Surviving the death of a child
As a counselor who bases her practice on Choice Theory psychology, I have a different view on mental health and its diagnoses; grief is no exception. We celebrate Mother’s Day in May and Father’s Day in June. The month of July is Worldwide Bereaved Parents Month to recognize those going through a loss so profound many can’t withstand it, although some manage to take their pain and devastation and use it to help others.
The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fifth edition (DSM-5), published in 2013, states that if you are still grieving the death of a loved one after two weeks, you can be considered for having major depressive disorder. There is also a category called persistent complex bereavement disorder (PCBD), formerly called complicated grief disorder, that is listed in the DSM-5 as a category of disease marked by an extreme longing for a deceased loved one, often accompanied by destructive thoughts and behaviors and an inability to function in day-to-day living. People with PCBD take a longer period of time to reach the acceptance stage of grieving.
Let’s dissect this further.
You have lost your child to death. In what world will you ever return to “normal” functioning again? You created this human, watched with love as the child grew, and now he or she is gone, leaving a hole that can never be filled. It is not the way things are supposed to work; parents should not outlive their children. Unfortunately, as you so intimately know, sometimes they do. You belong to a special club of parents: one, of course, you never wanted to be associated with.
But are you even parents anymore? How can you be a parent when your child is gone? The world expects you to go on, and go on you will, unless you decide not to. I have personally known people who couldn’t handle the death of their child and escaped their pain in suicide. This is horribly sad to me, but I can only imagine the horror of living with that pain every day.
To those who soldier on despite the grief but are struggling, be aware that grief and sadness are exactly what you should experience. There is no point in pathologizing that. If you weren’t experiencing symptoms that could be labelled depression, I’d be more concerned about you than if you didn’t.
The psychiatric authors of the DSM-5 believe the “normal” thing is to be back to a “normal” lifestyle within two weeks? Really?
What is actually happening in your grief from a Choice Theory perspective is that you had your child in your “quality world.” This is a place where you store all the things you want in life, the things that make you happy and are important to you. In your quality world, you had a perfect version of your child, perhaps along with visions of the person he or she would have become and the life he or she would have led. All of that was snuffed out in an instant, so what do you do with these visions of your child? You can’t banish them; they don’t just go away because your child died. In the real world, all you can notice is his or her absence.
The way people eventually learn to cope with this devastating loss is through remembering, but you couldn’t forget if you tried. You move forward with your life with an appendage missing, and while doing that, you are constantly thinking of your child—his smile, her birthday, his interests, or her future. You take out the pictures, listen to his or her music and talk to his or her friends. Why do you to this? Because it helps keep him or her alive in your mind, and if that’s all you can get, you take it. There is nothing wrong with you. You’ve just had the most devastating thing in the world happen, and you haven’t yet learned the coping skills that can help you through, but how could you possibly cope?
The first step is to recognize the purpose of grief. Yes, grief is a purposeful behavior designed to keep your child present in your life when their physical presence isn’t possible. It can also serve as your way of declaring to the world how much you love your child. You may believe, perhaps subconsciously, that ending your grieving would mean you didn’t love your child enough. This is a false belief. Imagine the life your child would want you to be living. They would want you to be happy again, to love again, to live your life in color rather than the black and gray you have been experiencing. Letting go of the grief doesn’t end your love for your child—it becomes your way back and the way you find them again.
Meaning-making and balancing the pain are the only ways I know to truly move forward. Meaning-making can come from spiritual faith or from your own mind. It involves letting go of your version of how things were supposed to be—how you were supposed to die before your child and he or she was supposed to live a long, healthy life. If it was “supposed” to be that way, it would have been that way. The first step to getting there is accepting that your child died.
The second step is appreciating the impact he had during the time you had him and finding gratitude for the time you were given instead of focusing on what you lost. Create a story for yourself that explains to you the purpose of your child’s life and subsequent death. You are already telling yourself the story that it isn’t fair and shouldn’t be happening, and only you have the power to change that story.
Balancing the pain comes from the realization that all our life events are equally balanced with positive and negative charges, just like the elements that make up our universe. In every painful experience, there is equal benefit attached. Of course, we have a difficult time locating it because our brains are hardwired for negativity. It seems so wrong to look for benefit in your child’s death, so ask yourself these questions instead—I call it the GLO: What are the gifts in this experience? What have I learned from my child’s death? And what opportunities do I have because of it?
That last question is easy to answer, as it is the main reason we live through any tragedy. If you survived it and emerged on the other side, you have the opportunity to reach behind you to someone else lost in the darkness, take their hand and guide them out into the light. This is what support groups are for. In the beginning, you will take from them; after, you will give back to others. I know many parents who found a way to memorialize their children that helps others and releases good into the world. One woman works to create “buddy benches” for people who need a person to sit with them. Another woman had the Houston Zoo name their frog exhibit after her son who loved tree frogs. Parents have lobbied lawmakers for stricter gun laws and others have formed and participated in Mothers Against Drunk Driving. When you are ready, there are endless ways you can take your child’s death and turn it into a meaningful experience.
It is helpful to find a way to keep your child with you somehow. When my husband died at 37 years old, his mother never recovered. She was invested in making sure everyone knew how much she loved her son and wasn’t able to let go of her grief. My children and I were able to create a wrestling scholarship fund, the Dave Olver Memorial Scholarship, which I gave out annually for the first few years to a Honesdale High School wrestler. Later, my sons became wrestling coaches at Honesdale, so now they give out the scholarship. It is a beautiful way to pay tribute to a wonderful man in a way that had meaning for him.
Grief is an extremely personal, individualized path. No one should tell you the “right” way to grieve or how long it should last, and there is no need to pathologize it. Your grief is normal, but just know there are ways out of the darkness when you are ready and, in the meantime, I wish you peace.