Something that bears repeating regarding support

I wrote something in my last book review post that I feel bears repeating. To quote my previous post:

As one of ten kids and pastor of a large church, the author mentions several times about the incredible support that they had. In writing this section, as well as other places where the he talks about support or finding support, I realized that I have come to this conclusion: As difficult as it is for a person who has never experienced the death of a child to realize how difficult it is to walk the daily walk of a parent whose child has died, it is similarly difficult for a person who has had support in their walk as a bereaved parent to truly understand what it’s like to NOT have such support. The notion that everyone has or can find adequate support in their grief journey is an assumptive, erroneous one. I wish it were otherwise and that every bereaved parent had or could find adequate support, but I know firsthand that it’s not.

No loss is the same. No griever is the same. No grief is the same. Circumstances of death are not the same. Support and support systems are not the same. It’s important to realize that, although bereaved parents have all been thrown into the “club no one wants to join,” we all walk similar, yet different, paths. As fellow bereaved parents, we need to check assumptions at the door, just as we would wish the non-bereaved would check their assumptions at the door about what this walk of grief is like and how long and difficult it really is. I truly, truly rejoice with those who have support; my heart goes out for those who don’t.

Also, a previous post regarding assumptions about adequate support can be found here: https://onewomansperspective02.wordpress.com/2019/01/26/dont-assume-everyone-has-adequate-support-in-grief/

~Becky

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

 

Book Review: life after the death of my son; what I’m learning by Dennis L. Apple

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This book was written by Dennis Apple in 2008, 17 years after the death of his 18-year old son from complications of mono on February 6, 1991. At the time of his son’s death and also at the time of writing this book, Dennis was a staff pastor at a large church in Kansas.

I found this to be a refreshingly honest book written by a man whose son had died unexpectedly. In writing this book, the author went back to his journals written at the time of his son’s death and in the years following, using specific quotes from those journals to write about his experiences.

Typically, I have discovered, more articles, books and blogs on grief following the death of a child are written by women than they are by men. With some well-written exceptions, a number of the male-written articles and books on the grief experienced following the death of a child are written by men who are researchers or hold jobs in a professional capacity (psychologist, psychiatrist, pastor, etc.), and who have not actually walked the walk of a bereaved father. To me, I have found that an item written on the death of a child is more authentic and carries more “weight” if it’s been written by someone who has actually experienced it first hand.

Will It Always Hurt This Much?

In the first chapter, Dennis tells the story of walking into a grief support group two weeks following the death of his son. After telling the group their son had died two weeks earlier, “one of the women spoke up and said to us ‘Hang in there – the second year is often worse than the first!’ I remember thinking, If that’s true, then you might as well kill us right now. There is no way we’ll make it if it gets worse than this (p. 12).”

Looking back, I see that she was a trying to prepare us. Much of our first year was spent in a daze as we trudged through each day like sad robots…Fresh grievers don’t want to hear this truth, but it’s best to be prepared for what’s to come…When we faced the second year, the second round of painful reminders on the calendar, we knew we were in this for the long haul (p. 12-13).

Similar to the situation I encountered at a Compassionate Friends meeting when I was told, “Oh, you’re just a baby [in the grief process],” it’s a very hard thing to hear early on that this is a very long journey. No parent wants to know that it will take a lot of hard work and time to reach a new normal, especially when all they want to do is to wake up from this nightmare.

I’m torn on whether or not this is helpful to know this at the onset. I guess it depends on the people involved and the way it’s communicated – gently and with an assurance that they can make it through and that they are not alone in the journey. I remember early on trying to contact someone I knew who had lost two children in a fire. I just wanted someone to tell me I would survive, to pray with me. Although the author says it’s best to be prepared and to know this truth, he says in a later chapter that “it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know how long our winter of grief would continue, because it was much longer than I expected (p. 143).”

Bereaved parents feel as though they’re on a long, sad march but have no final destination. We feel as though this overwhelming sadness will be with us forever. We’re expected to move on, yet something within us resists these expectations to move on so quickly…Bereaved parents are also learning how to play hurt, but the casual onlooker has no idea how badly they’ve been injured or how long it will take to recover (p. 15).

Our injury is made even worse by people who try to fast-forward us through our grief. They suggest we should come to some sort of closure…I borrowed a phrase from another griever whom I heard say, “People close on houses, not on the death of a child (p.16).”

