Saturday, May 30, 2009

Grief, Anger, Denial

This is the final guest blog in this series.

by Mel Menzies
There is a tendency to assume that, following a bereavement, grief must adhere to a certain pattern to be real. But this is not true. The process of mourning, following the loss of a loved one, is different for everyone, and looking for a set response from someone is a dangerous expectation. My reactions, when I lost my adult daughter, may be quite different to yours in a similar situation.And yours, in turn, may be opposite to someone close to you. It is important to grasp this concept, especially between parents who have lost a child, where the death, and emotions that follow, may differ quite drastically. At a time when each needs the support and understanding of the other, it could be quite damaging if one believes the other to be unaffected simply because their way of coping is not the same.

Numbness, and a denial of death, is a perfectly normal initial response. This is the body's defence mechanism kicking in, to ensure that the ill-effects of trauma are minimised before they become overwhelming. Gradually, various emotions, including grief and guilt, will then begin to seep into consciousness over a period of time.However, there are aspects of grief which many mourners experience in common with others, though not necessarily in the same order. Chief among them are:
Denial and Disbelief
Guilt and Regret
Anger and Depression
Pain and Sadness

To begin with, you may find yourself quite unable to accept the situation. Denial of death is commonplace. You expect the person you've loved and lost to come through the door at any moment. You may catch yourself laying a place at the table, and experience a sense of unreality when you realise the futility of your action. You imagine that you hear their voice, lift your head to see them, and are surprised to find no one there.

This pattern of death and denial is a normal reaction. When people said nice things to me about my daughter, following her death, I found myself thinking, quite rationally, that I'd be able to share them with her; that it would be an encouragement to her to know how positively she was viewed by others.

You may have regrets following a bereavement; a sense of 'if only'. If only you had done this. Not done that. If only the deceased had taken more care of himself. If only she'd heeded your advice. Some of these regrets may be completely irrational. Others will be genuine misgivings. Either way, you have, at some point, to come to terms with them. Talking to a friend or counsellor, or sharing with others on a bereavement support group may help.

Guilt, too, may rise to the surface, with or without foundation. Instead of 'if only' this emotion is dogged by 'shoulds' and 'oughts'. You chastise yourself for your 'thoughtlessness', real or imagined, your 'selfishness', your 'indifference'. If you've had a row shortly before a sudden death, you are more than likely to whip yourself with shame and self-reproach. You find yourself going over every detail, every word, every action.

Guilt may also arise as a result of relief. When death has occurred at the end of a long illness or disability, the grieving process, in terms of the emotions experienced, may be similar to that of sudden death, but there will be differences. The main distinction is that mourning is done - for the most part - prior to death. If the patient's suffering has been acute - as is the case with many cancer patients - then death may, actually, come as a relief. The same is true when the life of a loved one has become meaningless to them and an unmitigated burden on the carer - as with those suffering either mental or physical impairment such as dementia or motor neuron disease. In either case, a sense of relief may be mingled with guilt. Guilt over the fact that you are glad to be relieved of the burden. Or guilt that you still have life when your loved no longer does.

I was fortunate enough to experience neither anger nor depression when my daughter died. Research carried out by the Royal Free and University College Medical School in London found that those with a spiritual belief fared better in coping with bereavement than those without. When you have faith to trust that you will see your loved one again, there is little or no experience of anger or depression.

But for many people anger and death do go hand in hand. Blaming the deceased, though irrational, is a natural tendency. So, too, is the lethargy which may follow. Combined with a state of deep sorrow and sadness and a desire to withdraw socially, this may easily lead to depression. Disturbing dreams may add to feelings of despair and helplessness. And fear of a future alone may intensify those feelings.

A sense of physical pain and overwhelming sadness is a normal part of grief. When we experience loss, we naturally curve into ourselves as if we're suffering the acute stage of a belly-ache. We wrap our arms around ourselves; hug ourselves; rock too and fro. Lying down and curling into a ball - a foetal position - we adopt a childlike helplessness, and behave as if grief were an illness. Because that's how it feels!

Let no one minimise the depth of feeling experienced by some people. But these intense experiences will pass. And eventually you will experience an acceptance of death which, though you may never entirely be rid of the pain, will bring you peace of a sort. This can't be rushed; it must be at your pace; your time. Be kind to yourself. But allow yourself, also, to look to a future that offers you hope.

