Early in our grief, tears seem to come in waves. We can't seem to control them Sometimes they seem to show up at the worst times. I have heard people say that they just wish that they could stop crying. For other people, there is anger mixed in with tears. Crying is a normal reaction to the trauma we have just experienced when we lost our child that we loved so much. The feelings that we are experiencing are justified in acknowledging our new reality and the pain that comes along with it. The pain is there to remind us that something is wrong and that healing must take place. Just like the pain we experience from a physical wound, the initial pain is the worst, but as we begin to take the steps towards healing the wound, the pain is not as intense over time. If we neglect the wound, it becomes infected, which causes more pain and suffering and can result in a longer recovery time or even a worsening of our overall physical health. The same is true for our psychological health. We must not ignore the the pain and anger and other uncomfortable emotions that we may feel as we begin to heal from our loss. We must find space and time to sit with them. The more we are able to make room for these feelings and not try to push them away. The more we gradually feel a lessening of the intensity of the pain over time. If you find that you are not able to cope with the intensity of the feelings on your own, please seek professional help to do so. It is so important to know that you don't have to go through this alone. Sometimes it may help to nave a companion with you on this difficult healing journey.
When we first experience the immense pain of the grief of losing a child, it is a crushing pain. A pain that takes your breath away. A pain from which it seems there is no escape. The darkness closes in and there seems as if there will never be light again. Unfortunately, there is no way around this pain. the only way to heal is to make room for the pain. Our mind tends to want to constrict around the pain. It wants to hold on to it. It wants to trick us into thinking there is only darkness, but you can't have darkness with out knowing light and you can't have pain without knowing healing. The key is to try to make room for the pain in your mind. Try to sit with it in silence and imagine your mind making space for the pain while also allowing space for healing. It is very hard to do at first, but with practice the more space you can create for the pain the more relief you will begin to notice from the pain. The more you make room for the darkness the more light you will begin to see again. Some people feel that feeling joy or moments of laughter will cause them to forget their child. The opposite is true. Holding on to the pain just creates suffering which does not allow for healing or light to enter the darkness. Our children are now beings of light and the only way to reconnect with them is by letting light into our lives again. The more we hold on to suffering and darkness the farther away we are from them. Make space for the darkness and begin to let in the light, that is what our children want us to do.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, which begins the Catholic Season of preparing for Easter. Why do I bring this up on a blog about grieving the loss of a child? I see a shared set of ideas between things we do during Lent and things we could do to help us heal from child loss. The idea behind Lent is to examine various areas of our lives that we would like to improve and to begin practices that would help us hopefully bring about those improvements. We institute the practices over the 40 days leading up to Easter. Easter being the celebration of Jesus Resurrection from the Dead and the joy that surrounds that event. The idea being that we also take on a new more joyful Christian life through our observance of Lent. When our child dies a part of us dies as well. We are lost in a sea of misery and despair and rightly so. How can we even begin to recover from this horrifying event? It is not easy and in reality it will take more than 40 days. It will probably take months or years, but we can do it if we make the conscious choice like we do during lent to begin to work at it.
Lent has three main pillars (1) Prayer (2) Fasting and (3) Alms Giving. All of these things are designed to make us look at our lives. What are we doing right and how can we improve on it? What are we getting wrong and how can we make changes? It is thought by finding ways to implement each of these practices in our lives, we can become better people and enhance our relationship with God. How can these work to help us heal our broken hearts after the loss of a child?
Having some sort of prayer life can be beneficial for people who have endured a severe trauma. An article by Shirley Davis on The Mental Health Benefits of Prayer (https://cptsdfoundation.org/2020/01/20/the-mental-health-benefits-of-prayer/ ) found the following:
1. "Indeed, after Hurricane Katrina, 92% of survivors said they prayed and in doing so helped themselves get through their horrendous ordeal."
2. "People living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder often feel afraid, hypervigilant, numb, and alone. Prayer changes all of this by allowing the person someone or something to lay their worries and fears upon. In doing so, the person who is praying is bringing out their fears so that they can see them better and learn to cope with them instead of hiding them away from their sight."
