Saturday, August 29, 2009

New Goals, New Priorities After the Death of a Child

This is the fifth and last in a series of five commonalities that exist among bereaved parents. In previous blogs I covered (1) leaving memorials, (2) finding a cause to move on, (3) everyone grieves differently and at different rates, and (4) they all have setbacks. The final commonality is that after the death of a child ,we change, we have different goals, different priorities, different friends and a new life.

My goals, which were once to make sure my daughter had a rich, full life, are no longer there. My reason for living, for doing what I did, are gone. As always, it took a while to decide what I now wanted to do with my life, and I can say I have found the answer for myself. It is to help other bereaved parents, and I do that through my book, my blog, and my speaking engagements at bereavement conferences and elsewhere, where I can share my story and teach others to learn to accept what we can become without our child.

My priorities have also changed. What was once important to us may no longer have any meaning. What others talk about, like the economy or global warming are insignificant to us during our grief journey. There is a powerlessness we feel over life after the loss of a child. It’s hard to believe how much energy it takes just to go on.

Grief rewrites your address book for you. I lost good friends when Marcy died. They didn’t want to be around me. They thought I had changed. Of course I had changed. How could I not change after what had happened! They also probably thought that what happened to me could happen to them; so they didn’t want to hear me speak of it. The truth was, as I have found out in recent years, that a few of them were scared, they didn't know what to say or do for me. The easiest thing was for them to fade into the background. They didn't realize what they were doing hurt more than anything they could have said. Only someone who has been through this circumstance can truly understand and help, and I couldn't expect those few (who have come back now) to understand what, at the time, was incomprehensibe to me also.

People are funny about death. Until the 1980’s it was a hush, hush topic. Death wasn’t spoken about in a home, especially if it was a child’s death. There were no books, no organizations to help bereaved parents. It was literally shoved under the bed. Thank goodness, by the 1990’s there was help out there in the form of books and newly formed grief organizations. There will always be those who still feel that way about death; they do not want to talk about it to you and "it didn't happen."

On the other hand, I discovered that people who were just acquaintances became better friends than those I thought were good friends. And I appreciated them for being empathetic to my situation and wanting to listen to what I had to say. I’m sure many of you have had the same situation. I now have new friends who talk about Marcy and allow me to do the same. I am comforted by the following saying, “A friend is one who knows you as you are…understands where you’ve been…accepts who you’ve become…and still gently invites you to grow.”

And finally, an apropos quote I invite you all to follow that I used in one of my speeches and needs no explanation: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” Go dance your heart out!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Having Setbacks During Grief Journey

This is the fourth in a series of five commonalities that exist among bereaved parents. The first three discussed in previous blogs included: wanting to leave memorials to honor the child, finding a cause to help move on, and going through a grief process on your own terms. The blog today discusses that everyone knows they will have setbacks and/or a rush of emotions that can be overwhelming, but that doesn't mean they won't heal.

We have heard people say to us, “Isn’t she over it yet? It’s been a year since her child died.” Yes, we have setbacks and probably always will when we hear our child’s name, go to an event that our child used to participate in, or hear a song they once loved. We freeze and our mind returns to a day, a month, a year earlier and how our life was then. This is natural and others shouldn’t look at it as though we are still where we were a year or so ago. And we shouldn’t look at it as though “we will never heal” from this. I think there is a difference between healing and just being able to move on. I almost don’t like the word “heal.” You never “heal” from the loss of a child. You continue to live and in doing so you accept what has happened and try to make the best of it.

A friend asked me to attend her son’s wedding about six months after Marcy died. I couldn’t go; I wanted to, but the memories were too fresh, and I knew I would cry during the ceremony and after. Another mother told me, “One time I was asked to go to a soccer league game with a friend. I went, but had to leave in the middle. The overwhelming sensation that every time I looked at a player, my son’s face intruded was just too much. It was over three years before I could attend another game comfortably.”

