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COPING & HEALING

DEALING WITH LOSING A CHILD:
GRIEVING PROCESS

Now that you have made arrangements for your child's burial, you may wonder how you will be able to move on with life. One of the first steps to healing is to give yourself time to grieve. Getting over the loss of a child is a painful and long process that can be physically and emotionally draining. Although the grief can at times become unbearable, grieving is healthy and essential for recovery. Some people try to suppress or deny it, but when grief is ignored, it will eventually manifest in different and sometimes harmful ways in the future.

Grieving will involve passing through many overlapping emotional phases. It has been said that the pain we experience during the grieving process (emotional, spiritual, mental and physical) is a tribute to the love we have for that person. It is important to remember that the pain of losing someone does subside over time and people do discover that there is hope after death.

Your spiritual and religious beliefs may offer some consolation. If you have some spiritual concerns, schedule a meeting with your rabbi, minister or priest to talk about what is troubling you. Ask for their support in renewing your faith and helping you come to terms with your child's death.

There are many self-help books and articles written about dealing with grief that may also give you some direction. A quick source of information about grief and the healing process is Hospice Net, which gives the following advice for getting through this difficult time:

  • Acknowledge and express your feelings openly. Talk about it with friends, bereavement counselors, clergy or support groups.
  • Take care of yourself - physically and spiritually. This means rest, relaxation, exercise, nourishment, and diversions.
  • Don't blame yourself.
  • Learn about grief through books, articles, and poetry that provides understanding, comfort and support.
  • Give yourself time to grieve and be patient with yourself, your spouse and your surviving children. Trust your ability to heal.
  • Initially, set small goals and live one day at a time. Take small steps towards enjoying life again and do not feel guilty about indulging yourself occasionally.
  • Consider keeping a journal and writing down your thoughts and memories. Or write letters and poems to your child.
  • Don't be too quick to make big decisions or changes. Wait a few months before you clean up or donate your child's things.

Grieving is a very personal journey and each person takes a different path at a different pace to recovery. This is one reason why misunderstandings surface among family members and why it is so important to recognize and accept differences in grieving style.

Children And Grief

The death of a brother or sister can be just as traumatic to your surviving children. You should be sensitive and aware of your children's response to death. They may feel the same feelings as you - fear, denial, sadness, anger, and guilt - but react based on their age and experience. Preschool children usually see death as temporary and reversible similar to the cartoon characters that they watch on television. Children between five and nine begin to realize that death is permanent but still view it as something impersonal. From ten onwards, children begin to comprehend that death is irreversible and that all living things die eventually.

What your children need from you is age appropriate information, comfort and understanding. Encourage your children to show their feelings freely and let them know it is okay to talk about it. While you may also want to share your feelings with them, be careful not to burden them with too many concerns. An article that gives you more information on how to relate to your child is "Talking to Children About Death". If your children show signs of severe depression, withdrawal or unusual behavior, a child or adolescent psychiatrist can help them deal with the mourning process.

As you move forward with your life, try to avoid the pitfalls that some grieving families fall into. This includes being overly protective of your surviving or future children, making unfair comparisons of them to the child that died, or blaming them for your unhappiness.

Finding Support

It can be extremely isolating for parents who are left childless. Suddenly you may feel like you are caught between two groups- people with kids and people without kids - unable to fully identify with either group. Even though you probably could relate better to parents than couples without children, you no longer have a child in your life. Consequently, it may be difficult for you to visit friends with children of similar age to your departed child. There is the added dilemma of deciding what to tell acquaintances when they unknowingly ask, "do you have children?" or "how many children you have?". Understandingly, you may shy away from social gatherings simply to avoid these awkward and upsetting moments.

In these situations, you may feel like the only person with a tragic story. But actually, there are many families that have experienced the grief of losing a young child. Sadly, they understand what you are going through. Your clergy, grief counselor or your child's doctor can suggest a support group that you can identify with. Sharing with others who have experienced a similar loss can be comforting and reassuring. Knowing what helped them and realizing that they have recovered may give you hope and strength for the future.

If you still find yourself in great distress or long-term depression, individual therapy from a grief counselor may be necessary. Sessions with a trained professional can help you recognize your feelings and put them in perspective. You can ask your doctor or healthcare provider for a referral and explanation of medical coverage.

Keeping Communication Open

Losing a child can affect a couple profoundly. It is not unusual for a marital relationship to become strained after the death of a child. After such a devastating life event, the stress of coping, along with feelings of abandonment, indifference, frustration and anger, can destroy a marriage. In fact, experts report that 80% of marriages where a child has died end in divorce. It is a tragedy when the grief of losing a child is compounded with the pain of divorce. To prevent this from happening, couples' counseling with a grief therapist is recommended even for the strongest of marriages.

While it may be hard to support your spouse when you are hurting yourself, listening and tending to the needs of your spouse is very important to the survival of a marriage during a difficult period. Your spouse is the only person that truly understands how deeply you hurt. Instead of isolating yourself with your grief, try to spend some quality time with your spouse talking about how you are feeling and how you will both approach the future together.

It is important to acknowledge that men and women communicate and grieve in very different ways. Women tend to be more expressive, emotional and open to seeking support from others. Women may feel lonely or cheated when they see their spouse carrying on with life as if nothing happened. On the other hand, men usually are less likely to express their feelings and prefer to solve problems on their own. Rather than seek support or talk about it, men may withdraw or bury themselves in other activities (i.e. working late, sports, or watching TV) to avoid thinking of their depression or grief. Both parties may get frustrated when the man feels compelled to give advice and the woman expects support and understanding. If you both realize that these communication and grieving differences exist, you may be able to prevent some misunderstandings and conflicts in your relationship from occurring.

As you struggle together and separately to come to terms with your loss, keep in mind these tips from the experts.

  • Assure one another of your commitment to the relationship.
  • Keep the lines of communication open and share your thoughts and emotions with your spouse regularly.
  • Be caring of each other's feelings and needs.
  • Acknowledge each other's pain and accept your differences in grieving.
  • Resume old friendships and seek new ones both separately and as a couple.
  • Find ways to remember your child together.
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