While Fasting is often associated with giving up food, it is more about the idea of self discipline. When we lose a child our emotions and thinking is seemingly out of control. Nothing makes sense any more. All the things we thought we knew about the world or that we could control are no longer a given. We are not supposed to out live our children. It is at this point that we need to take small steps to begin to consider our new reality. I have talked before about many ways we can begin to do this, but we must find the strength and self discipline to do it. We can go to therapy, meditate, join support groups, practice yoga, exercise. These are just a few of the practices that we could implement to begin our healing process, but we must have the self discipline to follow through with them.
Alms Giving is about being kind and helping others. In the case of child loss, it is also about being kind to yourself. Allowing yourself time to cry and grieve and not looking at that as being week or a failure. Also being there for others who are going through child loss and supporting them. Finding ways to honor your child's memory by showing kindness towards others. As we help others to feel better we also begin to heal ourselves in the process.
My prayer for this Lent is that by engaging in these Lenten practices, all parents who have suffered the loss of a child may begin to heal their broken hearts.
It is so hard to go on after the death of a child. I have talked with many people who have lost children and I have not met one yet who does not want to talk about their child. I have also noticed that most of these parents always have memories of great things that their child has done in their lives. We tend to focus on our children's most positive attributes. What better way of healing than to take on a project that speaks to who they were as a person. We could take up a hobby they enjoyed in their honor. We can volunteer for a cause they supported. We can finds ways to be kind to others in their honor if that was a quality they brought to the world. I think anything that we can do to continue their legacy in the world helps us heal and also brings us closer to them. I believe the more we heal the more they smile down upon us. I think it makes them sad to see us so miserable. Yes it is okay and even necessary to cry and grieve their loss, but we don't want to stay there forever because that is not what they would want. They would want you to continue on with the life they began, living out their legacy.
Viktor Frankl wrote the famous book, Man's Search for Meaning. In the book, he details his survival in a Nazi concentration camp. One particular part that stuck with me was where he was trying to offer hope to his comrades in the concentration camp, when many were understandably losing hope having to endure the horrific living conditions. He said " Someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours, (somebody alive or deceased) and he would not expect us to disappoint him/her. I think that was my number one reason for not staying stuck in the misery of grief. If I was not going to get better for myself, I would get better for my daughter who was looking down on me. The best way for me to honor my love for her was to be the very best version of myself that I could be.
The following is a quote by Christopher Robin from the A.A. Milne's children's book that featured Winnie the Pooh and his friends from the Hundred Acre Wood.
“If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together... there is something you must always remember. you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart... I'll always be with you.”
Grief is difficult!! Let's be real it just sucks!! Why does it have to be so scary? How can we learn to move forward without our child being physically with us? What do I do now? Where has my child gone?
The quote by Christopher Robin helps us answer all of these questions.
1) You are Braver than you believe. After the death of your child, you are left terrified. You don't know how you will survive the next moment much less a lifetime without your child. If you are reading this post, you already have survived the worst thing that could happen to you in your life. Despite your pain, you are looking for ways to try to get better. You are already showing you are braver than you think you are. It takes courage to reach out for help.
2) You are Stronger than you seem. Grief is exhausting. It is hard work to get up every morning and participate in life, when you would like nothing more than to stay in bed with the covers over your head. You did it once and you have been doing it. Start small and build up your strength. Healing from this trauma is hard work and there will be set backs. Don't give up because you are strong than you seem.
3) You are Smarter than you think. At the beginning of your grief journey, just try to find things to do that bring you brief moments of relief. Also try and find someone that will be there for you when you need them. Someone who will just sit and listen to you, and that can hug you when you need to cry. A child loss group is also a good resource because it often helps to be able to talk about your loss with others who truly understand what you are feeling and can offer support when you need it. You don't have to bear this pain on your own and can often gain unexpected wisdom and hope from people who can identify with what you are going through. You are smarter than you think.
