We Do Not Grieve in a Vacuum

Openness and honesty during the grieving process are vital.

When you survive a deep loss like the death of your child, I don’t think many people would argue with the fact that you come through this event a changed person.  In fact, I think “changed” is putting it mildly.  And while most people would (and do) agree with this notion in theory, the ramifications in practice are not so easily accepted.

So, what happens when you are living in your grief and the rest of the world has gone back to their lives?  How can you cope with the well-meaning family and friends who have decided that it is time for you to move on?  Once you’ve settled into your post-loss life, what are you supposed to do about the well-meaning people who just wish you’d be happier, more interested in life, or just quite simply… the old you?

“All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” -John Donne (1572-1631).

After the shock of your loss has eased, the numbness begins to fade. You find yourself stepping gingerly back into the shreds of your life, looking at your surroundings as if they were a war zone from a great battle that destroyed everything that mattered.  Your heart is broken, you are emotionally raw and drained, physically exhausted and irritable, and very depressed and angry; it was quite a battle.  Outwardly, everything seems in order; nothing in your physical world is damaged at all, it did not cause a single material thing to shift out of place. It is difficult to grab hold of anything that feels right.

Even the mundane and everyday tasks have lost their meaning, and with that went your ability and desire to complete them. The ostensibly simple act of focusing is now a challenge of great magnitude, whether it be attempted with your job, a book, a conversation, or even the simplest of chores.  All of this because you are changed. It makes total sense to you, and you accept this as yet another facet of your grief experience, hoping that you’ll figure out how to manage, in time.

Time does pass, and you are still your changed self.  Maybe by now you no longer feel changed, as this is just who you are anymore.  Perhaps you are back to your job and you are able to focus and get involved in work again, maybe you’ve lost interest and have quit your job.  Your mind has begun the task of tidying up the war zone in your head, sweeping away the debris and trash, clearing the area for eventual rebuilding.  Maybe you have noticed that a lot of the old stuff that was so important in the past just isn’t missed.  As you reclaim your life and make strides toward reconstructing yourself and your surroundings, you may need to leave some of that stuff behind.

On the outside, your family, friends, and coworkers are seeing you move through this transformation.  They are all reeling from your loss as well, and just feel for you on the deepest levels.  Tears are shed and shared as each person around you grieves with you, they too are coping with this loss.  Your loved ones are also grieving the loss of you, at least who you used to be.  Calls and emails come, cards and letters arrive in the mail.  Of course they understand that you’re going through hell on Earth – they want to and try to understand.  There is compassion and even empathy from those who were present when everything fell apart.  You feel carried and uplifted during this incredibly hard time, grateful for the little things that bring comfort to you and touch you during this odd isolation.

On the inside, you realize that not everyone was able to be there for you.  On top of your grief you are dealing with hurtful disappointment and misunderstanding for this strange lack of support. You can’t help but dwell on these things, and pretty soon there is an angry bubble in your chest. You may never know why some people chose not to or were unable to be there, and this begins to feel like your child didn’t matter enough to them.  Defensive and protective of your child’s memory and their honor, you begin to separate yourself from those people who just were not there for you.

You continue to move through the battlefield, the detritus of your old self just fading into the distance.  You do find your stride eventually and begin the long process of stepping back into your life.  You have cleared the war zone, and things are pretty much back in place, but there are deep gouges in the ground, heavy scars on your face and on your heart.  The walls have been marred by the battle; indelible stains that only you can see and feel every day, all the time, forever.

Eventually, the natural progression of life starts again.  Your family, friends, and coworkers are moving on in their own lives, dealing with the things that occupy their days.  They still call and connect with you, remember your loss and are gentle and caring.  You are still rebuilding and coping, trying hard to get a foothold in life again.  You do not begrudge everyone else their lives… you know that things move on.  But they are still waiting for someone like the old you to return.

Then the phenomenon of the “grief timeline” occurs.  One day, something is different.  Perhaps it is months later, perhaps a year or more.  From some people, support and understanding has become judgement of your “progress”.  You should be moving on better, faster than this.  Expressions of worry and concern are being voiced to you and about you.  There is no help for it, as most of it is coming from a place of love and true caring for you.

Are they right?  You begin to wonder if you are in fact stuck in your grief, second-guessing every emotion.  Your reactions to life in general are now being viewed under a microscope and there is no escape from this scrutiny. How do you know if you are grieving well?  Who gets to decide?  If you are like most modern-day bereaved parents, you have the benefit of support groups, books, and online communities that can help you know if you’re alone in your experiences.  If our forum here is any indication, most of us are experiencing many similar things on this rollercoaster ride.

What can you do to reassure your friends and family that you are not suicidal, that you are simply grieving?  Where can you learn the language you need to convey that you actually are in a terrible and dark place, but that it seems like a normal part of this?  What can you say to express that you are not just grieving, but you are grieving normally?  What can you do to ease your own heart by separating the true care and concern of your current state from the inherent negative judgement and rejection of this new you?

I think our gut reaction is to throw up our hands and tell the world to just forget it.  It does no good in the long run, but it is easy to become introverted and shy away from the activities and family functions where your presence is expected.  Granted, for a time after your loss it will be necessary and healthy for you to do exactly that… but that period should not last forever.  And yet, it isn’t realistic to expect to feel jovial and ready to pop back into your old roles. It is not like you have a switch to flip and turn on the happy again.

The reality is that some of the responsibility does fall on you attempt to find a balance in this.  You are now tasked with the challenge of communicating that you’re doing just fine, are grateful for the concerns, but require some more understanding. Or that you’re hurting and having a bad time of it, but you’re going to make it through.  All without ruining the relationships that are becoming strained over this gap.  I just asked questions about how to reassure, say, express, ease… these are all action words.  There is no single perfect solution to any of these relationship quandaries, but there is a common theme: action through communication.

We do not travel through this life alone, and although we cannot control much of what goes on within our personal circles, we can try. It is hard enough to deal with the changes in many of our relationships that seem to happen after the death of a child, why not take preemptive action and work hard to remain communicative and open with those who are watching over you?  Honest communication, notice I do not say “happy and falsly reassuring communication”… but truly honest communication about how you are doing, what you need, and how you are feeling is the best gift you can give to yourself on your path to healing.