Few people whose children are living understand the formidable task that bereaved parents face. Gradually, bereaved parents must face the realization that their lives, and the lives of their entire family, have been changed forever. The struggle before them is to find a new “normal” (p. 17).

Will Our Marriage Survive This?

In this chapter on marriage, Dennis writes about some of the struggles he and his wife had in their marriage dealing with the differences in the way each approached grief. He calls it the “grief dance” they were having and uses an example of two amateurs trying to dance together and badly stepping on each others toes in the process. Their separate and individual approaches to grief, accompanied by his wife’s deep and lengthy grief process, nearly caused them to separate.

In the months and years following our son’s death, there were times when we thought about going our separate ways. We still loved each other, but the grief from our son’s death was like a dirty wedge, driving us apart.

…Sixteen years after Denny’s death, we still have sore toes from stepping on each other’s feet. A casual observer could easily look at us today and think we’re both accomplished dancers as we move together as one.

It wasn’t always that way. The truth is, we simply chose to stay with each other regardless of what happened. Each of us mourned differently and understood there were times we cold help one another. Other times, we simply couldn’t (p.44).

The author talks about the differences between the way men and women grieve: “Women mourn, but men replace (p. 31).” Two weeks after the death of his son, Dennis went back to work, using work and its hectic schedule in an attempt to outrun his grief. Meanwhile, his wife was left on her own to grieve alone. As time went by, Dennis got impatient with her grief while trying to ignore his own.

Along my grief journey I have met countless men, who, like me, have tried to outrun their pain by replacing it with something else. Whenever I see this happening, I remind them of an oil filter commercial. In that commercial, the mechanic holds up a dirty oil filter and says, “You will either pay me now or pay me later.” For grievers, the message is clear: if we try to stifle, ignore, outrun our sadness, and not talk about the pain we feel inside, there will be serious consequences down the road (p.33).

…Across the years, I have encountered several men who have tried to fast-forward the mother of a dead child through her grief and suffering. If I can be of any help to another man about this, I would say as hard as it may be, please allow her to express herself through her grief without being hurried. It may be the most difficult task you have ever faced, but stay with her and allow her to drain this cup of sorrow. She suffered through the labor pains as she gave birth to the child, and now she will likewise need your support as she faces the labor pains of grieving over her dead child (p. 42).

Am I Losing My Mind?

In this chapter, the author discusses the profound way we are affected by grief – mentally, physically, psychologically. He was surprised at how long the “fog of grief” lasted for him – not just weeks, but years – and how his body was affected by the grief over the death of his son.

Prior to Denny’s death, I had no clue about the many ways a parent is affected by this kind of loss. I remember seeing the sad faces of other bereaved parents in our community but had no idea of the mental and physical pain brought on by the death of their child. The consequences of this type of death are often hidden from the casual onlooker.

Mimi Guameri writes in her book The Heart Speaks, “Doctors will tell you, broken heart syndrome or stress-induced heart failure is a medical condition…This condition seems to be caused by high levels of hormones that the body produces during severe stress, which can be temporarily toxic to the heart.” In other words, you can die from a broken heart, and these days medical science is able to observe this happening in grievers. Now when I see people in deep grief holding their chests, I realize just how vulnerable they really are. Sometimes I felt as though I would die too (p. 55-56).

Where Is God?

The death of a child can bring into question a person’s beliefs and faith, and this pastor/bereaved father is no different.

I had always trusted the words of Jesus found in Scripture: “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). However, on February 6, 1991, everything I believed about prayer was challenged when God did not respond to my most desperate prayer (p. 64).

The author goes on to talk about his belief that shock following the death of a child is God’s way of protecting us when we experience tragedy. We can’t handle everything, every emotion, all at once. People tend to misunderstand the reactions of a bereaved parent who is in shock and misinterpret it as not caring, not crying, or that the parent is doing so well. “Little do they know that the survivors are in a deep, soul-numbing state and are not able to feel the full effects of their loss – yet (p. 68).”

He also talks about his beliefs in God coming into question and his anger at hearing someone tell how a “guardian angel” had protected their loved one from harm. “I tried my best to join them in their good fortune, but inwardly I was thinking, Where was my son’s guardian angel on the night of February 6? (p. 69).”

He continued working in his profession as a pastor, all the while trying to figure out why God had not answered his prayers and whether his beliefs of God were accurate. “Gradually, I came to the place in which I accepted the fact that we live in a fallen world, a place where the rain falls on the just and unjust…It may seem as though God has forsaken you, but He is still there with you, even though the fog may hide Him for a while (p. 76-77).”

