Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Well-known CNN Editor Tells His Story

Editor's Note: A child's death can happen to any parent, famous or not. Here is one touching reaction, solely from Joe Sterling, bereaved father and news editor of the CNN Wire.

Nearly 11 years ago my wife and I entered the world of grief when we lost our teenage son. (He then speaks of the Jewish religious rites of mourning including saying the Kaddish, the mourner's prayer in a synagogue; shive, the mourning period and all it entails; the preparation of food for those who visit; and other rites, including lighting a candle at home that burns all day in his memory. The gravesite will also be visited. These gestures affirmed their appreciation and deepened their understanding of the Jewish faithful.

But eventually the mourning period ended and the crowds of friends and relatives who filled our living room disappeared, and it didn’t take us long to figure out that the funeral and the shiva inoculate you from the real world of the bereaved. After we trudged back to our jobs and began slugging it out in the working world, we began to sense the enormity of our loss, and that’s when the readjustment process began setting in.

The most profound lesson I took from this ordeal is that no one understands the death of a child unless he or she is their own son, daughter or sibling.

Many people have asked us over the years if we’ve gotten “closure.” The answer, of course, is no, never, unless you are a sociopath.

We’ve run into people who have had the nerve to tell us that our boy’s death was part of God’s plan. We’ve encountered impatience from some because we continue to grieve, as if we’re on the clock and there’s a countdown toward normalcy.

But I soon learned not to knock these simple-minded people. I know their lives and thoughts will change when they get a call or a knock on the door with the ultimate bad news.
We’ve been frank with such insensitive people and have been unapologetic for reacting normally to an abnormal situation. It’s a new world with no rules and you do things you never thought about doing before and see things you never once noticed.

When you go through this kind of ordeal, you cry without warning. When I turn a corner at certain streets, recall something nice or read about another death, tears flow.
I sweat in rage when I encounter a loutish teenager or a negligent parent, and I get very sad when I meet a respectful and wonderful young man or woman reminiscent of our son.
Over the years, it’s been hard to stomach people who complain about trivial issues. I wish serial complainers would just shut up and smell the roses – the flowers in question being their children who are alive and well.

I was in such grief at one time that I read material about and explored ideas of an afterlife for the purpose of “contacting” my son. To me, such a quest is a waste of time but I had to carry it through and get it out of my system.

Over the years, though, I’ve worked very hard to not wallow in pain, and learned very quickly not to allow myself to be in uncomfortable situations. For example, if I were watching a film with disturbing imagery, I’d walk out of the theater or click off the pay-per-view. If I were invited to a gathering and something upset me, I would leave.

Nothing will compel us to let the pain get worse. My wife and I haven’t been shy about getting grief counseling, a process that helped us go forward. We’ve learned that honoring our son’s memory with our daily actions and never forgetting him are the most important parts of the coping process.

I’ll never forget the day I came early to pick my boy up at football practice, and to my surprise, he was waiting for me. He told me he and a Muslim kid on the team chose to walk out because a representative from a Christian athletes group was invited to preach to team members. (This was at a public school, by the way.) So many kids would have caved under such pressure and stuck around. But our son–who reveled in the diversity that typifies the cities we lived in and had good friends from every religion, ethnic group and social class–knew who he was and was proud of his identity, so he left the gathering.

The only advice I can give a parent who loses a child is to soldier on. You have no choice. As years go by, pleasant thoughts of the departed will replace the nightmares and the pain. The torment will always be there but it will recede.

Here’s a quote from The New York Times obit of Bob Lemon, the Cleveland Indians pitcher and Yankees manager, about the death of his son in an accident. I’ve never stopped thinking about this remark after I first read it. “I’ve never looked back and regretted anything. I’ve had everything in baseball a man could ask for. I’ve been so fortunate. Outside of my boy getting killed. That really puts it in perspective. So you don’t win the pennant. You don’t win the World Series. Who gives a damn? Twenty years from now, who’ll give a damn?”

“You do the best you can. That’s it.”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Way To Express What You Are Feeling

Try this 'fill in' exercise as one of the first steps to journaling your feelings after the death of your child. Sit in a quiet place with no distractions so you can bring you child to the front of your mind to answer these phrases, taking as long as you want and writing as much as you'd like. If you feel one doesn't apply to you, skip it. This exercise will give you much to think about, and perhaps start you on the road to journaling. As time moves on, it is interesting to look back and see your reactions at that specific time in your life.


I miss you because

It's been hard to let go of the pain because

I still feel guilty about

The most joyful time we ever had was

I wish I had told you

I sometimes feel angry that

I continue to feel sad because

On thing that has changed since your death is

What I have learned about loss and grief are

The way I will remember you is

The song that reminds me of our relationship is

The best time we ever had together is

One thing I'd like to tell you if I could talk to you for one more minute is

The last thing I remember is

I want to know

With love,

Sunday, September 12, 2010

7 Mistakes When Grieving

Author of this article, Dr. Lou LaGrand is a grief counselor and the author of eight books, the most recent, the popular Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved. He is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (after-death communication phenomena) and is one of the founders of Hospice of the St. Lawrence Valley, Inc. His free monthly ezine website is Thanks to Dr. LaGrand for this grieving article.