It has been fifteen years since Marcy died. This week I started looking through all the photo albums I've accumulated over my life. Each album brought back memories of my childhood, Marcy growing up, and what I've done since she died. It was both a joy and painful to go through those albums, but I did find periods of time I thought were lost forever. Now I know I will always have them in pictures and be able to look at them. I cried during the process, remembering all I had and all those I have lost over the years, including the most precious of them all, my only child. I know that I will always cry going through these photos and any items I have from her life. Am I regressing? Not at all. It is all part of life.

New friends say to me sometimes, “You are so strong. I could never live through what you have lived through. I would just die.” My answer to them is always, “What choice do we have when this happens to us? If we want to continue with our lives for our spouse, for our other children if we have them, or for ourselves, we will adjust to our present situation and deal with it. I have been able to do that as many others have. I don’t like it. I’d do anything to have my daughter back here with me, but that is not going to happen and I know it. So we move on, but we keep our child in our heart forever. They will always be with us in whatever we do, in wherever we go, and that is comforting to me.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Grieving Differently and At Different Rates

This is the third in a series of five commonalities that exist among bereaved parents. (see full list on Aug. 1 blog). The first two dealt with setting up memorials to honor your child and finding a cause or reason to move on with their lives. Today's blog discusses that everyone grieves differently and at different rates.

The first year, they say, is the worst. Some say it is the second year. Others say the third. No one is correct, because everyone has their own time limitations. If one is to follow the five stages of grief: shock, anger, withdrawal, healing and renewal, some can do them in one year, others may take five years. Don’t think that once you pass through a stage you are done with it. You can always go backwards before you go forward again. That is okay. It happens and it’s nothing to be ashamed of or surprised about. The most important thing to remember is that everyone is different and no one is expected to grieve in a prescribed way.

Husbands and wives grieve differently and to hold your marriage together the best thing to do is to communicate with each other and if other children are involved, communicate with them also. Talk about your child; remember the good times. Spouses should also talk about their fears. We become frighteningly insecure in grief and fear that everything we know and love will be swept away, even ourselves. Women tend to be more open with their feelings while men tend to hold everything back. Men believe they have to be the strong one in the family and so these bottled up feelings can come out in anger and at the wrong time, causing friction with the wife. If you think either of you need professional help, seek it, and don’t wait until things get very bad. Remember, each spouse had a different relationship with the child; therefore, each experiences a different loss. One may be up emotionally while the other is down, or one may pass through one phase faster than the other. Tempers are short and irritations flourish. Harsh things are said that aren’t meant. A spouse could wrongly conclude that he or she can’t depend on the partner for help in grieving.

To survive the heartaches of life, marriages must be built on trust. Nowhere is this more important than when we are plunged into the despair of parental grief.

When my daughter died I was no longer married to my daughter's father, so did not have that connection that many do. My husband at the time was Marcy's stepdad. And although we cried, talked and laughed about a Marcy story, in my heart I knew it was not the same loss for him as it was for me. He knew that, understood and even said so outloud.

I would say that for me the hardest year was the third year. I think it is because you realize by then your child is really gone and you’ll never see them again. Before then, they were just around the corner or they were away and would return. By that third year, it has become reality. Again, it is different for many people, but those who are just starting out, your path will be long and hard, but know that however long it takes, you WILL get through it.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Having a Reason To Move On With Your Life

This is the second in a series of commonalities that exist among bereaved parents. (see the full list on my last blog on Aug. 1). The first one discussed was that parents want to leave memorials of some type to honor their child.

In this blog the second commonality to discuss is choosing to find a cause, a reason to move on with your life.

Parents may become very active in different organizations. These include: Compassionate Friends, Bereaved Parents USA or Alive Alone for childless parents. Not only do they join these organizations to help themselves, but in time, they start helping others who are just beginning the journey. Others who want to become even more involved get on the boards and help in any way they can to keep the organization vibrant for those who follow. Organizations such as Parents of Murdered Children or the survivors of suicide victims have volunteers who help man the phones. By becoming involved you are not only helping the organization, you are helping yourself to grow and move on. For a list of many organizations, see the Resource section of my book.

