by Mitch Carmody
Read part one of Mitch’s message HERE
A chronological view of the bereavement process from the perspective of a bereaved parent based on the Erik Erikson’s Developmental Stages.
Stage One: Learning Basic Trust Versus Basic Mistrust (hope).
The first year
The world, God, Kismet or the fates of life, have stolen our child from our arms, caused them pain and continues to assault us with more pain and deprivation. How do we ever trust again? Baby steps; we learn all over again. We will try to stand and fall, we will try to walk and stumble, we shall try to explain and cry in frustration, not finding the words that anyone can understand. We are dependant on others for our own survival; we reach out for anyone to pick us up and pat us on the back and make it all right. We want to be comforted on our own terms until we can understand this new world we are forced to accept. Sometimes this comfort comes from perfect strangers
If we are well handled and cared for, we shall develop optimism, a sense of hope and we grieve naturally. If the grieving is delayed, so will the first step towards optimism and the whole bereavement process will be chronologically delayed. Sometimes without help, a bereaved parent can be stuck forever, never finding hope, never building on that next stage of development that we must also go through. That is just the first year following the loss of a child. At the risk of being glib, we then head into the “terrible twos”, our second year of grieving that is more often worse than the first.
Stage Two: Learning Autonomy versus Shame (Will)
Two year to four years
Every morning when you open your eyes you get a mini-jolt that your child’s death was not a dream. On the second year of healing every day’s calendar memory reminds us a year ago on this day our child was dead. Today is real and with it comes another full day of painful memories just waiting to rip your heart apart. The world thinks you are on the mend while you are just beginning to understand its going to take a long time; a very long time. The second year calendar days mark time with memories of the sting of their death and the ensuing life change that followed. It is like starting all over again but without the numbness, and for the most part, the world now expects that you should be over it.
The terrible twos, the second year of healing, when anger, frustration, apathy, anxiety and depression play tag team for control. The loss begins to become real, and separation anxiety kicks into high gear. Extreme concentration becomes necessary in order to accomplish almost any task, and every task seems to deplete you physically. You will have accidents, loose things, and forget appointments, trip, stumble and fall.
You want to feel better, be able to talk normal, care about things again, but yet it’s hard to leave behind that initial, albeit painful but protective cocoon of grief that has protected you for so long. A butterfly cannot turn back into a caterpillar no matter how hard he tries and may be fearful of breaking free of its cocoon. Just as a baby longs for independence, it still clings to and longs for the security and comfort of bottle, crib and someone who cares. We struggle with many mixed emotions during our second year of healing.
We can fly into a rage at a moments notice, cry uncontrollably out of the blue, say NO to everything, don’t eat what is on our plate, we want our nap, we scream out, “Its not Fair”, we pout, we are difficult to be around, we sometimes run around like a chicken with its head cut off and we fall into an exhausted pile and sleep. Begging to be left alone one minute, and then begging for hugs the next. Are these symptoms of our second year and third year of our bereavement process? Or a two-year old learning autonomy? Hard to tell one from the other isn’t it?
Stage Three: Learning Initiative Versus Guilt purpose)
Five to seven Years
We as bereaved parents entering our 5th of year of experiencing life without our child will usually feel we have hit a benchmark, a milestone in recovery from our devastating loss; yet still feel without purpose. If active steps have been taken to integrate our loss into our new life, by this time we are starting to broaden our experiences, reaching out to the world and see how we fit into it. We may go back to school, change careers, start a foundation, lead a recovery group, get involved, and dare I say make plans for the future. Imagine! We can have a life again.
As an inquisitive youth we are discovering the nature of our selves (our new normal) and naturally gravitate toward experiences that can bring interaction with the world. To hunger for knowledge, love, and pleasure, to experience growth and maybe even have fun again. To become involved with support groups, attend meetings, as a leader and/or contributing follower, all show a desire to invest in life again. At this point you may have discovered ways to help process your loss that helps to heal or support others in their pain or grief and found relief yourself in the process of the giving.
Not working on proactive ways to heal from your pain you may become stuck in unresolved anger or apathy and not want to move beyond a previous stage, staying dependant on others for your needs and avoiding interaction with the world that has hurt you so badly; picking up your softball, glove and your bat and slinking back home.
Stage Four: Industry Versus Inferiority (Competence)
Seven to twelve years
Seven to twelve years following the loss of your child you have more than likely have fully integrated back into the work place and the world in general. Your loss to most people is not known or forgotten about and is ancient history. At this point in our journey we may be even be playing catch up with the world that has moved on so quickly while we were absent from it. At this juncture of our bereavement process we are honing the new skills we have learned in our survival of the horrific loss we have to bear. Our social skills improving, once again we hunger for more of what life has to give, experience more love, more joy, to see more of the world. We are willing to take on tasks, become a team player once again and work hard to accomplish goals.
If on our grief journey we have not gone through an earlier developmental stage of our ‘new normal’ we may still be caught in a negative, guilt based position of being defeated and have no thoughts to the future. With most thoughts locked in the past we might be stuck in anger without resolve and used to living life feeling inferior, beaten, with no hope of redemption. Life sucks; I have no friends who understand; I am lonely. I am bitter. I am bogged down in the past and simply do not care!
