Sunday, August 28, 2011


There are many “don’ts” in the eyes of a newly bereaved parent. I have heard many of them myself as the years progress, but some of these, written in a TCF newsletter recently, bear repeating and hopefully, once and for all, bring the point home to friends and relatives who want to know how to act and react to your loss. Please share them with others.

DON’T use the word “closure;” there is no such thing as far as the death of my child…that word is an insult to all people grieving a loss.

DON’T tell me to get over “it”…my loved one was not an “it”… I’m forever changed and won’t “get over it;” be prepared to get to know the ‘new’ me. I am on a never-ending journey that has been forced on me. I did not choose it; I did not ask to be on it. It is a journey that lasts forever.

DON’T be put out if I don’t accept your company because I do appreciate the offer. I’m just a mess right now and not good company.

DON’T talk about your children, their honors, their colds, their problems. It just makes me feel cheated/sad/angry. Let time pass and perhaps I can be more responsive at a later date.

DON’T put a shelf life on my grief or a time limit on when you think I should be over grieving. I am doing everything possible that I think I need to do every day.

DON’T use words such as ‘lost’, ‘gone,’ or ‘passed on;’ Just use the word ‘died.’

DON”T tell me about the losses or the coping styles of others. I can only take in my own story at this stage. I don’t even want to watch the news as everything else except my loss seems so trivial.

DON’T be afraid to look me in the eye; I haven’t got a contagious disease.

DON”T change the subject; if I didn’t want to talk of my child, I would not mention him/her.

DON”T push me into making any big decisions and changing too much in the first year.

DON”T panic when I begin to sob uncontrollably and don’t seek to cheer me up or calm me down prematurely. Tears are often very healing and this is something worth crying about.

DON”T say inane things like my child is in heaven or in a better place. I want them here with me!

DON”T try to fix me; most people adapt to loss by ventilating their loss in an accepting and validating environment…so don’t suffocate my ventilating by avoiding the subject.

DON”T try to accelerate the process of my bereavement. Be assured I am doing all I can to work through my shock and grief…just be very patient with me.

DON’T just stay for the funeral and then move on; you might learn a lot yourself from choosing to connect with me ‘little and often.’

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Moving Forward

When I first started going to Compassionate Friends conferences, I met a TCF board member and president that I considered to be an eloquent speaker and a fabulous writer. He did eventually write a book about his son who died from a man’s perspective, “Into the Valley and Out Again.” I so enjoyed his wonderful words of wisdom at each conference and looked forward to them. Like everything else, nothing lasts forever and Rick Elder suddenly died a few years back. We lost a compassionate, friendly person who wanted, like many of us, to help others through the grief journey. Occasionally, we are blessed with some writings he left behind that TCF, their magazine and the various chapters reprint in their newsletters. A recent one I read had some thoughtful lessons for those bereaved, five years down the road. Below, I summarize his thoughts and what they meant for him, me and others.

People enjoying themselves, laughing at a TCF meeting, greeting each other with hugs, appearing so normal after their child died. At first this irritated Rick, as it did me, when I would see someone actually enjoying themselves and acting like they didn’t have a care in the world. But both he and I have learned three valuable lessons over the years.

1. Life goes on and we must too. Gradually the pain eases and the warm memories replace the sadness. Time is a great healer. I was teaching school at the time my daughter died and realized that on many days it was 6-8 hours that I didn’t think about her. At first, I felt surprise and then guilt as most of us do. But then I realized, as he did, that we are moving forward. We are looking to the future. We will never forget, but our child’s death is not the all-consuming factor in our life. We choose to enjoy friends again. We choose to go out to dinner or to parties again. We choose to laugh again. Isn’t this what our children would want us to do? They would not want us to sit around, crying and mourning their death forever. Nothing we do will bring them back, so moving forward is the best alternative.

2. We become grateful for what we have, not focused on what we have lost. There are many people I know who say they will never get over their loss and some even contemplate ending their lives. They ignore other family members, causing many additional problems. But Rick says these people should also think about the ways they have been blessed, as well as hurt. Most people have more to be thankful for than they realize: health, other children, a loving family, a career they enjoy, financial security, life in a free country, a faith that works for them, a true best friend and a spouse they love. Nobody has it all, but compared to the rest of the world, we have a lot.

3. The life we now lead will be better than it would have been. He emphasizes this does not make our child’s death a good thing. Our child’s life mattered; in some small way the world will be better because our child lived and we are the ones who can make it so. We have been changed forever, and we have different goals and priorities. We don’t “sweat the small stuff.” What was once important to us is insignificant now. We know what matters because we know what is irreplaceable. We understand how others who have lost a child feel because we have been there too.