4)If we are apart, I will always be with you. It is almost impossible to grasp this concept in early grief. You just want your child back. I get it. I have been there. If we try to sit with our grief, and try to find ways in our life to honor our child, we will be able to reconnect with them. It takes time and work on our part. We have to be open and stretch our minds and hearts to believe that they are still with us. As I have said before, our love for them never dies it just changes form. Be open to the signs that they are still with us. They are all around us. They will always be with you.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is quoted as saying "Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted." I think people in early grief have the initial response of How? followed closely by when? We are unable to see how there is any way one could be comforted in losing their child. We are also in terrible pain and we just want it to go away. I speak from experience when I say this initial grief is probably the worst thing that you could ever face in your life. With help, we can learn ways to progress through the pain, and then we must make a decision. If we choose to continue to live in the horror of the past, we will never find the comfort of which Jesus spoke. A person who chooses a life of unhappiness, will tend to only see things that justify their unhappiness, and unfortunately will never find happiness again until they are able to change their mind set. If however we are able to find meaning or a purpose in our lives to live in honor of our child, then we can begin to heal. Nietzche is quoted as saying "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how." If we are able to discover that spark of light within us and use that spark to find ways to honor the memories and actions of our child, we will begin to find the comfort and a new perspective on how we choose to live the rest of our lives.
Shakespeare is quoted as saying: Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so. I don't think sighted people realize how much they take their sight for granted. Actually we tend to take all of our physical senses for granted until one is taken from us. What do we do when one or more of our senses are suddenly or over time taken away from us. At first we are probably very depressed and don't know what to do? How can we leave without these senses that we have become to rely upon for our happiness? What eventually happens is as we learn to heal. We find ways to adapt and some of our remaining senses become more acute. It is much the same with losing a child. At first the pain seems unbearable, but eventually we make the decision to enhance our other senses. Just because we cannot physically see them with our eyes doesn't mean they are gone, we just learn to see them with the eyes of our heart rather than our physical eyes. We would rather hear their voice with our ears, but now we hear their voice in sharing the memories we had with them. We would rather feel their physical touch, but when we think about them or receive signs from them that send tinglings down our spine and body, know that is your child reaching out to hug you. Even writing this now I can feel Kaitlyn's presence inspiring me to write these words. I know it is so difficult to get through our human emotions, but our love for our children never dies it just changes form. It is up to us to learn how to be still, and find time to grieve, but also find time for happiness. I believe our children are happiest when we are happy. When we practice trying to see life through the eyes of the heart, it is then we are able to feel our children's presence around us cheering us on.
This is a story from the Buddhist Tradition about a grandmother who lost her granddaughter. She cried so much over the death of her granddaughter that and old man from her neighborhood came to give her counsel. He asked her why she was wailing so much? He told her he thought she should lighten up a bit. Satsujo responded: You bald headed fool, what do you know? My tears and weeping are better for my granddaughter than incense, flowers, or lamps. In other words it is natural for anyone who loses a child to weep and it is not for others to tell them when to stop shedding tears. The tears at first are a sign of the depth of love we have for our children, but are also cathartic in nature as we sit with and make room for our grief. Everyone does this at their own pace, There is no time table involved. However, if after some time with sitting with our grief we don't begin to feel a lightening of our grief and it begins to impact our every day functioning, it may be time to seek professional help so we don't become stuck in our grief.
I was reading about what Chinese medicine says about grief. People who practice Chinese medicine believe that grief and sadness reside in the lungs. When your body is thrown into a state of grief the lungs are the part of the body most affected medically. It makes sense because when faced with trauma your fight or flight response is triggered which causes you to take faster shallower breaths. This is why people in grief report being exhausted most of the time. They are "ex hausted" meaning they have breathed out all their air. It is also common for people to have panic attacks where they feel that the are unable to breath. We have to find ways to get back the balance in our lives. It sounds easy but it is not because it requires us to make room for these painful feelings we are feeling from the loss of our child. Deep breathing exercises, going for a walk, doing something that allows us to begin to take in air into our lungs to calm down our sympathetic nervous system which is on over drive do to the perceived fear of not being able to go on living without your child. As you sit with and begin to make room for this seemingly unbearable psychological pain, it will begin to lessen in intensity and frequency, but it takes time. In the meantime, we have to remember to consciously breath deeply.