by Mitch Carmody
a chronological view of the bereavement process from the perspective of a bereaved parent
If you want to go the extremes of grief to try and understand the complexities of the bereavement process one should study the bereaved parent. No other loss is more devastating than the death and physical loss of a child. No other loss leaves your heart as deeply and mortally wounded for life. No other loss is more difficult to accept. Even among bereaved parents there is a plethora of differences that set individual grief journeys apart and in how each bereaved parent processes the loss of a child. However, we are all forced to accept the unacceptable: the physical loss of our child forever.
We have all heard of the five stages of grief that have been accepted and used worldwide for the most part without question: Shock, Anger, Denial, Bargaining and Acceptance. For the person dying, for parents living the nightmare of watching their child die, or the parents hearing of the news of their child’s tragic death these stages may aptly apply in the initial response to the death or imminent death. But with the ensuing months and years that follow I feel the stages do not adequately represent the true reality of the bereavement process following the death of a child.
In accepting that initial reality of their sudden death or imminent demise, the stages are a natural progression of emotions to that loss. But for the bereaved parent in the early months and subsequent years following the loss of a child there is no linear progression of stages of grief that is a ‘one-size fits all’. We find that the societies’ accepted stages of grief do not fit our life as we have come to know it.
If there are true stages in our long term bereavement process, there are only two: shock, and the road to acceptance. Everything else falls in between. Both denial and bargaining are insults to our intelligence, of course we know our child is dead, we buried them. We cannot strike a bargain with God or anyone that can change that fact. We may continue to experience denial the first moment in the morning when we open our eyes and realize it was not a dream, but we are not in clinical denial; we just don’t want to believe it’s true that our child could be dead.
Depression and anger are very real emotions that we will experience, but they are not stages, they are tools of survival and a condition of our new normal. Depression brings us to emotional pain levels that we need to experience as we continue to process the enormity of our loss and also serves to protect us from the assaults of the outside world. Anger channeled constructively can be a powerful force for positive change and be a healing process in and of itself. Anger turned inward or manifested in a negative way is concurrent to healing and can only cause more pain.
Bereaved parents trying to fit themselves into the accepted stages of grief find themselves frustrated if they have not gone ‘through’ the stages as outlined. Very vulnerable, the new bereaved parent–still somewhat in shock—will begin processing the loss of a child as the mores of society dictate. Following three days of bereavement leave from work, its back to your job and start getting on with your life. For surely in a few months you will be over your loss and will quietly blend back into the workplace, as hoped for and expected by most. At first you will be greeted with embarrassed looks by co-workers who almost hurt themselves by either making an unanticipated hallway dodge, or an abrupt u-turn. Others become ad-hoc bulletin board readers or mutterers hiding behind magazines. Those skillful with avoiding eye contact will utilize their skill, while the less creative will employ urgent rest room needs. These and other methods are all ruses to avoid the uncomfortable contact with the bereaved parent.
People practice avoidance to avoid bringing up the subject of your loss which they feel will be sure to acerbate your pain. They also have their own concerns that they might be put into a position to have to say something profound and/or healing when they know there is nothing that can be said or done to take away your pain. From time to time, we ourselves play the artful dodger role when we do not want “to go there”. Sometimes the actions we see in others are reflections of our own projection.
I remember one time seeing a person coming towards me down the hallway at work one morning a few months after my son had died. The young man rounded a corner whistling and glancing cheerfully at the headlines of his morning paper, unaware of his overfull coffee mug leaving a trail behind him. Then I notice that he catches site of me in his peripheral vision and he scrunches further into the pages of his paper. He suddenly became more engrossed in the paper as we neared each other in the narrow corridor. I was feeling down with transitional edginess from a few real bad days and did not want to hear any morning weather reports or exchange cheerful drivel, so I dodged to the right just as we neared each other, he then dodged to the same direction, we both reversed several times and at the same moment we both spoke and said, “Care to dance?”
We each laughed loudly in a very natural way and automatically hugged one another without compunction. He whispered in my ear with the compassion of a Mom tending her sick child, “How are you doing, man?” I pulled back from our brief embrace and looked him straight in the eye and responded that up to this moment I was having a very bad day. “Thanks for the dance”. We both laughed as we walked away my heart lighter, his heart brighter. Sometimes we avoid contact with others just as they seemingly do with us. Just under the surface our racing emotions are left unseen and unexpressed. In a spontaneous or forced contact situation with another, our emotions can be released like the welcome eruption of a festering boil. Although it hurts briefly, we sigh with relief that the dam has finally burst.
The first year back to work is a difficult challenge for the bereaved parent, but remember you are still an infant in your new normal, barely a few weeks old. We get lost in a forever wandering mind of our own internal dialogues. We have no attention span for the language of the real world and depend on Post It notes to remember everything. We trip more; spill things more, lose things, and get lost on a simple errand. We develop techniques to get things done, but the color is gone from our life. Those around us appear to be living in full Technicolor while we are relegated to dull, flat, still and dark monotones of the person we once were; we are changed forever.