Everyone makes mistakes or fails in their attempts to grow and meet the challenges of daily life. Without these miscues little would be learned and growth as a person would be limited. In short, failure is a key ingredient for success and should be looked at as a resource for moving forward, not a behavior to be despised.

There is one exception to the above observation: when someone makes a mistake, refuses to learn from it, and keeps repeating the same error expecting positive change to occur. This easily happens in the emotional turmoil of mourning the death of a loved one. As a counselor, here are the negative repeats I see most often and what you can do to move past them.

1. Mourners grieve according to the agendas of caregivers. It is not uncommon to be told by well meaning friends or family that "you shouldn't cry so much" or "you should be over it by now." After all, it has been three months since your loved one died and you should be acting like your old self.
In reality, grief is not time bound. Each person's grief is one of a kind. And, grief revisits for months and years later. Go with your gut. Grieve as you see fit. This does not mean you should ignore the input from a wise friend in some instances. Always consider the experience and insight of others. But in the final analysis, make decisions based on what you believe deep within is right for you.

2. Mourners do not accept and grieve secondary or associated losses. All major losses involve secondary losses such as finance, companionship, wise counsel, and inspiration, to name a few. Loss of meaning, future dreams involving the deceased, and losses occurring months or years later (when a child graduates or a grandchild is born and the deceased is not present) are all strong secondary losses for many people. These and numerous other very personal secondary losses need to be openly recognized, faced, and mourned. Here is where a wise friend who is a good listener can be of great assistance.

3. Mourners isolate themselves from others. Grief itself is often a self-isolating process because the big three-anger, guilt, and depression-tend to drive potentially helpful people away, if they do not understand the nature and purpose of these emotions. Once more, the mourner often deliberately avoids contact with others and stays isolated for long periods of time. However, taking action to make connections is an absolute necessity for successful grief work. A social network inevitably is a hope resource; it is our interaction with others that brings glimmers of hope that we will make it through the ordeal.

4. Mourners do nothing about finishing unfinished business. It is very common to look back and wish you had said or done something else for the deceased when he/she was alive. Or, perhaps there was something the deceased had not accomplished or did wrong and you were unable to resolve the issue. Unfinished business is a fact of life that can become a major source for increasing the intensity and length of grief work. You may believe nothing can be done now that death has intervened. Nonetheless, many mourners have written a letter to the deceased or "talked" to the deceased to lay out their feelings and to offer or seek forgiveness. Allow the past to stay in the past. Say what you must say, realize we are all imperfect, and then focus your attention and energy on a plan to answer the important question "Where do I go from here?"

5. Mourners believe that smiling, laughing, or taking a break from grieving by accepting an invitation for dinner with friends, is demeaning to the memory of the deceased ("I should be sad all the time"). Nothing could be further from the truth. No one can grieve nonstop without becoming ill. Everyone needs respite for minutes, or more appropriately, hours. In fact, it is critical that you plan for diversions for the benefit of your body as well as your mind.
Do something that you enjoy that will alter the condition of your emotional life. And, don't feel guilty. Make a list of things you enjoy. This will take some time, given your present frame of mind. But build your list and refer to it every day. Call it your Balancing List. Don't let a day go by without doing something from your list just for you.

6. Mourners refuse to recognize that the death of their loved ones means they have to start a new life. This is a very difficult concept to accept and hard to accomplish. Yet, a part of you has died; that part that interacted with the physical presence of your beloved. Each time you routinely do something where your deceased loved one would have been present, will be a new part of your life. In order to start that new life, one of your tasks of grieving, will be to accept new routines that you alone develop. Acceptance of the new is like the elephant in the room. You can't afford to ignore its importance as a major goal in grieving, since without it you cannot reinvest in life. You will be stuck indefinitely. Over time, those new routines and connections will become habitual and like the old.

7. Mourners seldom are aware that it is nearly impossible to love someone, and when they die, not feel guilty about something in the relationship. Often the guilt has to do with the medical treatment received by the deceased and the survivor's perceived (most often a false perception) lack of action in obtaining better care. Or, there is something else they should have done better or more frequently. Maybe they should have gotten the person to stop smoking. This is commonly called neurotic guilt and has to be tested by asking one simple question: Did I deliberately do what I feel guilty about? The answer is almost always a "no," if they are honest with themselves.

