I am a bereaved parent. My son died 4 months ago. I feel like I’m going crazy. Is this normal?

The one term that we hear more than any other from bereaved parents is exactly as you stated, “I feel like I’m going crazy!” When your child dies you may experience many feelings and emotions that are unfamiliar.

Some of the feelings that many people struggle with are: shock, numbness, anxiety, fear, relief, emptiness, anger, yearning, searching, and of course, overwhelming sadness. Rest assured that all of these feelings are normal and might even be considered healthy for a newly bereaved parent.

You may also find that you are confused, forgetful, disorganised, restless, exhausted, unable to concentrate and are becoming socially isolated. Again, all of these are certainly common occurrences when you are grieving.

Generally, over time, you should find that many of these emotions and feelings will diminish somewhat. They will no longer make you feel like you are “going crazy”, but they will always be with you to some extent. At times, often when you least expect it, you may experience a sudden, intense resurgence of these emotions. Often referred to as “grief attacks” they can be frightening and overpowering. Again this is a very normal reaction when a child dies.

C.W. Lewis perhaps describes it best when he wrote in his book a grief observed: “Grief is like a long, winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

My friends seem to be giving me the message that, following the death of my child,my goal should be to “get over” my grief and get my life back to “normal”. I have no idea what “normal” is anymore. Is it possible to “get over” this pain?

Today’s society is, on the whole, very uncomfortable with grieving people. Most of the “helpful” advice given to the bereaved encourages them to deal with their grief issues as quickly as possibleand move on. Shortly after the funeral there is an expectation that the bereaved person will return to “normal”.

Many people view grief as an event be dealt with quickly and not a process that needs to be experienced. However it is only through the experience of that process that healing can begin.

Many bereaved people are not given permission to mourn, express their feelings, or verbalise what they are really thinking. This makes grief a very isolating experience. They are afraid that if they show their grief to an outside world they will be perceived as being weak, or “stuck in theirgrief”. Being stoic and suppressing emotions are considered to be more admirable qualitiesthan tears and distress.

When asked how they are doing the bereaved often replies “I’m fine”, and this is a far easier response for most people to hear as it avoids a conversation about their grief and how they are coping.

However this does not meet the emotional needs of the bereaved and they are often left feeling that their reaction to the death of a loved one is abnormal. The expectation that you can “get over” your grief is a ridiculous one.Death changes the person we once were forever and we can never return to be that person again. It is possible to heal, you will always carry the scars of your loss, but to recover would mean to continue life without thosescars.

To think that your goal is to completely recover from your grief can be very damaging and destructive to your healing process. With time, your pain will not be as overwhelming as it is now, you will find a safe place in your heart for it and you will find renewed purpose and meaning in life once again.

Myth – There are clearly defined and orderly stages of grief that all bereaved people go through.

There is great security in the belief that bereaved people move through their grief in nice orderly stages that take a pre-determined period of time to complete. There is an expectation that they should journey through these stages in the right order and in the correct amount of time. This belief, with its rigid and uncompromising viewpoint can be extremely damaging and the consequences of this belief have often been disastrous.

If only this myth were true, life for the bereaved would, in fact, be much simpler. After all, at the very least, they would have a guide to show them how they were supposed to be mourning and would know when they were to jump to the next “stage” of their grief. They would be able to know when they were grieving “right” and when they were grieving “wrong”. They would know what to expect next and how long each new feeling would last. Best of all, they could predict with some accuracy, exactly when they would “be over” their grief.

Unfortunately, grief does not behave like that. It must be recognised that each person’s grief is unique to them and when a rigid system of beliefs about grief is adopted, it does not allow for the natural progression of each individual’s personal experience. Everyone mourns in different ways and the uniqueness of an individual’s experience of grief must be recognised.

This experience will be influenced by many different factors; for example: what was their relationship with the person who has died, what are the circumstances surrounding the death, do they have good support systems in place, what is their cultural/religious background, their biological sex, their unique personality, other crises or stresses in their life?

Anger, isolation, guilt and hopelessness are just a few examples of emotions that the bereaved may or may not feel. At times, these emotions are overwhelming and may overlap each other in occurrence. Often a bereaved person may appear to relapse in their grief (be less able to cope today than yesterday); however, this is a very normal and natural part of the grieving process.

Rather than trying to determine where someone is in their grief, learn to become a compassionate listener and allow them to teach you where they are in this process. Recognising the individuality of each person’s journey, support them as they travel through this long and often frightening path at their own pace and in their own time.

Myth – An anticipated death is easier to bear than a sudden death.

How often have we heard the words “Well, at least you were prepared.”? This writer, having experienced the anticipated death of her daughter, is amazed at how others could think the loss of her child would be easier to bear because she knew that she was going to die. The obvious response is “And how do you prepare for the death of someone you love so much?”

There has never been much research done into the effects of anticipatory grief and the difference between this grieving process and what you go through with a sudden, unexpected death. The struggle that you are faced with is that your family member dies twice-once on diagnosis and then again when the death actually occurs.

The time between these two events is akin to living under a death sentence, for that is essentially what you are doing. Each day you see them slipping slowly, ever further away and the feelings of helplessness and guilt can be overwhelming. You struggle to celebrate and find joy in their lives while they are still alive but at the same time you are thrown into the depths of despair at the thought of having to live the rest of your life without them. Depending on the needs of the one who is dying and the demands on their caretaker, you may be physically, emotionally and financially exhausted by the time death occurs.

Although cognitively you may be aware they will die soon, the emotional part of your being never allows you to believe that it will happen “today”. It is always tomorrow, next week, next month but never today. As a result, when the death happens, it is still comes as an unbelievable shock.

Remember that there is no “good way” to lose someone you love. Every cause of death brings with it its own issues and complications and there is no need to categorise these from best to worst. Whatever the manner of death, it is always the worst for the survivors.

Myth – There is a greater than average chance that the parents of a child who has died, will eventually become divorced.This widely held myth is simply not supported by research. Most marriages that end in divorce after the death of a child were in trouble before the death happened. The death of a child will not mend a doomed marriage and just as likely, will not cause a good, solid marriage to disintegrate.

It is very difficult for couples to grieve the death of their child together. Your spouse/partner is most likely the one who has always been there for you in times of trouble. They are probably the one you turn to for emotional support and guidance when you need to lean upon their strength to help you through a traumatic time in your life. Now, you find yourself in a situation where both of you are deeply affected, equally but often differently, by an event that you had no control over. The question becomes “How do you save someone from drowning when you are drowning yourself?”.

It is important to remember that everyone grieves differently. This process will be unique to each of you even though you are grieving the same event, the same person. There is really no “wrong” way to grieve so don’t assume your partner is grieving inappropriately just because they are not doing it the same way you are. It is important to respect and to openly share your feelings with each other. Remember to talk about your feelings not just things so you can be aware how each other is feeling. Support each other when you can, but if this becomes too overwhelming ask for help from a professional or support group.

If you can communicate openly and honestly, give each other respect for their manner of coping and give as well as receive support from each other, chances are the bonds that joined you together before your child’s death will be stronger than ever.

If you have a question to ask our staff, please call at 416-440-0290, or email us at info@bfotoronto.ca.