The loss of a child is terminal bereavement. We start all over again and try to figure this our ‘new normal’. It is a new beginning in all sense of the word and our clocks are reset. We construct new concepts, new ways of looking at life…not from the passage of time but from an amalgamation of events and experiences. In the depths of early grief time seems to stand still, so it is with an infant; time has no meaning, all that matters is that we be comforted. As an infant grows to childhood, time will appear to accelerate just as it will for us and we shall cry less often, get up and walk all by ourselves and become curious about the world around us.
In essence I believe we are born again into a new life that starts the moment our child dies and ends the day we die. We start marking time just as a new born baby does, day by day, year by year in a slow progression of discovery of the person left behind. A slow metamorphosis of the psyche, like the Phoenix we rise from the ashes of our despair and become our new found destiny as surely as the maturing baby keeps trying to walk. We need to go through that progression of life developments and stages of growth that a child goes through in becoming an adult; we need to learn to crawl before we can walk. We need to grieve naturally, not stages of grief but stages of life development that takes years–not months– to progress through.
In support of this theory I offer parallels to similar behaviors as drawn by the famous behaviorist and psychiatrist Erik Erickson in 1956 and his 8 stages of social –emotional development of a child from infant to adult. These stages of development are accepted world wide and used in most institutions of higher learning.
According to Erickson, the socialization process consists of eight phases- the eight stages of man. Each stage is regarded by Erikson as a “psychosocial crisis” which arises and demands resolution before the next stage can be satisfactorily negotiated. Stages that build on each other, each previous stage supporting the next and so on in a structural sense that demands each stage be achieved before moving on to the next. It is I who postulate their relevance and key to understanding the long term grief process that a bereaved parent is suffered to endure. I believe we are vulnerable and needy as a new born child and we grow into our new normal just as a child takes his first steps.
The world you knew is gone; time stops, your brain is in code blue and reality as you know it fades from conscious thought; you are propelled into a world of disbelief. Taken from a world that you knew and understood, a world of warmth and security, you find yourself head first in a cold painful world of the unknown. It’s hard to see, you are shaking, insecure and frightened of what’s ahead. Tears flow from your eyes, you feel cold and lost and just want someone to hold you and tell you it’s just a dream.
Am I describing a baby just being born into this world, or a parent just hearing the news of or witnessing the death of their child? It could be both since both describe being thrust into the unknown and faced with the continuing challenges of survival.
Life without our child; our new normal, our new life. Just as a newborn baby needs to adjust to a new environment, so do we. Just as an infant does that first year we shall cry a lot, sometimes way into the night, sleep for a few hours, only to wake up frightened, cry and then sleep some more. You will find people taking care of your simplest needs for you and without compunction, you offer no resistance. As if in a daze you allow others into your close personal space, finding it feels good to be cared for. You will have accidents, you will be unsure of yourself, you will be scared to venture out, be hesitant with strangers, and testy when you’re tired. And… you’re always tired. You will want to explain what hurts and find you have no words that can express your thoughts. Food will be tasteless and you will eat in a perfunctory fashion, yet coupled with an unabated thirst that cannot be slaked; the scratch that cannot be itched. So we find pacifiers to slake the unquenchable, indefinable thirst that gnaws at our being. Again does this describe an infant or a bereaved parent functioning at the base primal level of 1st year survival?
Continued with part two HERE
About the Author: Mitch lost his father to heart disease when he was 15 years old and his mother died of lung cancer in 2000. At 21 he lost his older brother from progressive degenerative cerebral palsy. At age 29 his twin sister and her two young sons were killed in an automobile accident. Less than a year later his son Kelly was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor and ultimately died in 1987. Since then, Mitch has dedicated his life to serving the bereaved in any way.
Mitch is the author of Letters To My Son, a journey through grief and the newly released 2nd edition Turning Loss to Legacy. Mitch is currently a staff writer with Living with Loss Magazine and has published many articles for a variety of national grief periodicals, newsletters, and internet sites as well as appearing in many radio and television interviews. He is an accomplished artist and creator of the innovative 20 Faces of Grief, which uses his own incredible creations in pencil of the many components of the grief journey. His ground breaking S.T.A.I.R.S model of grief staging has essentially replaced the Kubler Ross stages of grief with a more realistic modality of the bereavement process. Mitch is also the prognosticator of Proactive Grieving, which he believes is a paradigm shift in grief recovery and frequently addresses this in his keynote presentations.
He is well known for his enduring workshop “Whispers of Love, Signs from our Children” which has been a favorite conference presentation for over 5 years and is usually standing room only. He also performs interpretive sign language to many songs that he calls ”Songs of Sorrow” and weaves them in throughout most of his presentations as well as a workshop titled by the same name.
He and Alan Petersen also collaborate on a full day workshop for all types of loss called “A Day with Mitch and Alan” a day filled with music, mirth and healing for all who attend.
Mitch’ main message is that we CAN survive and even thrive after a significant loss in our lives. He wants to not only help the bereaved, but help to educate society on how best to treat the newly bereaved.