Finally, what is the overall solution to these very common mistakes? One word says it all: persistence. Persistence will pave the way to focusing your attention on the next chapter of your life. When in doubt, take action and do something to challenge the thinking behind the negative thought. You already have the wisdom within to know what has to be done. Good grief is all about good choices, choices you can make.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Thoughts from Another Bereaved Parent

My dear friend Kay Bevington, founder of Alive Alone for parents who have lost an only child or all their children, wrote and handed out an article at The Compassionate Friends Conference to childless parents that I thought had some noteworthy information for everyone, even though a few areas have been repeated before. With Kay’s permission, I have condensed what she said and combined it with some of my thoughts and comments on my situation (which are in italic type to keep the voices separate) ______________________________________________
Having a child die is the ultimate grief that any parent will ever encounter. Having one’s only child or all children die compounds that ultimate grief to the point of being unthinkable for most people in our society today.

Kay and Rodney’s daughter, Rhonda, died in 1980 at age 16 from Lymphoma. Parents who have lost a child, especially an only child, understand that grief is a life-long journey.

The Now Childless bereaved parents experience a similar grieving process as those with surviving children, but the difference begins when we realize that there will never be grandchildren, no one with whom to celebrate the holidays, no milestones in life and no one to be there for us as we age.

We have difficulty with holidays and special events. Some are fortunate to have friends or extended family members who think to include us in special times or holidays, but some are left to spend all those days and nights totally alone. We learn to do the entertaining, so we are not alone.

Or, in my case, I find it easier to find some new tradition to enhance my holiday, whether it is visiting a retirement home, where I can tell a Marcy story to someone who doesn’t know me or hasn’t heard about Marcy, or helping out serving dinners to the poor to brighten their holiday. We are not the same as we were when our child was alive; therefore, giving our holidays a new twist can help us get past them.

People just do not think to come to our assistance in times of need, as they have children to assist them, and it never occurred to them we could have used some help. I found that to be true when I moved from country living into town and no one offered to help us move. The same thing happened when there was a huge tornado and no one called to see how we were.

We learn to adjust to being childless and make friends with others who have had a similar experience to us. Some of us with no children get together during special holidays or visit each other during the year. There is a special bond/understanding that need not be spoken.

Now childless parents realize that we must plan for our future and see that all financial, medical and business matters are secure and settled long before the time arrives when we will need assistance.

Personally, a new will/ trust and designating what my husband and those close to me will get; new powers of attorney for health, etc. and a foundation in my daughter’s memory helped move me forward and made me comfortable with every aspect of my life and what will happen when I die. I also included a Tangible Property list, which everyone should do for any personal property you want someone special to have like a painting, piece of jewelry or some old books. Leave it with your lawyer.

What do we do with our precious mementos that belonged to our deceased child or ‘things’ that are important to us and our heritage? Usually some of our relatives, friends or children of friends care enough to want some of those ‘things.’ As we age and life’s values change, we begin to realize that those ‘things’ are not what matters anyway. What we do with our life and how we manage to keep our children’s memories alive by helping others are really what is more important than worrying about what is going to happen to our ‘things.’

Both Kay and I have seen families become estranged while fighting over ‘things.’ My relatives sat in the bedroom hours after my mom’s funeral separating all the fine jewelry and deciding who would get what. Only when I walked into the room did the bickering stop, and I was allowed to take what I wanted before they all delved into it again. Some of my friends have spoken about broken relationships over inheritances and who will get what.

We have found that by staying involved in church, community activities, nurturing relationships with other people and working part time, I have been able to keep a positive attitude ‘most’ of the time and find a new type of happiness in life. There are times and events that occur that sometimes make me lose my perspective and I get depressed. But, I can always observe others who seem to have a more difficult time with life events who have not been touched with the grief of having a child die.

We have also learned that it is vitally important to find a local bereavement support group and to attend regularly those first years of grief. It is important to become involved and give back to those who are newer in their grief than we are.

There is a saying that goes: “By helping others, you help yourself.” I completely agree with that. I feel so good when I can help another, through talking to them, directing them to a professional who can help or even suggesting a book for them to read about grief.

I read every book I could find on grief, devoured all the newsletters and listened to tapes until I realized I really was not going crazy and that things I thought, did, forget, or was angry about was very normal for a bereaved parent. I cried oceans of tears, told Rhonda’s story and her personal grief story millions of times to thousands of different people, kept a journal (an invaluable tool of measuring one’s progress), and allowed friends to help me when I needed help.
We started Alive Alone, Inc. in 1988 to be an additional support system for now childless parents. We publish a periodical that is strictly written by and for childless parents. We also network parents whose only child/all children died of a similar age of means of death. In addition we work with other support groups to provide seminars and sharing sessions for their regional and national conferences so that the needs of now childless parents are met.

Coping with the death of one’s only child/all children is the most difficult experience anyone will every encounter. But, it is possible to find a ‘new normal’ and be able to reinvest in life again and find a new form of happiness.

If you are childless or know someone who is, you can reach Kay and get support at