© Mel Menzies, February, 2009Mel's latest book, A Painful Post Mortem, tells the story of a mother dealing with the loss of her daughter. Inspired by her own loss, it is a moving tale with an uplifting conclusion. BUY MEL'S BOOKS at ALL PROCEEDS ARE FOR CHARITY

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Losing Child, One of Life's Tragedies

The second in a three part series of guest blogs. Enjoy.

by Maurice Turmel

Losing a child is one of life's biggest tragedies. All that promise, all those hopes, all those possibilities for a bright and successful future disappear in an instant. Whether you've lost a young child or a young adult child, the feeling of loss cuts deep. We are simply not programmed to deal with the death of a child. We accept the loss of parents and grandparents as inevitable. But losing a child, that's never something we expect to deal with.

We bring children into the world with great hopes for their future. We imbue them with all kinds of possibilities, like education, marriage and career success. We look forward to these events as a series of experiences we will celebrate and enjoy. Never are we prepared to have our child taken away by some brutal accident, war, murder or suicide. None of these enter our mind until something tragic actually happens.

When confronted with this type of loss, we are shaken to our very core. The experience of losing a child unnerves us. All of a sudden the world we thought we knew is no longer safe. Our remaining children are not safe. We collapse into a puddle of nerves and tears.

What does it take to get over losing a child? A lot of investigation into our own nature and behavior seems to come up right away. Why did this happen? What could I have done differently? How did I fail? Should I have said No when asked for the car keys on that fateful night? The questions, guilt and remorse come at us fast and furious.

I am the father of two daughters. Thankfully, I've never lost a child in the manner described above. During my practice years I helped a lot of parents come to terms with such a loss. Oftentimes I cried with them. I could feel their despair and anguish. Car accidents, suicide, murder, disease and freak occurrences were all part of the mix.

One boxing day, in the late 90s, my wife and I witnessed a 14 year old boy being run down by a car. He was killed instantly. We were shaken. We were scared. Our thoughts immediately ran to our own daughters. Where were they? Were they safe? And so on. We stayed at the scene and provided statements to the investigating police. We remained badly shaken. We just couldn't believe what our eyes had shown us. We actually saw a young life snuffed out in an instant. At one moment we saw this boy crossing the street, heading for a bus stop. Seconds later he was lying on the ground in a crumpled lifeless heap. His life had been taken away by a series of freakish circumstances.

One year later my wife and I were in court testifying as to what we had witnessed. We learned that the victim was an Iranian boy whose family had come to North America to escape the tyrannical rule of their home country. His parents and extended family exhibited all the signs of a recent trauma. They were still locked in their grief as if the incident had just happened. The woman driver, responsible for the accident, was being prosecuted for dangerous driving. She was a virtual mess and was heavily medicated. Every time someone testified as to her behavior and the boy's death, she noticeably flinched. The boy's family wanted answers, and perhaps some retribution. There were no winners here.

On another occasion I was asked to address a meeting of "Compassionate Friends", a support group fro grieving parents. As each member of the group recounted their story I began to see the range of experiences which had brought them all together. Their children had died by the variety of circumstances listed above, including suicide, the most difficult of all. These parents were at different stages in their grieving process. Some were almost healed, while others were still stuck back in the moment they first heard the news. It was sad to watch because I knew that with some prodding, encouragement and support they all could be much further along.

I did what I could in addressing their loss. And I urged them to engage in a proper recovery program. Support groups are just that, they offer support but no direction. These parents were simply recycling their pain and not moving forward with their recovery. A few of them came to see me afterward and we put them through our recovery program. Everyone that took this path recovered.

In the end it doesn't matter what took your child from you; the grieving and healing process you must undergo remains the same. Dealing with feelings through therapy, group work and guided journaling are the tools and practices necessary for recovery. I successfully used this approach for all my grieving clients. Everyone who pursued this program completed their recovery and got on with their lives.

Lately I've met people who are still stuck in their grieving experience. Their child may have died years ago but, for them, it may as well have been yesterday. They have not gained an inch. There is no substitute for working through your grief if you truly want to heal. Some people simply refuse to move forward, hanging on to their grief as if they were hanging on to their child. They don't accept that they can actually heal and hold on to that precious child in a loving and expansive way rather than continue with their suffering.

You have to choose healing in order to recover from grieving a child You have to commit to your own recovery just like any other person who is stuck in some disabling condition. Imagine for a moment you are the deceased child looking down at your parents and siblings. What would you want for them? Healing or Suffering? And those wonderful memories you had of each other before the tragedy, where do they go if you choose suffering? When you die, do you want your loved ones to remain in a state of perpetual grief? Likely not! Good then, you know what you have to do.