I Don’t Want Him to be Forgotten

Losing a child is in a class by itself…We expect to see our children grow up, get their educations, marry, and have their families. We look forward to seeing our children’s children so we can enjoy the role of loving grandparents, take them to Disney World, carry their pictures with us, show them off, and brag (p. 82).

While others we know, including our child’s friends, move into new life adventures, bereaved parents are acutely aware of the myriad of events that are no longer possible, not only for their child, but for them as parents.

In this chapter, the author lists multiple ways to honor and remember a deceased child – scholarship funds, planting trees, sending greeting cards, commemorative bricks, and many more. The one thing a parent – especially us mothers – fear is that our child will be forgotten. We are the keepers of the memories. It is our job to make sure our child is not forgotten.

His Birthday is Coming Up

The first missed birthday was a nightmare, and I had assumed it would be rough. What surprised me was how future birthdays and holidays also affected me…I found myself wishing we could somehow skip these family times and simply stick to a yearly calendar without holidays (p. 98-99).

In this chapter, the author discusses the difficulty of birthdays, death days and holidays. He also discusses the “sneak attacks” of grief that happen when we least expect them, along with suggestions on how to deal with them.

When griever has one or several of these painful grief attacks crashing into his or her mind and emotions, it causes a pressure to build up, not unlike the steam pressure that builds up in a pressure cooker. When this happens, it’s important to find someone to whom you can confide about your internal pain. When someone chooses to be your companion and truly listen to your pain – without trying to fix you – you can begin to find relief and decrease the internal pressure (p. 112).

An editorial side note: As one of ten kids and pastor of a large church, the author mentions several times about the incredible support that they had. In writing this section, as well as other places where the he talks about support or finding support, I realized that I have come to this conclusion: As difficult as it is for a person who has never experienced the death of a child to realize how difficult it is to walk the daily walk of a parent whose child has died, it is equally difficult for a person who has had support in their walk as a bereaved parent to truly understand what it’s like to NOT have such support. The notion that everyone has or can find adequate support in their grief journey is an assumptive, erroneous one. I wish it were otherwise and that every bereaved parent had or could find adequate support, but I know firsthand that it’s not.

I Love My Church – But Sometimes It Hurts to Be There

Although the author talks about the incredible support he had, he also felt that “it was a place where we were misunderstood and wounded as well (p. 118).” His wife had a very difficult time being in church, partly because the all the families represented something that was no longer possible for her. The use of “encouraging” scripture to try to cheer them up, ignoring the pain, the “at least you will see them again” comments, and many other wounds opened his eyes to ways the church could better respond to those who deeply grieve.

Quite often I hear Christians use scripture to infer that because we have the confidence and hope of heaven, we should not grieve like the rest of the world. While it’s true that we grieve differently, scripture does not teach Christians to smile and bravely face our losses. It simply reminds us of the difference between our grief and the grief of those who have no hope (p. 121).

In those early days of my grief journey, I had several minister friends, asa well as members of the church, who seemed uncomfortable with my grief and sadness…It seemed they often used scriptures to try and cheer us up. One scripture in particular that was used…was I Thess. 5:16-18: “Be joyful always; pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

They would tell us to be joyful and give thanks for Denny’s death and to praise God in all circumstances. Some of my minister friends told me, “Christians with a strong faith will come through this faster.”

I listened to them and secretly wished they would finish what they had to say and move on – out of my presence. The people who said these things were never people who had lost children. Those who had lost a child knew better…It’s as though these people are the grief police, not wanting us to express our feelings of sadness. They want us to buck up and get over it (p. 123-124).

The author goes on to explain how the experiences in his church helped open his eyes to ways to minister to the grieving, instituting practices within the church that were adopted on a long-term basis.

I Didn’t Cry This Morning

Every newly bereaved person I talk with always wants to know how long his or her pain will continue, how long his or her bitter winter of sorrow will last. It’s a natural question to ask. After all, grieving is the hardest work we do, and it’s only natural to want to know “When do I get a break from this?” The soul-crushing weight of grief is almost more than a person can bear, and we often wonder if the day will ever come when we’ll smile or laugh again. Then, when we do start to get a “break” from our pain, we often feel guilty.

…It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know how long our winter of grief would continue, because it was much longer than I expected. Along the way, there have been times when I would get a glimmer of hope that we might survive it (p. 136-138).

