Introduction From the American Academy of Bereavement:
The death of a child is an incomprehensible and devastating loss. Grief for parents is lifelong, becoming the connection between parent and child. To extend and deepen current understanding of parental grief, lets take a look at some of the practices other bereavement professionals have found important in the parental grieving process of children.
Grief reactions after the death of a child are similar to those after other losses. But, they are often more intense and last longer. You may experience the following grief reactions:
- Intense shock, confusion, disbelief, and denial, even if your child’s death was expected
- Overwhelming sadness and despair, such that facing daily tasks or even getting out of bed can seem impossible
- Extreme guilt or a feeling that you have failed as your child’s protector and could have done something differently
- Intense anger and feelings of bitterness and unfairness at a life left unfulfilled
- Fear or dread of being alone and overprotecting your surviving children
- Resentment toward parents with healthy children
- Feeling that life has no meaning and wishing to be released from the pain or to join your child
- Questioning or losing faith or spiritual beliefs
- Dreaming about your child or feeling your child’s presence nearby
- Intense loneliness and isolation, even when around other people, and feeling that no one can truly understand how you feel
Although grief is always profound when a child dies, some parents have an especially difficult time. Even as time passes, their grief remains intense, and they feel it is impossible to return to normal life. Some parents may even think about hurting themselves to escape from the pain. At the American Academy of Bereavement, we strive as professionals to ensure that there is a place for those suffering to find counseling and perhaps solace during their time of sorrow.
My name is Mark. I’m a middle-aged, middle-class father who’s been married for twenty-five years. We rescued a dog and a cat from the humane society that now live with us in our Cincinnati suburban home. What I’m trying to say is that I’m just your average guy, a typical sight in average America. Covid hit me like it did everyone else: business changed, pockets tightened, fears grew, habits adjusted, and bankruptcy felt imminent until it didn’t. March, April, and May were hard months for us. But then came June. June fifth, to be exact. On that day, our family wasn’t lucky to call ourselves like everyone else.
My wife and I hadn’t heard from our daughter for a worrying period of time that quickly pushed our emotions from normal to nervous. We eventually tracked down that she was staying at a nearby hotel with friends, but by the time we found out it was too late. In the hours that followed, time somehow stopped and sped up simultaneously. There in the hotel parking lot, with the coroner and flashing blue-red lights, my wife and I tried to process the news a parent prays never to hear. People came and went: some speaking to us, some just watching the scene unfold.
I’m not a writer. Until this piece, my daughter’s obituary was the hardest thing I’ve ever written. Her eulogy was a story about how her life changed others; this story, however, is about how her life changed mine.
What matters for you to know about that day is that Elizabeth was at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong friends. She died from an accidental drug overdose at just twenty-one years old. The CDC reported more than 67,300 deaths by overdose in 2018. There are always names behind those numbers, something I intellectually knew before but couldn’t fully appreciate until disaster struck us personally. Behind the names, of course, there are families crushed and left behind.
I thought I knew pain, but nothing wrung me more than losing my Lizzie. Doctors sometimes tell you to describe your pain levels. This was easily a level ten. I also thought I knew how to empathize, but I now realize the sheer depths of human compassion. To paint the circumstances differently or play down the intensity of grief is an insincere telling of reality. To dwell on one’s suffering, however, doesn’t give way to hope. Similarly, the words “cheer” and “sorrow” held different meaning before. Cheer was something for sporting events, and sorrow was basically just a word. Perhaps a small part of me even believed that “real men” didn’t feel deep, gut-wrenching emotions like sorrow.
Loss has surprising potential to bring people closer. From Biblical stories to the stories of others’, time and time again we see that there are moments when we must lose in order to find. In my case, Lizzie’s death opened up entire communities of individuals who invited me in to heal and journey together on what David Brooks calls “the second mountain.” These people found each other because they all lost someone they loved. They found hope through suffering. These people were once strangers but are now my friends, creating a strange kind of beauty out of the worst-possible circumstances. On the days when I feel like there’s an 800-pound weight on my chest, I have found that the effort of reaching out does indeed lighten the burden.
In addition to finding community with others I’ve also grown closer to nature. I sit outside more. It helps me reflect. I’m more comfortable with silence. There’s something about being in the presence of weathered life that helps me weather my own storms. Ralph Waldo Emerson—who also lost a child—once wrote that “the world is emblematic,” that “nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”
Whatever inspiration Emerson found outdoors, he found it in the shadow of loss. It’s a human instinct to search for life after loss. Whether the grieving heart finds inspiration in the nature of community or in community with nature, there is life after loss. I doubt (and honestly don’t desire) my legacy to be anything like Emerson’s, though I am writing and spending more time in nature these days. In all of it, from the distant stars to my own backyard, Lizzie is there.
In this season, I’ve come to resist the phrase I hear often from well-meaning individuals to “just keep moving forward.” Instead, I try to “just keep moving.” To me, moving forward suggests movement away from something behind you. In other words, putting distance between you and the past. It also seems to imply that if you’re not moving forward then you’re moving backward. But Lizzie is neither “behind” me nor is she distant. She is with me, around me and ahead of me, every day and all the time. Anybody who has ever known grief knows that healing is hardly a straight line. There are peaks and valleys. While the climb is slower and more challenging this time, that’s something I accept and embrace.
I look at what I’m going through as somewhat analogous to when I used to be a professional glass artist. You start with a piece of hot, molten glass. It’s a formless blob, unshaped. Then, with more gathers of glass, more time, more skill, more pressure, even more heat, something beautiful begins taking shape. Something still fragile, but something gradually stronger.
As the Scriptures say, joy “cometh in the morning.” Or, as Dr. Brené Brown puts it, joy “comes to us in the ordinary moments.” Both are true, and I’m also coming to appreciate my own ability to manufacture cheer. Grief sucks the energy out of you, and it takes energy to choose hope. It’s an assertive, actionable effort. But cheer, joy, and hope produce an energy unto themselves. I can’t control longing for my daughter or the grief of missing her, but I can create cheer.
Living in the space of my daughter’s absence, the little things aren’t so little. Our habits, our choices—these are things that are small in the here-and-now but are big in the grand scheme. Since Lizzie died, I do a random act of kindness for someone every day. Negative thoughts can insidiously creep in, but I choose to keep a positive attitude. I don’t drink, smoke, take drugs or even medication to dull the pain or distract me from it. Pain awakens us, sensitizes us, to honest emotions. I’ve met so many people who have developed addictions after tragedy, and it’s a tragedy that they do. Again, it boils down to the little things. My main goal these days is to live the life that Lizzie would want to see me living. The values in what I like to call my “personal constitution” drive everything I do. My wife and I pray more. We care deeper. We let people in on our feelings. The Lizzie-sized hole in our hearts will never be filled but we have hope. There are more and more days filled with love and laughter. More and more days filled with fewer and fewer tears. Days that feel almost normal.