually directed towards the child, but can be pointed to a third party.
Joy Swift, who lost three children through murder, explained anger expression in an article entitled “How to Survive the Death of a Child:”
You will probably experience strong feelings of anger, especially if your child’s death is caused by a particular person. In that case, you have someone to lash out at, if only in your mind.
But when the death is caused by accident or disease, your anger may become confused. You may pour it out on someone who is completely undeserving of it — a doctor, a police officer, a rescue worker, a friend, or even your spouse. I expressed my anger quite freely, but George, a passive man, kept his inside and talked to very few people about how he really felt. (Signs of the Times – December 1987)
Realizing the core emotional needs of one who has lost a child can be helpful in your ability to help them and understand what they are working through. These complications can add time to the normal grieving process; many parents actually grieve the loss of a child for years instead of months. This does not necessarily mean they are in need of professional counsel. An understanding, empathetic ear goes a long way in knowing what to say.
In the English language there is no word for a parent who has lost a child. There’s a word for someone who lost a spouse — widow. There is a word for someone who has lost their parents — orphan. This lack of definition seems to be a reflection of the ambiguity of how parents who lose a child feel. Try to understand that and be careful not to try to explain it away. It’s doubtful you will ever totally understand their feelings, unless you have indeed lost a child the same way as the one you are helping.
Beware of the tendency to pull away from people who are hurting emotionally. Watching a friend or relative work through emotions such as anger can be hard. Your presence can give them permission to express their hurt and be freer. Be free to tastefully talk about the lost child with them and invite their response. Trite comments like, “Well, you could always have (adopt) another child,” may only multiply their hurts. Listen to where they are today in their feelings instead of referring to some possible “fix” in the future.
Adoption is usually viewed as a very positive event. Placing a child in the arms of willing, loving parents is a good thing. The loss of a child to the birth parent, in many cases, is overlooked. The mother who offered that child for adoption, if she is alive, can often experience the grieving process either immediately or over the course of her life.
Louise chose adoption for her baby:
It wasn’t fair. I had morning sickness just like the other ladies. I had a large pregnant belly just like the other ladies. I was uncomfortable at night getting kicked in the ribs just like the other ladies. I went through the same pain of labor as the other ladies did. But it wasn’t fair that I left the hospital empty-handed.
Then another lady, that had never felt the pain and joy of pregnancy, walks into the hospital empty-handed and walks out with a little pink bundle of joy.
My grieving was a choice. I knew I had to make a choice on how this child was going to be raised. Was I really ready to be a single parent? Or do I give this baby to a couple who is ready and waiting to be parents?
I struggled with that choice for almost eight months. In my heart, I knew adoption was the best for the baby. So the grieving started. The life growing inside wasn’t for me to raise. I chose not to give into [sic] imaginations of sleeping with a baby on my chest, or playdates, having a child take their first steps to me. I was fortunate enough to have been attending counseling sessions at a crisis pregnancy center. There I was able to talk with other moms who placed their baby for adoption. I knew the most painful days were still yet ahead of me.
The pain of loss was real. It hurt! I cried! I went through pregnancy but my arms were empty!
That was many years ago, and yet there is a lump in my throat as I write this now. The pain of loss will always be felt, but for me, it’s different as the years go by.
Louise’s support for her grieving process only began in the days and weeks following the adoption. Those were critical times, to be sure. Reassurance for her decision was vital. Acknowledgment of her deep pain had to happen. Comments like, “Well, at least you won’t have to potty train the baby,” would be detrimental rather than helpful.
She would find more comfort in companionship, words of understanding, and even thoughtful opportunities to begin diverting her thoughts to her own healing. Like many situations where a child is lost, her pain is not something she will “get over” in a few months. It literally becomes a part of her. In the months, and even years ahead, it can be helpful to still speak of the child and give reassurance that the child is doing great.
The process of a divorce affects the whole family. Symptoms of grief are often not associated with the process, but they are usually there. One of those issues can be the loss of children. This can be either through the physical separation or even through losing a child custody case.
Years after his divorce, Michael’s former wife filed for full custody of their two teenage sons. He lost. Michael described his loss:
My God, I am losing both my kids at once. Gone … across the country. I will never be a part of their day to day lives again. Everything I had is gone. I am now the relatives they visit for a vacation. Every part of their lives that I participated in has now been severed irrevocably. Each time I see them the loss is displayed before my eyes. Changes in growth, physically, mentally, differences in attitudes … each time I see them they are different people, with shades and shadows of the kids I knew before. The kids I knew, the kids I raised, my sons … are gone. God, why not take my arms and legs, my eyes … why my kids? Take it all. Take everything I have. Leave my kids. Every text, every e-mail, every phone call, every Skype session, makes my loss more real. Reopening the wound, salt, alcohol, peroxide … They move on with their lives. Activities, sports, girls, learning to drive, prom, school … the calls get less, Skype sessions cease, texts are rarely returned because they have moved on with their lives leaving me behind. Anger, resentment, bitterness, hatred towards the one who caused this to occur, the one who uprooted them, the one who took them from all they knew and loved and moved them to a place with no friends and family other than the one who took them except on rare occasions. Everything points to the holes in your life. I coached them and their team… That’s gone. The games, the plays, taking them to their friends, running your life around your kid’s activities, everything severed, cut off, burned … lost. Emptiness … pain ….
