Grief comes in many forms for different people. Those who have lost a sibling, spouse, or parent experience grief differently from those who suffer grief due to child loss. Mental health professionals categorize grief into several types. One of these types is prolonged grief, a grief experienced by most bereaved parents. This article discusses the stages of grief, what prolonged grief is, and offers ways for coping with prolonged grief.
5 Basic Stages of Grief
Psychologists define 5 basic stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. Parents who have lost a child, as well as other people who are grieving a loved one, go through these stages.
- Denial – I can’t believe it, it’s not true. I can’t acknowledge my child is gone.
- Bargaining – (guilt) If only I had done something different this wouldn’t have happened.
- Anger – I feel that my child and I have been cheated out of the life he/she could have had.
- Depression – I’ve lost interest in life and those around me. Everything seems pointless.
- Acceptance – I learn to live with the loss in a positive way.
Stages of grief manifest themselves in a different order in different people. Sometimes, I might go through all the stages, and then a previous stage makes a reappearance. My goal, and the goal of every bereaved parent, is reaching the acceptance stage. But acceptance doesn’t have to mean that I’m OK with my child’s passing. Psych Central has a very accurate description of what grief acceptance is, and suggests it’s possible I may never attain it:
‘Depending on your experience, it might be understandable if you don’t ever feel this way.
Acceptance is more about how you acknowledge the losses you’ve experienced, how you learn to live with them, and how you readjust your life accordingly…
…You may also feel like you accept the loss at times and then move to another stage of grief again. This back-and-forth between stages is natural and a part of the healing process.
In time, you may eventually find yourself stationed at this stage for long periods of time.
That doesn’t mean you’ll never feel sadness or anger again toward your loss, but your long-term perspective about it and how you live with this reality will be different.’
Normal Grief vs Prolonged Grief
In normal grief, I experience all of the above grief stages, especially in the first weeks or months after the loss. Over time, I cope with the loss better and the emotional upheaval lessens.
In prolonged grief, I remain in the various grief stages for an extended period of time, typically a year or more. In fact, my feelings of grief are more intense as time goes by. To echo the words of bereaved parents in my support group ‘It just gets worse.’
Characteristics of Prolonged Grief
These characteristics of prolonged grief are common to all who continue to experience intense feelings of loss:
- The feeling that part of me has died along with my child
- Continued sense of disbelief
- Avoidance of reminders that my child is no longer here
- Intense emotional pain like anger and sadness
- Difficulty engaging with friends, pursuing interests, or planning for the future
- Emotional numbness, a total disconnect from feelings of joy or sadness
- Feeling that life is meaningless
For more information and description of prolonged grief characteristics see psychiatry.org
Bereaved parents with prolonged grief experience some or all of these feelings well after a child has died. While some parents live an active life despite these feelings, others remain paralyzed in these feelings, unable to resume a positive lifestyle. For older people who have lost a child, prolonged grief is particularly difficult because the distraction of employment and a set routine no longer exists.
Physical Ways of Coping with Prolonged Grief
The Center for Prolonged Grief from Columbia University in New York suggests several ways of coping with prolonged grief:
Anticipate Stressful Times
The yahrzeit and birthday of my child evokes strong emotions. Spending holidays without him is also extremely stressful. I try to anticipate these stressful times and plan how I’m going to observe the yahrzeit, birthday, or holiday. Having a plan doesn’t remove the pain or sadness, but it lessens it.
Honoring the Memory
Each mitzvah (good deed) I do on behalf of my child not only honors his memory in this world, but is a tremendous boost for him in Heaven.
I try to give tzedakah (charity) in my son’s memory regularly, no matter how large or small the amount. When I have the opportunity, I talk about him to his siblings, nieces, and nephews to remind everyone that he was here, and that he’s still here with us in our hearts and thoughts. On his birthday, I send balloons and sweets to our relatives, reminding everyone that today was that special day he came into the world. The post How I’m Honoring My Child’s Memory discusses what we’ve done in memory of our son.
Honoring the memory of my child isn’t just for the first year of passing. It’s forever.
Maintaining the Connection
My child is still my child. I’m not relinquishing ownership of that. I want to maintain the connection we had before he died. My son and I used to watch movies together. Just now, three years after his passing, I’m able to watch a movie. This is a big positive step for me.
Sometimes, I talk to him, and I know he hears every word I say. I just can’t hear what he’s saying to me, but I feel that I still have a connection with him.
Health and Wellbeing
Both my husband and I experience physical ailments we didn’t have before our son died. In fact, each person in our grief support group complained of physical ailments after their child’s passing. Most, if not all, these ailments come from grief. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information:
‘This study (the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study) examined bereaved parents of deceased children (infancy to age 34) and comparison parents with similar backgrounds…An average of 18.05 years following the death, when parents were age 53, bereaved parents reported more depressive symptoms, poorer well-being, and more health problems and were more likely to have experienced a depressive episode and marital disruption than were comparison parents. Recovery from grief was associated with having a sense of life purpose and having additional children but was unrelated to the cause of death or the amount of time since the death. The results point to the need for detection and intervention to help those parents who are experiencing lasting grief.’
A healthy diet and exercise is just the start. I need to get out more and find activities that I enjoy. Distraction seems like I’m just trying to avoid thinking about my child’s death, but it’s really an important way to lessen the grief, even if only temporarily. After all, I have to live with the emotional pain for the rest of my life.
A Helpful Mindset for Grief
Mental health professionals talk about healing from grief. I feel there’s no such thing. Grief from child loss is a wound that never heals. However, here are thoughts which I find help me cope with my grief:
I can’t bring my child back. Only G-d can do that, and He will someday, may it be soon. On the other hand, I can’t be afraid to grieve. Setting time for myself to think about my child and cry is an important part of my wellbeing. But the grieving needs to be on my terms, when and where I choose, and only for a few minutes at a time. I can’t let grief control me. The post Holding in the Grief of Child Loss discusses the adverse physical and emotional affects of bottling in grief.
Learning to Let Go
Our Sages say that the physical world mirrors the spiritual world. The analogy is the following. As a parent, I raise my child from infancy to adulthood. Then comes a time when the child grows up and leaves home. How silly if I said to my child ‘No, stay home with me, you have everything here. What do you want to go out into the world for?’ But the child has to make his own way in the world and live a life of his own. I can’t hold him back. I have to learn to let go.
It’s similar for a child who has passed on. G-d said my son’s time in this world is over. He now lives his life in the Next World, happily doing whatever they do in Heaven. I can’t hold him back, wishing he was here. I have to maintain my health and cope with loss in a positive way so he can live his new life without worrying about me, looking over his shoulder to see if I’m ok.