Maurice Turmel holds a PhD in Counseling Psychology. He was a practicing therapist for 25 years providing counseling and therapy to individuals, groups, organizations and families. He is the author of "The Voice - A Metaphor for Personal Development"; "Mythical Times - Exploring Life, Love & Purpose"; and "How to Cope with Grief and Loss - Support, Guidance and Direction for Your Healing Journey". He has been a guest on numerous regional television and radio talk shows and hosts his own Teleseminar Series on Instant

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Noticing and Grieving Go Together

My next three blogs for three weeks will be guest blogs. I hope you enjoy them.

by Chris Mulligan

Learning to “notice” during my first year of grief was more important than anything else in helping me survive my grief. It also provided me a major life lesson. I realized that noticing was the vehicle through which I have come to accept my life experiences as well as be able to move through them and learn from them.

All the major events in my life — those that caused the most pain and eventually precipitated the most growth — have also caused me to reflect upon and recognize that the suffering was present for a reason. I always believed that “everything happens for a reason” and “there are no accidents in life” but these events, these traumas that caused my world to shatter were ultimately the vehicles for my spiritual growth.

I learned to notice during my first year of grief after the Oct. 1, 2000, death of my son Zac. At first, I was unable to notice anything, as I had to move past my denial (of my loss) to be able to even acknowledge that something else in my life was important. I needed to be able to see beyond my pain. Therefore, the first step was to identify that something else (beyond my pain and grief) was still) important in my life. This was the primary goal. Claiming and then accepting that something else into my life were my second and third steps. If I had not learned to claim and accept, I would not be where I am today in the acceptance of my life.

How did I do it? How did I notice, claim and accept? How did Zac’s death demonstrate a major life lesson in my life? I first had to have a historical framework from which to evolve. In the first few months of my grief, I was not able to see beyond the excruciating pain, my depression, my frustration and the view that my life would forever be this abyss of negative being. Time allowed me to crawl up to the top of my pit and gaze beneath into my despair. With eyes that had adjusted to more light, I was able to open to another view of my life.

Finally, I was aware of other persons, places and things in my world. With a wider focus on other stimuli in my environment, I was able to recognize that I had a grief history. With this timeline of pain laid out, I could see and feel changes in me that were not possible in my earlier grief. Slowly I shifted from an egocentric world to an expanded realm beyond my pain. Noticing became a new life focus. I was no longer in constant pain, I could venture out of my inner uncomfortableness, and I allowed outer stimulation to enter my reality.

Observing what was occurring in my world was the first step in my changing through acceptance. The slow process of claiming was necessary in order to reach an acceptance of my life situation. My brain knew my son was dead but now, what did that mean in my life?Yes, I would never see him again. However, how was I to live in this world without him?

Claiming my new life involved much repetition. Zac’s insistence to notice the cows, notice the changing landscape and notice the everyday occurrences in my life solidified my desire to feel, act and be different. I did not want to feel devastated, hopeless, helpless and sad all the rest of my life. I knew I could not live my life like that for long. I had to decide to live differently. I had to decide how to live without him. I consciously chose to accept that he was gone but I gave myself permission to grieve, to have my moments of sadness.

However, I had to move from my despair. Once I claimed that decision, I was actually able to move on and through the many steps of acceptance. Of course, acceptance was not a single event. I have continued addressing this issue for the eight years since his death. It has been a part of my daily life.

Not only have I dealt with the acceptance of Zac’s death on a daily basis but also I have come to realize that I face acceptance in some form or another every day. Unhappiness with the work environment, disagreeing with political decisions, changes in television schedules, opinions concerning environmental issues, taking responsibility for one’s own life choices when facing the consequences, as well as death — all of these call for acceptance.

I learned that I only have control over my life and my choices. Nothing happens in God’s world by mistake. Everything in this world is exactly as it should be. Although we would all like to have our old (pre-grieving) life back, we have to recognize that each of us entered this life with our own purpose and our own goals. I know now that I can only change the way I view my life and myself. Zac will continue to live in a place where I cannot hug him; my mother will soon succumb to her struggle with Alzheimer’s; but I will continue to accept what is and learn from my life experiences. I have learned much about life and living from Zac’s death. With Zac’s help, I have learned to “live what is.”

Chris Mulligan received her BS in Psychology and MS in Clinical, Child, Youth, and Family Work from Western Oregon University. Chris can be reached at, or through her website,

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day Cherishes Memories

For a mother who has lost a child, it is undoubtedly one of the worst days of the year. Your child is no longer here to celebrate with you. While most celebrate the joys of parenthood, grieving parents often feel a special anguish. In particular, the mother who has lost her only child may believe she is no longer a mother since her only child has died. Because your child died does not take away that title from you. Rest assured that although your child may not be here on earth with you, you will always be a mother and you should celebrate this holiday as you would if your child were alive.