We will never forget our child nor should we. Sure, we would give anything to have our child back again, but that will not happen. It is up to us now to go forward and create a new normal, which we can do.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Labyrinth of Grief

I read an article recently by Sandra Howlett, grief specialist, who talked about walking through a labyrinth, like a maze that eventually leads to the center if the right path is chosen. In a labyrinth, there is but one choice to make—to enter or not. The labyrinth is a metaphor of the journey inside oneself to gain understanding for living in the world. In this case, Sandra became increasingly aware of the parallels between walking the labyrinth and the journey of grief. I found the comparisons she makes startingly familiar for myself. I thought of my friends who have gone through this and even those I don’t know personally who are on a grief journey. I hope everyone reading this gets a personal insight into this particular labyrinth: the labyrinth of grief.

Some of the points Sandra makes:

She saw a single way in and out but no quick way to get from here to there. As you walk in a labyrinth you can lose sense of how long you have been there. Grief time can get convoluted…from standing still to totally losing track of time.

Other’s footprints were in the sand reminding her that she was not the first nor would she be the last who would walk this path. It was a comfort to know someone else had been there. At other times there have been others in the labyrinth with her, each on his own journey at his own pace, silently stepping aside to allow each other to pass if they meet in the same "lane." It is possible to be in the same lane and going in opposite directions. Such is grief, as everyone does it a little bit differently.

The design of the labyrinth includes what appears to be backtracking switchbacks on the way to the center as well as to the exit. Grief often feels like two steps forward, one step backtaking a lot of time or effort with indiscernible results. There were moments of impatience and frustration that she wasn’t moving ahead (aka healing) as fast as she wanted to, meeting switchbacks on the path and wondering when she would get to the end. She reminded herself to simply put one foot in front of the other and trust that she was going to get to where she was going. The faith in that simple strategy helped her squash other worries, concerns and distractions…just one step at a time.

A couple of times she stumbled and almost fell, but caught her balance. Her first thought was to look around to see if anyone saw her. Why do we concern ourselves with what others might think when we are struggling and doing the best we can?

At the ‘halfway’ point of the labyrinth is the center, an open area. For some reason, the walk out seems faster than the journey inward much like returning from a trip. One recognizes some of the terrain and feels a little bit clearer in the navigation. Familiarity of knowing the way or an eagerness to find ways to integrate any insights gained may be the reason.

There are no ‘dead ends’ in a labyrinth, only switchbacks and changes of direction moving closer or further from the center. There are no dead ends in grief work either, only paths than move us closer or further from a peaceful heart and healing.

After lots of back and forth, going over the same roads and finally making progress, the opening to exit always seems to come up quickly. While the entrance and the exit are one, it is the experience and wisdom of the journey that makes all the difference.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Three T's for Grievers

If you are a bereaved parent, I have what I call the three T’s for grievers.

Crying is a natural and healthy emotion. You will shed many tears for your child now and probably forever. That is okay. Tears cleanse the body and soul. After a good cry, you are able to resume what you were doing. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s been long enough; that you should not shed tears anymore. Cry whenever you like or whenever you get the urge. Good friends will always understand. After 17 years I still cry at the smallest, most insignificant things that remind me of my daughter: a beautiful day where the sun shines, a beautiful sunset, a special song, a movie, a play…all the things that my daughter is missing because she is no longer here. I pick up seashells on the beach as she used to, but quickly throw them back. The intensity of the moment brings tears to my eyes. Most bereaved parents can think of many similar times. But when the tears dissipate, you, like me, will feel drained but better able to cope with another day.

You need to talk, to let others hear your story, to let others know you want to talk about your child. Your child lived, was a beautiful human being, and you want him/her to be remembered. Let others help you through the grief process by being supportive. Talk to your spouse, your parents, your friends, your religious leader or a grief specialist. Don’t tell them “how” you are feeling. Tell them “what” you are feeling. Certainly, don’t pretend you are fine. You are not fine and will never “get over it.” You may lose old friends who don’t understand, but you will be challenged to find new ones who do understand and want to help. Those further on the grief journey can help you learn how to cope and will gladly try to be of help, because, in turn, by helping you, they are also helping themselves.

Time is the great healer of human beings, but time does not heal our grief over the death of a child. It only softens the intensity of the grief. Hopefully, you won’t always feel a 10 pound weight on your chest. You will eventually find a new normal, but life will never be the same as it was before this tragic death. Your grief is not on a timetable. Others can not expect you to heal in a few weeks, a few months or even a year. Everyone grieves differently and at different times and is entitled to move at his or her own pace. Others should understand you will always have a hole in your heart for your lost child.

We, as bereaved parents, are dealing with the worst thing that can ever happen to us. We need friends to be there for us through our tears, to hear what we have to say, any time of the day or night, no matter how long that journey takes. If you have friends who will do that, they are, indeed, true friends and you are very lucky.