It may take years before the green shoots of hope begin to appear in your life. Again, be patient and keep looking for them. They’ll reappear after your long winter of grief (p. 143).

The author then goes on and gives a list of 30 suggestions of where to look for encouragements of growth and healing – not crying yourself to sleep every night, going to the grocery store without falling apart when walking past your child’s favorite foods, you start noticing the beauty around you again, and many more.

In closing

The last two chapters, I’m Beginning to Live Again and A Wounded Healer?, focus on ways to find help (church, support groups, etc.), ways that the author has integrated his grief into his ministries in church and the purpose he found following the death of his son.

As I said at the beginning of this review, I found this book to be refreshingly honest and frank. Although the author talks a lot about the grief process and his own person grief journey, he also gives practical and helpful suggestions for the walk. I would highly recommend this book. As always, I suggest the reader consider what may apply to their personal lives and let go of that which may not.

(My criteria and process for reviewing books can be found here: https://onewomansperspective02.wordpress.com/2019/04/25/reviewing-books-on-grief/)

~ Becky

Apple, Dennis L, life after the death of my son: what I’m learning, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City (March 10, 2008).

© 2019 Rebecca Carney

 

 

When memories are all that are left

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I uploaded this photograph on Monday, Jason’s birthday, as my profile picture on Facebook. Every time I see it, it’s as though he’s looking right at me, ready to reach out and give me a hug. I miss Jason’s hugs. I just want to reach out, pull him close, hug him so tight and never let him go.

The photograph was taken when he was 14. I loved his beautiful, curly hair at this age. He stood right between childhood and manhood, with one foot in each. He would still playfully plop down on my lap as I sat on the couch, yet he still wanted to get a summer job to earn money like a grownup.

I wanted to keep on making memories with this awesome son of ours, but that’s something I will never have a chance to do. Whatever memories I have are all I have left. They will never be enough.

Missing you, precious boy.

Jason David Carney 7/29/82 – 3/3/02

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

July 29, 1982

Born on this day, 9 lbs, 10 1/2 oz, Jason David Carney – the most wonderful, kind, giving, empathetic, intelligent, friendly, loving, loyal, honest, level-headed, thoughtful son a parent could ever ask for. No matter the situation, he always handled himself with integrity. He always saw the good in whoever he met or knew. He always went above and beyond. He loved his family and friends unconditionally. How extremely glad and privileged we were that he was born into our family and how excited we were, looking forward to his future – graduation, marriage, kids, living and loving life as only Jason could. Oh, how I miss him. Happy birthday, my precious boy. I love you. Jason David Carney 7/29/82 – 3/3/02.

A picture is worth a thousand words

 

I have written about feeling like an empty box. I have written about how I dreamed about how the weight of grief had made me ugly. I have written about the hole Jason’s absence has created in my life.

As much as I have tried to express in words how grief makes me feel, I have found these images to express so clearly how I have felt on the impossible journey of grief. A picture is truly worth a thousand words. I don’t know how to put into words how much I miss my boy.

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Jason David Carney

July 29, 1982 – March 3, 2002

~Becky

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

(I have tried to find photo credit for these much-circulated photos, but have not been able to do so. If you know who took these photos, please let me know so I can give proper credit.)

 

Hard to say goodbye

PictureMy office is in a 1929 farmhouse that has been converted to office space. It’s a really great space, renovated in the 1980’s. The owner at the time made quality upgrades (great weather-proofing, soundproof windows, etc.), while keeping so many of the original features that gave the building character. The window and door moldings are original, glass doorknobs throughout, depression-era glass in the french doors, original hardwood floors. I seriously could live in this house! It’s beautiful, warm and inviting.

My boss and I have offices downstairs, and we lease out the four offices on the second floor. We’ve had various tenants over the years – accountants, builders, civil engineers, financial advisors. One of our tenants is moving out today, and I’m sad to see him go. Although he’s only been in the office for a year, I’ve taken a real liking to him.

We have very little in common, if anything. He’s fairly quiet, at least at work, and is a handsome young man that fits the very definition of an athlete. He’s into every sport imaginable – biking, kayaking, skiing, on and on. We don’t talk a lot, but he’s one of those people who makes me genuinely laugh or smile when we do have a conversation.