Stage Five: Learning Identity Versus Identity Diffusion (fidelity)
Thirteen to twenty years
From thirteen years to twenty years in your bereavement process and if you have experienced every previous developmental stage of life progressions in your new normal, you may finally have come to terms with who you are now; the transmogrification of your post child- loss identity almost complete. You have integrated into your new normal and how the loss of your child has changed your life. You accept that change and build on it, even look for growth opportunities that are presented to you in your new life. You have the strength to take on causes and make positive changes. At the same time you may still have feelings of self-doubt and despair. You may still not want to move forward, frightened you may forget. This insecurity in moving forward may cause one to long for the security of the old days of early grief despite its’ extreme pain.
By this time in the process of your bereavement you may have allowed yourself to love again. You may have lost relationships with many friends, some even the closest of friends or relatives as well as other acquaintances lost through attrition. It may be by our choice that we have lost friends or by their choice. Sometimes, it is no-ones choice and bonds just dissolve; lost in the sheer battle to survive our loss. You may experience further loss from divorce in a marriage that could not survive the storm; you may have children in college, married or have simply moved away to experience their life; you could even have possibly suffered more personal loss by death.
Stage Six: Learning intimacy Versus Isolation (Love)
Twenty years and longer
By now in your journey you have learned to value more than ever the relationships that survived and the new ones that were created. New friends, more children and or grandchildren, new marriage, or a new job may already be an integral part of your life and you have felt joy again.
As bereaved parents at this point in our journey we may find our old selves and our new normal selves merging onto the same road. We integrate the wisdom of our former and present self together and we meet the challenges of the life as we now perceive it. This is where we truly get back on the sidewalk and walk neck and neck with the fortunate others with our head held high and meet life’s challenges on an equal and level playing field again…only we have an edge. No one can hurt us anymore than we have been hurt! We can take the risk to be ourselves fully, play no roles, and strive to make a difference where we can without remorse.
If you have not completed these stages in life progressively with or without experiencing a loss in your loss you may be stuck forever in one or another stage and may never find true joy or the meaning to your life. We always have a choice to make efforts to back up a stage or two and start over.
Stage Seven: Learning Generativity Versus Self-Absorption (Care)
In our new normal, the last two stages can give each of us an opportunity to experience phenomenal growth in areas of both creativity and productivity. After all, by this time a parent has not only survived the unnatural experience of the death of a child, but many parents have suffered untold challenges in many other areas of their lives as well and somehow have been able to move forward on the road to a fulfilling life. Some parents may become dependent on prescription medications or alcohol and have to fight their way back to normalcy and sobriety in the midst of their grief work. Having undergone a myriad of other losses in addition to the loss of a child and having survived huge life changes, the typical parent has by this stage become a pillar of strength. Although still pitied by many they have garnered much respect and awe as a survivor of the unthinkable.
At this stage of your ‘natural life’ merging with your ‘bereaved life’, if you have not already done so, you can take your “Mulligan” and start again. After all, you have survived the loss of your child and nothing else in life can be so hard. Grief has forced you to come in contact with your entire range of emotions, grief has taught you how to keep on working when you could not care if you starved and or became homeless; grief taught you how to respond to others around you in socially appropriate ways when you could have cared less; grief forced you to create new innovative ways to jump start your life again. Because of your journey you may have recognized for the first time the music that truly emanates from your heart and your feet long to dance to its tune.
Stage Eight: Integrity Vs Despair (Wisdom)
This last stage that Erickson outlined we reach or do not reach regardless of our grief journey. I feel every one of us goes through, or does not go through, all these stages of human development in the process of experiencing life on this planet. If we experience the first six stages of development fully and sequentially the last two stages will only enhance our lives and the lives of those around us and we will find ourselves making a difference in this world. This last stage is up to us, what we have learned on the journey and how we choose to use that knowledge.
When you experience the loss of a child your life is changed forever and in essence you start all over again in the developmental stages of life. Just as in your own birth experience and its developmental stages of life that you complete or do not complete are so unique, so it is with your bereavement experience for the loss of a child. Everyone’s journey is so different. What is the same although is the lifetime journey to find purpose in our lives. The loss of a child can cripple you forever if you let it. Life can cripple your life forever, if you let it. If we bury our life with our child’s body, then two lives are wasted, joy is non-existent and the world itself diminished.
Your personal journey of development in your new normal chronologically will be varied as we are. Delayed active grieving such as in the case of murder or a negligent accident may propel parents into many years of legal battles and painful memories that continue to bombard their psyche. In cases such as this, processing of grief may be delayed and the journey lengthened. Conversely active grief work, such as taking on a bereavement group leadership role, creating a foundation, volunteerism, all can accelerate the process and one may find that they are moving through the developmental stages more rapidly.
If we create a legacy in our child’s name with our life, we in essence start a new relationship with our child and in the process give them life. When we can continue to be a part of their life and recognize our continual part in it -joy will come into our heart once more. It may take a lifetime or a few years but joy will eventually return. When we feel joy again, our love is validated and the world is enriched.
If we have breath… there is reason to love.
If we have love… there is reason to live.
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.