We empathize with how the death of a loved one can be a difficult experience.
They may be gone, but they are far from forgotten. It’s an experience nobody expects yet leaves scars in our hearts that last a lifetime.
In our own way, Algordanza wishes to help you cope with grief and loss. A local certified Psychotherapist stands with us in this endeavor and brings you the following articles to help you in times of grieving:
Losing a Child
“No parent should have to bury a child”
Stephen Adly Guirgis, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
The bond between parent and child is one of the toughest and most primal bonds known to man. It is a bond that has brought out the best in humanity. Stories of parents being able to summon superhuman strength, lightning fast reflexes, incredible resilience, and saintly acts of sacrifice litter the internet. New parents are known to undergo a series of biological and psychological changes in preparation for the infant. Other than the significant hormonal changes, parents will experience changes in the brain that will prepare them for the requirements of parenthood. This neurological footprint of the child, when met with the sudden physical absence, is the reason why the loss of a child is the most painful and devastating experience a parent can go through. The death of a child defies the natural order of life events and shatters the basic assumption that parents hold – ‘the young ought to outlive the old’. As a result, bereaved parents often experience intense self-blame, guilt, and shame when they lose a child, because they perceive a failure in fulfilling this basic assumption.
Self-Blame is defined as the allocation of fault to the self and is based on the belief that the outcome of an event was avoidable. As the naturally appointed guardians, parents will tend to feel completely responsible for their children. This set-up often ensures that most of the blame finds its way back to the parents.
Guilt reflects the assessment of one’s actions on others. When the impact on others is negative, the assessment will be associated with feelings of remorse, regret, and tension. Guilt can be constructive as a motivational force and can encourage reparative action. Being able to feel guilty is a sign that one is able to feel empathy for others, and it shows a desire to improve. However, guilt can become problematic when it is left unchecked and allowed to consume the individual. This frequently leads to self-destructive behaviors that are driven by a personal vendetta against the self. Bereaved parents are particularly vulnerable to this because they shoulder most of the responsibility for their child and, therefore, “deserve” the bulk of the punishment.
Shame occurs as a result of a negative self-evaluation. It is a feeling that makes people feel vulnerable and worthless, and commonly elicits a desire to withdraw and hide. Parents who believe that they failed in their basic parental duty to protect their child, will be particularly vulnerable to this. This shame is strongly associated with beliefs regarding societal standards, such as the basic ability to take care of one’s child.
The extent to which parents are affected by self-blame, guilt, and shame is dependent on their individual interpretations of the situation. These interpretations tend to revolve around the distorted belief that they were unable to protect their child, and that there was something that they could have done differently to prevent this outcome. The greater the self-blame, guilt, and shame, the more susceptible the parents will be to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and hostility. As these conditions worsen, bereaved parents may suffer increasing stress on their relationship. This, in turn, puts them at a higher risk for separation or divorce. It is, therefore, of great importance that parents do not let themselves get to a point of no return.
It is very likely that both parents will face bereavement at the same time. This can deplete individual resources and make it difficult to allocate any support to the partner. Both parents may also have different coping styles, which may increase the risk of conflict or misunderstanding. It is for these reasons that it is vital for bereaved parents to ensure that they tend to themselves and their partner sufficiently.
Tending to Yourself
Self-blame, guilt, and shame can force a severe and damaging withdrawal from others. But, perhaps, this is what is needed in the moment. In solitude, we find the space to reflect. Here are three simple reflective exercises you can undertake during this time.
Making sense of the loss: Arguably, there is very little sense to be found in the loss of a child. There is, however, value in increasing your clarity surrounding the death. Questions such as, “why my child”, “why now”, “how did this happen”, or “what could I have done differently” are common questions that can plague you for a life time. However, these are also questions healthcare professionals may be familiar with. Consulting your doctor or a friend in the profession may help to shed some light on these questions and provide you with a clearer perspective.
Finding the benefits: Again, a very difficult notion to digest. What benefits could there possibly be here? ‘Finding the benefits’ is a process of discovering positive consequences in the face of adversity, such as noticing an increase in compassion for others or becoming more attentive to the needs of your spouse. It is in devastation that we find out what we are truly made of. The positive changes that can be made in the aftermath of such challenges define post-traumatic growth.
“Things are hell right now. But, what can I do to make things just a little bit better for myself or those around me?”
Meaning reconstruction: This is a process that requires time and consistent attention. Meaning reconstruction refers to a change in the narrative – the essence of the story. A story of disaster, devastation, anger, and pain may turn into a story of hope, growth, love, and compassion. It is a process of understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness. In the telling and re-telling of this story, we may discover personal growth, new realisations, or new perspectives that significantly alter the course of our lives. Such discoveries may turn a story of hopelessness to a story of hopefulness.
Fortunately, the loss of a child does not always lead to marital distress that doom the relationship. Going through such a harrowing experience together can enhance the relationship through the shared ordeal. In this time, more than ever, communication is key. Understand that your partner’s needs may differ from yours at this time is crucial. Start by trying your best to be understanding of their process and be attentive to their needs. Being there for your partner and caring for them can help shift attention from self-destructive thoughts and behaviours to more constructive action. Allowing your partner to take care of you can help to remind you that you deserve to be cared for as well. Learn to open up to your partner about your experience and allow them to do the same. This will help in building understanding and strengthen the bond. It is the quality of the relationship that exerts a powerful influence on the bereavement process. By going through the process together, the couple can obtain comfort from one another. This can increase cohesion and strength of the relationship in the long run. Couples are also encouraged to find support groups. Knowing that there are others who are either going through, or have gone through, a similar ordeal can be comforting, and can help challenge some of the distorted assumptions and beliefs held.
As mentioned earlier, sometimes we may not have sufficient resources left to tend to both ourselves and our partner. In such instances, it is advisable to seek professional help. In individual therapy, practitioners work with clients to explore, acknowledge and deconstruct the self-blame, guilt, and shame associated with their loss. In couples therapy, practitioners facilitate a healthy and healing dialogue between the couple. This ensures that both parents are able to communicate their coping style and their grieving needs clearly.
Taken together, the loss of a child is and will always be one of the greatest tragedies in life. But, with every traumatic event, comes an opportunity for post-traumatic growth. It will be in such dark times that the human spirit shines brightest.