I had told this young man earlier in the week not to leave without saying goodbye. This morning, I walked in to find flowers in front of my office door, along with a note. He’s not even in the office today, so it was something he planned ahead and made a special trip to deliver. I’m sure he has no idea how much I crave beauty since Jason died (I’m not sure he even knows about Jason, as it hasn’t come up in conversation), but he could not have chosen a better way to say goodbye. Such a sweet, kind, simple, beautiful gesture.

When you’ve had as many people disappear or leave as I have, especially when people leave without ever saying goodbye, it’s hard to have another person move out of my life, no matter how large or small the connection may be. I’ve found myself sad at the thought of losing connection with another person I have begun to know and care about – this nice young man.

I don’t open up to people much at all any more. As professor and researcher Dr. Paige Toller wrote in her articleBereaved Parents’ Negotiation of Identity Following the Death of a Child,” bereaved parents often adopt an “openness-closedness” technique. They try to judge how open they can be with someone based on whether or not they feel this person may hurt them in some way. Depending on this judgment, the bereaved parent decides on how open or closed to be with this person. I’m not sure this is even a conscious decision-making process by a parent whose child has died, but it is certainly one of self-preservation. When the hurt has been so great and deep as the death of a child, other hurts tend to go deep, too.

I’ve walked through a lot since Jason died. People I thought I could trust and count on have hurt me deeply. As a result, I tend to be more closed than open, and don’t let people get very close to me or let them in my heart very readily any more. I opened up my heart just a bit to this young man, and I’m sorry to see him go. I wish him well, and am thankful for his kindness and the beauty he offered to me today in the form of these flowers. I’m not sure he knows how much it means to me, but I do.

~Becky

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

Toller, Paige W., “Bereaved Parents’ Negotiation of Identity Following the Death of a Child” (2008). Communication Faculty Publications. 77.
https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/commfacpub/77

Marriage following the death of a child

As I wrote in an earlier post, in 1977, Harriet Sarnoff Schiff wrote a book entitled The Bereaved Parent, and it was considered at the time to be groundbreakingIn the chapter “Bereavement and Marriage,” Ms. Schiff states, “some studies estimate that as high as 90 percent of all bereaved couples are in serious marital difficulty within months after the death of their child (p. 57).” This singular statement and sentiment took on a life of its own (with no research shown to back it), and it became accepted as a fact that many marriages end after the death of a child. It was quoted over and over until it became regarded as the gospel truth – if your child dies, you more than likely will have serious problems in your marriage that may end in divorce. It is still a generally-accepted fact to this day.

After I read this statement in the book, since books and research I had read over the years questioned or refuted this “accepted fact,” I performed an Internet search on “peer-reviewed articles bereaved parents and divorce.” I found some very good information and thought I would pass it along.

The death of a child creates stress on marriage

So many research articles and books are prefaced with a statement along the lines that the death of a child is catastrophic, devastating, traumatic, stressful, shattering, and is generally considered the most painful loss a person could ever experience. Any parent who has buried a child would agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments – and could probably add many more.

The death of a child adds so much stress to every part of life – emotions, finances, relationships, worldview, faith. The list goes on and on, and marriage is one of them. That being said, just the fact that a child has died doesn’t mean the marriage will end nor does it mean it becomes stronger. The possibility is there for one or the other, though.

It’s important to remember, generally speaking, that whatever shape your marriage was in and whatever “tools you had in your toolbox” and resources available to you in the “before” moment your child died are generally the same or similar tools and resources in the “after” moment, except they may be somewhat more exaggerated or diminished. If your marriage was on shaky ground before, the death of a child could emphasize those cracks even more or it could bring you closer together.

While it’s true that bereaved parents are no longer the same person after a child dies as they were before, if one partner was more rigid or less expressive or one partner is more sensitive or emotional, an entirely new person with different traits is not going to show up after a child dies. We have to learn how to navigate our way through the stresses in our marriage exacerbated by the death of our child as the person we are now (and who our spouse is now) and with the tools we have at our disposal, the same way we have to learn to navigate the world without our child.

Support from spouse

Just as a bereaved parent has expectations that friends and family will support them after a child dies, so we tend to expect our spouse to be able to support us in our deep grief. Neither of these expectations is very realistic. The fact of the matter, as Ms. Schiff states in her book, is that “it is impossible to give comfort when you feel an equal grief (p.6).”

