by Ray and Penny Young
Parents of Matthew Young
May 4, 1975 – September 14, 1994
While each person/couple must determine what will work for them in their grief work, it sometimes helps to hear what others have done or are doing in this arduous journey. And it is always good to remember that people grieve differently. If it works for you—and no one else—that’s okay. The goal is to make the journey, survive, and learn to live and thrive again in the new normal. While it would be impossible to cover all the issues facing the now childless parents in this brief article, we would like to touch on a few that were discussed at the recent conference.
Am I still a parent? The problem here is that your parental role has been cruelly jerked out of your hands. There is nothing left to do for or with your child. Yet, your heart cannot accept this change. The good news is – it doesn’t have to because you are, of course, still a parent. You will always be a parent to your child. You simply do not have him/her physically present with you any longer. This will make you falter when others ask, “Do you have children?” We struggled with that question once upon a time ourselves. We have learned to answer, “Yes, our son now lives in heaven.” Or to simply say, “Yes, but none still living.”
How do I cope with this grief? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are mourners. Every person must find what works for him. While one’s faith might be hardily shaken following the loss of a child, many people have gleaned strength, comfort, and the courage to go on through their relationship with God. Their faith has actually grown after having walked through “the valley of the shadow of death.” Exercise and yoga have helped others to rid their bodies and minds of harmful chemicals related to grief emotions, increase the production of endorphins in their brain, and use time effectively in getting through each day. Music has been a balm to the hearts and minds of many. Listening to beautiful melodies and searching for significant lyrics to songs have helped to comfort and soothe many a broken heart. Books, too, can help us cope as they show us the experience of others who have endured similar pain. Reading about others who have lost a child helps us to not feel so alone and gives us hope that we, too, might survive the nightmare we face each day. Self-help books suggest strategies that can help us face our grief and work through it. Encouragement comes from these written words. Reinvestment in life—reaching out to help others—is a wonderful way for the grief-stricken to turn their grief into something positive. Helping others turns your focus outward, rather than inward, and brings with it a sense of accomplishment and purpose. A reason to get up each day is a wonderful coping mechanism. You will actually help yourself the most when you are helping others!
What about medication? This question was asked relates to prescribed drugs given for depression, insomnia, and other ailments of the bereaved. We have heard therapists say, “No, you should never take meds.” While others say, “Meds would really help you.” There are differences of opinion about the use of prescribed “coping” drugs, even among professionals. We feel the best answer to this question is one that must be found individually by each person together with the professionals (doctors, therapists) he/she works with. Situations and people are different. Therefore, each person must come to the answer himself.
How do I get through birthdays, DODs (dates of death), and holidays? We have found that the very best way to get through these days is to PLAN them. In fact, it really helps to over-plan them. Have so much going on during those days that you do not have time to ponder how awful they might be. In our experience, the “dreading” of the upcoming date is often worse than the day itself. We get up on these days with a definite plan of attack. We stay busy—often doing things our son loved to do, attempt to minister to others sometime during the day, and leave no time for sitting around thinking about our loss. We are proactive in making these days a time of “Matthew celebration” rather than a day of extended grief. Certainly, we still miss our son, feel his loss intensely, and shed tears along the way. But we apply our “grief work” strategies to these days so that we can learn to thrive even during the “most difficult days.” Today, there are many books available which give great suggestions on how to do special and meaningful on days such as these.
Do men and women grieve differently? We believe the answer to this is yes. At least our styles of grieving are different. The most helpful and loving thing we did for each other following Matthew’s death was to allow our spouse to grieve in whatever way was needed—even if it was different from what we needed individually. We did not take offense when one of us wanted to go to the cemetery and the other did not, when one of us cried and the other did not, when one of us wanted to talk and the other could not. The freedom we gave to each other strengthened our bond with one another as well as making our individual grief walks less encumbered. Other than Matthew, it is the greatest gift we’ve ever given one another.
What about the future? The job for all of us really is to build our new future. Our hurt, anger, frustration, hopelessness, depression, (you fill in the blank with more emotions) all complicate this. We really don’t want a new future. We want our child/children back with the continuation of our old future. Sadly, this is impossible. So what do we do? What worked for us was to first, depend on our foundation of faith and then, to begin looking for ways to serve others. For the first months/years it is certainly good to focus on our own needs and find ways to cope with our loss. But in time, we can find ourselves completely self-absorbed which gets old for us and for those who live with and around us. Once we begin to focus on others and their needs, we will in time find some equilibrium. Grief groups and conferences provide opportunities to learn about grief and to reach out to others who are hurting and suffering in ways similar to us. Such meetings spurred our transition into grief ministry. We began to share our experience. We learned to be good listeners for those who needed to talk about their grief issues. We participated in our local chapter of Compassionate Friends and attended every grief seminar and conference we could find. We let people in our community (local ministerial associations and mortuaries) know we were willing to reach out to the newly bereaved. They were glad to have us as a resource. We began to think of ourselves as first responders when there was the death of a child in the community. In many cases, the initial contact was also the last, but in others we began to meet regularly with some of the grieving parents. At a time when there was no active Compassionate Friends chapter in our area, we began a grief support group in our home that met monthly for several years. As our focus moved outward, we began to find a healing in our own hearts we previously thought impossible.
Who will care for me when I am old? The answer to this question is complicated and, again, individual. Perhaps, there are family members, nieces or nephews, who could be asked—in advance—to assume this responsibility. Securing long-term care health insurance could be one way of insuring adequate care when you are no longer able to care for yourself. Many churches have ministries to the elderly and will see to their needs until their death. Surely, there are other options as well. The important thing now is to plan for that time and get something or someone in place so that when you need care, there will be someone to provide it.
What do I do with my estate? The question of who is going to get the “stuff” can be complex for the now childless. Some of you will have no problem finding family who will take care of this. But for many in a culture with small families, you may not have anyone who can handle this for you. It is important that you have a will. One person at the conference explained her delight in bequeathing percentage (rather than dollar) amounts from her estate to go to special friends (who will be surprised!). We established a trust fund in our son’s name that gives scholarships and ministry grants. The bulk of our estate will go to this trust so that scholarships and projects that we feel Matthew would have continued to support had he lived will go on in his name. You might want to do something similar. If you are involved in a church, your denomination may have a board or foundation that writes and handles trusts. If not, you’ II need to find a lawyer in your area who has experience in establishing trusts. Such trusts can be reviewed and changed periodically, so you will want to review this every few years as your relationships and wishes may change over time. That has been the case for us.
Permission was given by Alive Alone to reprint this article.