Supporting a grieving parent who has experienced the loss of a child will feel unending. Your understanding will mean a lot. Be prepared to care for them through many emotional ups and downs and even some false starts in the recovery process. A non-critical ear may be just the thing they need most to make it through a moment or day of grief. Heart comments will often be more helpful than logical statements.
“I’ve never been where you are so I don’t know exactly how you feel, but I would like to hear about your process of loss,” can be a great way to help a hurting parent move towards a place of freedom.
The number of abortions in our society has risen drastically over the last several decades. It’s been documented that emotional stress can be experienced, hence the growing pool of potential hurting men and women. If you are or know someone who has had an abortion either recently, or in the distant past, the grieving process is still very real. Like many losses, grief from an abortion can be “stuffed” down, embraced or spread out over a lifetime. Being aware of these options can help you be of great healing assistance to one experiencing it.
“I don’t know how anyone could ever kill their baby,” can be very hurtful or condemning when said in the presence of one who has experienced an abortion. Long-term sensitivity to grieving parents is a must. Helping someone in the depths of grieving an abortion will need to include concepts of forgiveness. Forgiveness may be needed from friends and relatives, from the unborn child, and even themselves. Understanding God’s grace and forgiveness may be a beginning. Your understanding ear can be an important part of their victory.
One loss of a child that is often played down too much is that of a miscarriage. Friends and relatives can be cold or even rude by either ignoring the pain process or demanding one short-change the grieving process. We need to view this as a full-blown loss.
The mother in miscarriage cases does not suffer alone. The father can experience a variety of hurts that need to be processed. In his article “A Father’s Story: Mourning the Baby We Never Had,” Ian Wallach explained some responses he heard about:
A month after the loss, I remembered each hushed backstory or confession of every male I knew who had experienced something similar, and I called them. A colleague whose wife had delivered a stillborn child offered to hang out and have a drink. A friend admitted that he felt embarrassed telling a coworker that he didn’t want to attend a baby shower. Another, who lost his son in the 35th week, told me that they’d moved apartments to escape the baby’s room they had created. He said he took no time off from work — not a single day — yet still didn’t understand why he’d misplace things or get lost in midsentence. After a pause, he asked me to keep a secret and said they were pregnant again but too frightened to tell anyone.
Your help for parents who have experienced a miscarriage needs to be long term. Allowing time alone to grieve helps, but don’t be afraid to talk about it with them in months and even years later. A good suggestion you can make would be for the grieving parents to have a funeral. It will help a bit to bring closure for them. I also suggest you include the lost baby when referring to the number of children they have.
Mother’s Day can be a hard day for some. Older, single people who would like to be married and have children but don’t can view Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as a reminder of their personal disappointment and feelings of failure in the family area. The day that celebrates their missing role can trigger grief that doesn’t seem to go away.
Shawn and Jenn are long-time friends of my family. Their life has been very fulfilled since their marriage many years ago, including a strong relationship with each other and a very productive career together in a religious non-profit organization. One thing is missing for them. They have no children.
Jenn offered some candid comments regarding their journey of hope and disappointment towards having children in their personal blog:
It’s complicated. And there’s no time frame. The broken heart can’t always be defined, but it’s there. And the smallest little thing can stir it all back up. There’s the lie that nobody cares and that people are tired of hearing about it. There’s the lie that we’ll be old and lonely and still aching for those six babies we never got to hold, raise: the legacy that never was. It’s hard and it hurts. It’s grief, loss, doubt, and sometimes guilt, smashed in some weird, oddly shaped box. A big part of the grieving process after IVF [in vitro fertilization] (x3) is knowing that you’ve done ALL you can using the most advanced medical treatments and procedures and surgeries. It’s taking two steps towards closure, accepting that you will be ‘the couple without kids,’ and then falling backwards at the thought of Christmas mornings with just the two of us – forever.
MURDER AND SUICIDE
Violent deaths are always traumatic. In the event of a child’s violent death, whether their life was taken by themselves or others, breadth is added to the sorrow. Horror and deep regret multiply the pain. The scope of this grief swells up as often unexplainable by many parents.
In an interview by Timothy C. Morgan on March 28, 2014, Kay Warren attempts to put her loss into words. She and her husband, Pastor Rick Warren, had lost a son to suicide one year earlier:
Because of our love, we conceived a child together. I birthed him from my body. He was a part of me. A part of me is no longer here. How can I be the same? For us as a couple, as a family, there were five of us; now there are four. Our child murdered himself in the most raw way I can tell you. Suicide is self-murder. Our son, the murderer, was himself. The trauma of knowing what he did to himself, how he destroyed the body of this child that we loved. He did it to end the pain. How could we ever be the same? Trauma changes you. I can’t ever go back to who I was. (Christianity Today)
As you come alongside parents in this form of grief, you will need to accept the fact that their hurt will be long term. In fact, you would be better prepared to help them if you expected their grief to increase for a time instead of subsiding. Beware of verbiage that pushes them to “get over it.” The goal for a bereaved parent is getting through the process, not getting over it. Consolation of having other children, if this is true, is no comfort for the one lost.
Often simple statements of your continued friendship and support will do more good than attempts to make their hurt go away. Keep contact with them through social media and texting if impromptu visits seem out of place. Showing them your support will be more meaningful than saying it.
ORDER YOUR COPY OF THE BOOK: “I Didn’t Know What To Say” today.
Read More »