When friends and family avoid us or don’t want to talk about our child, we tend to turn to our spouse for support and comfort. Because a spouse is also grieving the same loss and may not be able to provide the needed support – and because spouses don’t usually grieve in the same manner – it’s easy for one or both spouses to feel alone and unsupported in their grief, in turn creating additional marital tensions and/or stress. This situation is also complicated by many other factors – to name a few: lack of energy, overwhelming emotions, unrealistic expectations, and wanting to protect ourselves AND our spouse from further grief and pain.

In their article, “Grieving Together and Apart: Bereaved Parents’ Contradictions of Marital Interaction,” authors Toller and Braithwaite write about what they call “grieving together-grieving apart.”

Bereaved parents expressed a desire to grieve with their spouse in order to provide each other with comfort and support. At the same time, parents indicated they sometimes needed to grieve on their own as their experience of grief was unique from that of their partner…We labeled this grieving together-grieving apart (p. 263).

For parents,…being able to grieve and share the pain of their child’s death with their spouse was of utmost importance. At the same time, parents recognized that their own unique and individual response to their child’s death meant working through the grieving process on their own. Although [they] wanted to grieve together, both acknowledged that they each had to honor their individual grief as well.

Although parents wanted to grieve together and also honor their own individual needs, parents reported that grieving together was difficult due to the differing ways in which they and their partners approached and even expressed their grief…In addition to differing approaches to grief, parents reported that they and their partners also expressed grief in disparate ways, which influenced their ability to grieve together with their spouse and increased their perception that they were grieving more apart…This created conflict for many couples and left them believing they were alone in their experience of grief (p. 264).

There are some steps that can be taken to reduce some of these tensions. In their article, Toller and Braithwaite gave the following suggestions – accept individual differences in grieving, compromise, find alternative ways to communicate, and seeking outside help.

Accepting individual differences in grieving

One important issue for a grieving parent is to feel like their grief is important, that it is validated and not diminished or overlooked. When friends or family say things like, “Your child wouldn’t want you to be sad,” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” or the myriad of other unhelpful and hurtful comments we hear or read, a bereaved parent is made to feel that their grief is diminished or unimportant. We can write off these comments as uninformed or spoken by someone not really knowing what to say, but within our immediate families – our spouses, in particular – it’s particularly important to feel that our grief is validated and understood.

For some bereaved parents, managing the tensions of grieving together-grieving apart meant viewing each other’s way of grieving as inherent to the very nature of grief. Understanding and accepting one another’s grieving style allowed parents to honor their individual grieving needs. At the same time, accepting their individual needs resulted in parents feeling validated by one another, which in turn helped them to be more connected as a couple, consequently making it easier for parents to grieve together as well…Accepting one another’s grieving needs was not easy, but many parents believed it necessary in order to keep their marital relationship intact (p. 266).

Another important thing to realize is that, although you may both have been parents to the singular child who died, your relationships with that child were different and that will affect your grief. Your hopes and dreams and expectations for your child may have looked different than your spouse’s. Your experiences may have been different.

For my husband and I, I spent different hours of the day with Jason than Joe did. I homeschooled the kids, so the things we did during the day were different than the things Joe did with the kids when he got home from work. Yes, we shared some similar connections and activities together at times. But, there were a lot of things I did with the kids while Joe was at work, and so I have different connections and memories. I hear a song on the radio, one that Jason and I listened to as I took him to catch the bus to college, and I am flooded with memories of both of us singing at the top of our lungs as we drove along. The memory brings tears to my eyes whenever that song plays, but Joe doesn’t really have a connection to that song. Joe has memories of teaching Jason to swim and ride a bike. While I have memories of watching Joe play football in the backyard with the kids, Joe has memories of actually playing with them. Different experiences with the same child; different memories and relationships. Different grief.

Compromise

This is exactly what it sounds like. In relationships, we compromise all the time, finding ways to do something together that is important to the other person (that may not be our favorite thing to do) in order connect and show that person how much they mean to us.

The same is true with grief. Although effort may be hampered by lack of interest or energy, there are ways to find areas to do things together or to honor each other’s grief. They don’t have to be huge. It could be going to the cemetery together or going for a walk or looking at photos. Whatever is important to one person or the other for validating their grief.

One example from our lives was church. After Jason died, I experienced some bad PTSD symptoms. I could hardly sit in church (or any place that felt restrictive to me) without feeling trapped and panic-y – a flight or fight reaction. Because it was important to Joe to continue going to church consistently, I made the best effort possible to go when I felt like I could. Joe, on his part, had no problem with us sitting in the very back row closest to the door so we could leave whenever I needed to. He also was very understanding when I just couldn’t bring myself to go.