One mother whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver became active in MADD where she can not only help others to become responsible drivers but also talk about her daughter and tell these people how much her daughter meant to her. Another mother whose daughter was also killed in a car accident now speaks to a Victims Impact Panel in the city where she lives, where part of the criminal’s retribution is to listen to parent’s stories and understand the loss. Becoming this involved helps some parents deal with their loss.

A father who lost three children has started his own Compassionate Friends chapter in his hometown and finds a new purpose to his life. New groups start all the time in a variety of cities dealing with infant loss, SIDS, still births, cancer and other causes of death. All of these have a purpose: to help yourself so you can, in turn, help others. When you are thinking of others and not only your own situation, you are moving forward.

Having a cause, a purpose in life, can be very rewarding. You will know when it is right for you and when everything will fall in place. Until then, keep working on what you want to do with the rest of your life, try to set a goal and aim to reach the sky.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Leaving Memorials

Commonalities exist among bereaved parents. When I was doing research for my book, I discovered after 25 interviews with bereaved parents the following five commonalities:

(1) they want to leave memorials of some type to honor their child; (2) they choose to find a cause, a reason to move on with their lives and spoke of how they would live those lives ;(3) they believe everyone grieves differently and at different rates, and that as painful as it is, it is important to go through this process to come to terms with the reality of the loss; (4) they know they will have setbacks and/or a rush of emotions that can be overwhelming when they might least expect it and that doesn’t mean they will not heal; and (5) they believe they are different people now than they were when their child was alive with different goals, different priorities, different friends, and a new life with a new richness to it that focuses on what our children left us…the gift of having them.

In each of the next five blogs, I will focus on each of these commonalities, repeating them all at the beginning of the blog to keep it all in perspective. The first one: they want to leave memorials of some type to honor their child. All parents want their child to be remembered and what better way to do that then to build memorials. These memorials can be anything from a scholarship named after them, to having their name on a newly built building, depending on your resources.

Some of the things I did were to start a journalism scholarship at my school so that every year I could tell Marcy’s story to the audience at the senior honor’s assembly before announcing the winner. Both my daughter and I were great fans of drama, plays, and any kind of theater production. Because of this, I bought bricks in newly constructed buildings in her memory and could say anything I wanted on the bricks (the building owners sold these bricks to raise money, and I was more than willing to oblige them). I did this at theaters, cultural centers and even the Diamondback Baseball Stadium. Her boss had a memorial area built at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles in her honor. When I attend a production, visit Los Angeles or go to a baseball game, I pause to look at them and smile. I know she is there smiling back at me for doing it. Even her best friend had a complete drama center built at a summer camp, collected the money and did the overseeing of the construction. A dedication was held at the completion and a plaque placed on the building. Most recently I started a foundation in her memory to benefit students and organizations related to communications and drama.

One mother in my book can now go to her church and see a painted mural of her two children along with other children who died. They are playing baseball in the mural, which was painted by a father who had also lost his son. Guided tours tell each child’s story.

Another mother was invited to do a section of an AIDS quilt honoring her son who had died from the disease. Many of his friends participated in the preparation of the section of quilt and it made them all feel part of the memorial tribute. It was displayed in both Drew University in New Jersey and in Washington, D.C., where, spread out, it stretched from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. It is now housed in San Francisco and can be seen by all.

Other parents find it important to speak to different groups on how their child died and the impact of certain actions that could cause a death, in hopes of saving other lives in crisis along the way. Others, like myself, have written books to both tell their story and offer advice that has helped them survive.

Some parents choose to do their own quiet personal memorials at their home where they will celebrate birthdays and holiday or do activities in the schools the children attended. Others like to donate flowers to their church on the children’s birthday or death day. Still others decorate the children’s graves at holidays such as Christmas.

There are so many things to help parents through their grief journey. A parent needs to decide what will work for them when they decide to honor and remember their children.