I want to address 4 feelings and thoughts about child loss that afflict me and other bereaved parents. These feelings are the most common among those who suffer from child loss. Bereaved parents have jumbled and conflicting emotions coping with the loss of a child, and these painful feelings and thoughts affect our self perception and interactions with others. Some of these feelings are warranted, some aren’t.
The four topics discussed here are: the inability to talk about loss, the perceived stigma of loss, guilt, grief and the passage of time. Each emotion or thought is analyzed from two perspectives. The first perspective is how I feel as a bereaved parent. The second perspective is what I call the reality, ie, what’s actually going on. Members of my grief support group gave me valuable insights for dealing with these feelings, and I want to share them with you.
1. I Can’t Talk to Anyone About My Grief
Don’t sit alone. It’s important to talk about child loss.
How I Feel About Expressing Grief
Because the pain of losing a child is so intense, I shy away from talking to others about my loss. I feel people don’t want to hear about my suffering, they can’t take away the pain, so why bother talking about it.
The Reality About Expressing Grief to Others
This feeling is somewhat justified. Many people are uncomfortable talking with a bereaved parent because they don’t know what to say, or they are afraid to say the wrong thing. Some people are so socially unskilled that they don’t want to hear about someone else’s loss at all. They can’t stand to listen to bad news, preferring to coast along through life discussing platitudes. Each person has a different tolerance for what they want to hear and what they don’t.
Thankfully, I have a few close friends who have the emotional fortitude to listen and try to help if they can. It’s just a matter of finding the right person to talk to. Joining a support group for bereaved parents was the best thing I did to voice my feelings to people who really understand the pain and suffering of child loss. I strongly encourage bereaved parents to seek out a support group.
Above all, don’t hold in grief. Holding in the Grief of Child Loss discusses how important it is to express these emotions. For suggestions on who to talk to about child loss visit Therapy for Traumatic Grief.
2. As a Bereaved Parent, I Feel Stigmatized by Others
Everyone is going around doing their own thing. Most of the time, they don’t see me at all.
How I Feel When Others See Me
When I run into a casual acquaintance, I feel the person looks at me not for who I am, but as a victim of child loss. I wonder if they’re thinking ‘That’s the parent who lost a child.’ Although I don’t discuss my loss with casual acquaintances, I feel as if I’m wearing a sign publicizing my loss. Are they thinking that? Should I care about what others think?
The Reality About How Others See Me
Because loss is constantly on my mind, I mistakenly transfer my thoughts to the other person. Since I’m thinking about my child, they must be too? Fortunately, or unfortunately, casual acquaintances couldn’t care less about my loss. They’ve forgotten about my child long ago. For them, my face is just another face in the crowd.
3. I Feel a Lot of Guilt After Losing My Child
Guilt is the bane of every bereaved parent.
How I Feel When I Try to Be Happy
I could have done more to prevent my child’s death. I feel guilty just to be alive. After all, my son had his whole life ahead of him. Why wasn’t it me instead of him? Whenever, I partake of some enjoyment, I feel guilty. Every time I feel happy, guilt sets in.
The Reality of Feeling Guilty When Feeling Good
Guilt is a very powerful emotion. Psychology Today, in a post aptly entitled Guilt, discusses the positive and negative aspects of guilt:
‘…Guilt is self-focused but also highly socially relevant: It’s thought to serve important interpersonal functions by, for example, encouraging the repair of valuable relationships and discouraging acts that could damage them. But in excess, guilt may needlessly burden those who experience it…’
Because I’m so focused on my loss and grief, it’s natural that I have feelings of guilt. Unfortunately, there’s nothing positive to gain from feeling guilty. Guilt stifles any attempt to cope with loss. A research study by Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, entitled Bereaved Parents Health Status During the First 6 months After Their Child’s Death found:
‘…Higher incidences of physical and mental conditions such as cancer, cardiac illnesses, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms were reported in bereaved parents when compared to non-bereaved parents…Our study provides essential baseline empirical data to confirm that bereaved parents are indeed at risk for health problems.’
While this study looks at the general impact of grief on parental health, intense feelings of guilt makes the threat to a parent’s health much greater.
Although feelings of guilt are natural after a child’s death, it behooves bereaved parents to flee from these feelings as fast as they can. Replace these negative emotions with thoughts of how to honor your child’s memory. See Child Loss and Dealing with Guilt for more discussion about losing a child and guilt.
4. Coping with My Child’s Death Gets Harder as Time Goes By
No matter how much time has passed, we grieve our child’s passing.
How I Feel About Grief As Time Goes By
Even though it’s been a few years after my child died, I still feel sadness and grief. It seems as if my loss gets harder as time goes by. Is there something wrong with me?
The Reality About Grief and the Passage of Time
No, there’s nothing wrong with me. The death of a child is an extremely traumatic event which is out of the natural order. Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children. As time goes by, so do lifecycle events that my child would have had if he were alive. Another birthday goes by that he can’t celebrate. His best friend has a wedding he can’t attend. His nephew and nieces are getting bigger and better, and he doesn’t see it. Of course, the loss gets harder as times goes by. Just be careful not to shut down. Live life, while at the same time, remembering and honoring the memory of your child.
The post Grief Has No Timeline discusses mourning a child long after the event passed.
Suggestions for Bereaved Parents Coping with Negative Feelings and Thoughts:
- Find someone to talk to who really wants to listen. Seek out a support group for child loss. Get the emotions out and gain new insights on how to cope.
- There’s no stigma in losing a child. Don’t go around feeling you’re wearing a sign that says ‘My child died.’ Just be you.
- Get rid of the guilt. It does you no good to be eaten up by negative feelings of guilt. Instead, focus on how to honor your child’s memory.
- Coping with the death of a child gets harder as time goes by. It is what it is.
Rabbi Asher Resnick, a bereaved parent and senior lecturer at Aish in Jerusalem said to me:
‘The death of a child is like losing a limb. Each day I see the limb is no longer there, but I figure out ways to live life without that limb.’
May all bereaved parents attain the physical and emotional strength to live a life of health and happiness.
Hello Rhonda Roth, I want to thank you again for continuing to write and circulate your blog posts. I lost my adult son (39) about a year and a half ago and I definitely have experienced the feelings and emotions you’ve talked about in this post and others. The fact that you also deal with it from a traditional Jewish aspect is helpful to me as well. I do deal with guilt because at the time my son died I was not in a position to help him more. My personal situation was complicated by the fact that I had lost my husband only 14 months earlier. As painful and dislocating as it has been to lose my husband of 51 years; The loss of my son has been much harder for me to deal with. From what you’ve written and what some rabbis have said it is obvious that the grief does not go away which is what I suspected and I just have to find ways to live around it. Thank you, Joy Steiner
Hello Joy, and thank you for reading.
There are just no words to describe the pain of losing a child, and in your case, the pain is all the more so due to your husband’s passing.
I pray we all find menucha ha nefesh, that consolation and calmness of the soul, with which we will find the physical and emotional strength to honor our loved ones and find joy in our own life.
All the best