I would add one word of caution here, though, and that would be the word “mutual.” Sometimes, one partner has a stronger personality and may inadvertently be more dominant in the compromise arena, causing a partner with a less strong or more giving personality to be mowed over a bit. Joe is a much more opinionated, black-and-white person that I am, and I am a giving person who sees both sides of the coin. I would have to say that this combination did affect my grieving process in a not-so-good way for me, in particular, and there are some things I wish I had done differently instead of giving in to his wishes and putting his needs above my own. It’s really important to listen carefully to each other and actually hear and understand what the other person is saying regarding their grieving needs.

Finding alternative ways to connect and communicate

Communication doesn’t necessarily always happen verbally. In their article, Toller and Braithwaite cover some alternative ways to communicate and connect with a spouse when talking doesn’t seem to be an option.

…A number of parents found it difficult to be verbally open with each other about their child’s death. As a result, parents were closed with each other verbally, but shared thoughts and feelings non-verbally (270).

Some of the alternative ways of communicating are letter writing, holding hands and hugging, and other forms of touch.

For my husband and I, it seemed at the beginning we tended to rush to each other and hold each other as we cried. Those first days and weeks, I would hear Joe start to sob and I would just run to him to hold him as he cried. He did the same for me. We are still much more hand holders than we used to be and take time to hug and encourage each other with non-verbal communication.

Seeking outside help

“Outside help” is a pretty broad term. It could take the form of friend or family member with a listening ear who may walk beside us when our spouse is unable to do so. It could be a clergy or pastor. It could also be a licensed professional, either meeting individually or as a couple. It could also be a support group such as Compassionate Friends.

Regarding support from someone who has walked the walk, Gordon Riches and Pamela Dawson write in their article, “‘An intimate loneliness’: evaluating the impact of a child’s death on parental self-identity and marital relationships”:

Daily life is predicated on the minute detail of route tasks, family rituals and recognizable features of domestic living. The death of a child destroys this mental landscape as profoundly as an earthquake shakes one’s belief in the physical landscape. Research evidence suggests that support from others who have survived similar catastrophes can be of value for both parties. The supporter continues in the lifelong project of re-creating a lost certainty, and the newly bereaved has a model and potential guide through this unfamiliar landscape (p. 12).

For me, this was one area I wish I had pursued further. With our extended families living so far away and nearly everybody we knew disappearing, I really needed some outside support. I needed support, period!

I did try. I attended a Compassionate Friends group for mothers – with disastrous results. I reached out to Jason’s soccer coach and his wife who had lost two children in a fire, thinking they could give me some pointers on how to walk this horrible walk without my precious boy, but got no response at all to my voicemails. I reached out to church people we knew and told them how lonely we were in our grief, with very, very limited results. I tried to communicate to our homeschool group that we were dealing with this deep grief all alone, but felt like it fell on deaf ears. Our daughter and I went to a counselor once, but felt like this person really had a disconnect and lack of understanding for people who deeply grieve. The only person who I felt really heard my grief was my physician, and he gave me sleeping pills and antidepressants. I eventually gave up and figured I had to handle it on my own. Looking back, though, I wish I had found a counselor who could help me deal with some of the issues I encountered in my grief. I think it would have helped me.

Conclusion

Much more research has been done since Harriet Sarnoff Schiff wrote the book The Bereaved Parenting in 1977. If this is a subject that interests or is affecting you, please take time to read the articles linked below. If you know of any other good books or articles on the subject, please feel free to comment.

~ Becky

P.S. For simplification in writing, I have written in terms of a married couple, although this could apply to other relationship connections.

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

Links:

Toller, Paige & Braithwaite, Dawn. (2009). Grieving Together and Apart: Bereaved Parents’ Contradictions of Marital Interaction. Journal of Applied Communication Research – J APPL COMMUN RES. 37. 257-277. 10.1080/00909880903025887. https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1014&context=commfacpub

W. Toller. “Using Communication to Cope with Loss” Communication Currents Vol. 4 Iss. 4 (2009) https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=commfacpub

This is a study commissioned by the Compassionate Friends in 1996: Riches, G. and Dawson, P. (1996), ‘An intimate loneliness’: evaluating the impact of a child’s death on parental self‐identity and marital relationships. Journal of Family Therapy, 18: 1-22. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1467-6427.1996.tb00031.x