I recently read a brief history of Mother’s Day as well as getting information on the two women who created it, Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis. Here is some background information.

Julia Ward Howe, writer of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, was the first to conceptualize the first North American Mother’s Day in the late 1800’s. Julia was distraught by the death of so many sons of so many mothers during the War, she called for a mother’s day celebrating peace and motherhood. This lasted approximately 10 years.

It planted the seed for Anna Jarvis to establish the first official Mother’s Day celebration in 1908. Anna never married or had children of her own. She devoted herself to establishing a national Mother’s Day as a way of honoring her beloved mother who died during that time. In Anna’s view, her mother deserved a memorial because she had lived selflessly and endured considerable suffering…seven of her eleven children had died in early childhood. According to historians, Anna’s mother mourned the deaths of her children throughout her life.

Anna insisted that the holiday always fall on a Sunday so that it would retain its spiritual moorings. Because of her efforts, President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 finally proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. Although Anna couldn’t prevent the new holiday from quickly becoming a marketing phenomenon, she did try. Speaking out against the mire of commercialization that threatened to engulf Mother’s Day, Anna attempted to preserve her creation as a true holy day, a time for solemn reflection and prayer. She was arrested and landed in jail at times. As with most holidays during the year: Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving, sometimes we forget the true meaning behind them and Anna didn’t want that to happen. When she died 40 countries were celebrating Mother’s Day and now it has spread throughout the world, albeit very commercialized.

Mother’s Day was borne of a daughter’s grief and love. More importantly, it was intended as a tribute to a bereaved mother…a brave woman who lost multiple children, but who managed to live with an abiding kindness and generosity toward others. There are many women today who continue to have meaningful lives in the face of unthinkable loss.

Mother’s Day symbolizes both the joy and the vulnerability inherent in parenthood. From the moment a child is born, hope and the possibility of tragedy go hand in hand. Anna’s mother understood the fragility of life.

For Anna, Mother’s Day was a time for quiet reflection and the sharing of cherished memories. I believe that is what the day means to all bereaved parents. Happy Mother’s Day to all.

In your gathering of memories,
invite your courage
to remember


Sunday, May 3, 2009

What To Do To Help Bereaved Parents

There are many things that can be done to help bereaved parents cope. You may have a friend who is just starting out on his or her grief journey, and it is hard enough for them to just get out of bed in the morning. They don’t need any platitudes from you (see last blog). They need comfort; they need you to see that they make it through the day. With your help, they will. Here are some of the things you can do for them.

**Send a sympathy card or note to the parents, saying how sorry you are and including a happy anecdote you remember about the child. Remembering good times is what you want to stress with these parents.

**If in the same town as the parents, go over to their home and give the parents big hugs. Say nothing or just say, “I’m sorry.” There is nothing more soothing or meaningful to a bereaved parent when they don’t have to explain anything and know you understand what they are going through.

**Cry with the bereaved parent. Parents may have trouble letting go, so you can show them others feel as they do and want to relieve a buildup of emotions.

**Offer to help them with daily tasks when visiting. They may need you to shop for them or go to the cleaners or pick up their other children from school.

**Take the parents to lunch. Getting them out of the house into a different environment is healthy.

**Let the parents talk if they want to. Most parents don’t want their child to be forgotten and talking about them relieves that fear. Acknowledge the child yourself by remembering an event or moment you were involved in with the child or you have heard the parents speak of before
**Attend the child’s memorial service or encourage the parents to have one for the child. A service will allow friends and family to also speak of the child and relive good times.

**Respect a parent’s grieving time. For some bereaved parents a few months, a year or even longer is needed to reconnect with the world. Give them that time, but be there for them no matter how long it takes.

**Accept that the parents are different. When such a tragedy happens, it changes us. We become different people with different priorities and goals. What was once important to us may no longer have any meaning.

**Make sure the parents take care of themselves physically. See that they get exercise. Have them join you on a walk; invite them out to eat a good meal; encourage them to try to get enough sleep and stay healthy.

**Try to remember the child’s birthday with a call or card. The parents will never forget, and it will show the them their child was important to others also.

**Encourage the parents to seek a support group to help them get through this if you think they would be receptive to such an idea.

**When you feel enough time has passed, try to get the parents to start a scholarship in the child’s name, plant a tree at his/her school or give to charity in his/her name. Building memorials for the child will help others remember them also.