Book Review: The Bereaved Parent by Harriet Sarnoff Schiff

Written in 1977, nine years following the death of her son in 1968, The Bereaved Parent by Harriet Sarnoff Schiff is touted in the back-of-the-book description as the “classic  book for parents whose child has died – and for all who want to help them.” From what I’ve read, this particular book on grief and loss was one of the first of its kind written by a parent whose child had died and, therefore, was embraced by bereaved parents and widely considered as groundbreaking.

Book Introduction

In the introduction, Ms. Schiff emphasizes the fact that only a person who has walked this walk of a bereaved parent can truly understand what it’s like to walk the walk.

Some things are beyond describing. No matter how eloquent the words, their impact can fall flat when not accompanied by a similar experience…the emotions one feels are only believable and truly understood by a fellow bereaved parent. (p. xi)

She then gives her reason for writing the book: to give some suggestions that might help fellow bereaved parents on how to cope and an encouragement to carry on.

What we needed then was somebody who could say, “I survived the same ordeal you are now enduring. You can do it. I have some suggestions that might help.”

We would have placed a value beyond price on such assurances. We could have avoided some dreadful pitfalls had we been warned by people who had undergone the same grief we now faced.

…Parents with dead babies, parents whose sons died in war, parents who are elderly and lived to bury their middle-aged children, all have a great need to know that others have experienced the emotions they are feeling and that these others are dealing effectively with both their bereavement and life.

But just as important as knowing you are not alone is knowing you can and must learn to carry on despite this most unnatural of disasters.

The death of a child is frequently called the ultimate tragedy. I believe this is true. But it is a tragedy that must not be compounded by allowing everything around you to die also. There are other children, mates, sisters, brothers, friends, who need and deserve to see you functioning well.

This book is intended to help you regain that level. (p. xii, xiv)

Grieving

Although she gives some excellent advice, I feel like one of Ms. Schiff’s goals in writing this book is to encourage the grieving to “move on” as a recurring theme. For example, in the chapter entitled “Bereavement and Grieving,” Ms. Schiff writes:

Many of the negative patterns, unfortunately, are set during the weakest time – the most vulnerable time – for these parents. They are set during the early stages of grieving…It is during this early period, even though the pain is great, that we must begin to take the first steps out of the cocoon of mourning and back into the land of the living.

Although in no way should your grief be buried, it is important to take some positive steps. Do it slowly, trying to be gentle with yourself…It is important that no one neglect taking that first small step – and it should be a small one. That way, if you fall, it’s just a tiny way down. It won’t be terribly hard to climb back up again.

It’s something you can do. (p. 30-31)

She encourages dads to allow themselves to cry or to have lunch with friends or lead an activity, for mothers to put on lipstick or change their hairstyle. It feels as if she is trying to encourage bereaved parents to move on, to look for “something left to enjoy” that would penetrate their grief. Try something. If you fall down, get up and try again. “It’s something you can do.”

In the very first chapter of the book on the very first page, the author gives the biblical story of King David who, immediately following the death of his child, adorned himself with fancy clothes and put on a tremendous feast.

When friends asked him how he could eat with his child newly dead, he replied he had done all that was humanly possible while the boy was alive and now that he was gone, it was time to pickup the pieces of living and go on with life…The wise king had come to a truth that countless parents in pain have also found. The living must go on. (p. 1)

She also uses the example of the story of David later in the book, telling how their rabbi told this story at their son’s funeral.

He (the rabbi) made an excellent choice. He told the story of David and how he did everything possible for his son while the boy was alive, but, when the son died, David once again took up the business of living…It was a selection…[that] suggested a path to follow after the funeral — to attempt to emulate David and to take up life once again. (p.10-11)

Although I agree with her that we, as bereaved parents, can’t allow ourselves to become recluse, the whole get back on your feet and do something to get “out of the cocoon of mourning and back into the land of the living” early in the grieving process seems a bit premature. I feel that it puts undue pressure on parents to feel like they have to begin the “moving on” process as soon as possible following the death of their child, and it’s an unfair standard to impose on bereaved parents.

I feel, on one hand, Ms. Schiff is espousing a “new” (at the time) philosophy that it’s okay and healthy to grieve, while also seemingly to write from the accepted viewpoint at the time that a bereaved parent needs to figure out how to move on.

One interesting antidote Ms. Schiff gave regarding the perspective on grieving at that time:

One funeral director, who holds  a master’s degree in social work, recently went so far as to say that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, with her magnificent public stoicism at the funeral of the assassinated president, “set grieving back a hundred years. She created an example of dignity for the world that people emulated just as they emulated her dress and little dinner parties…not stopping to think that in private she cried…just as we all do.”

“Mrs. Onassis,” said the funeral director, “set a tone for grieving the people began to follow blindly — and one that became expected by onlookers. Some of my clients, bereaved parents, actually were ashamed of their own comparative ‘lack of control’ as this attitude filtered down to the general population.” (p. 16)

Communication

One other area where I feel Ms. Schiff puts undue pressure on the bereaved parents was in her chapter titled “Bereavement and Communicating.” While addressing the difficulty in knowing what to say to a parent whose child has died, Ms. Schiff writes:

It seems impossible to me to understand the cruelty of friends and family who desert parents at such a time. But in my research I found countless couples who had horror stores to relate, such as a brother, once close, who stopped calling his sister shortly after her child died, or friends who were never heard from again after the funeral.

…Perhaps the beginnings of this type of alienation lie in the awkwardness of not knowing what to say. This discomfort can create a million excuses for a friend or relative not to call a bereaved parent. One day falls hard upon another, and suddenly the friend looks around and a month has gone by without making the difficult phone call. Now, with the time lapse, along with the awkwardness comes the need for apology, and once again the evasion “too busy” to make that call takes hold. Soon, enough time has elapsed to make the problem so embarrassing that it’s simply easier to forget the whole thing.

I believe, after much investigation that, unfair as it may see, the burden for sustaining relationships rests with the bereaved parents. At a time when it is most difficult to do, they are placed in the position of having to take the initiative of making that first call, extending that first invitation…Strike a tone of friendship. Extend a friendly hand. People want to help. They just need to be shown how…By taking that first step, the danger is averted of the awkward pause that could last a lifetime…People are basically decent. My experience has shown they truly want to help. After all, it is most difficult to live with oneself knowing you have deserted a bereaved family.

But, as in may human endeavors, people need guidance. They need to be shown how. The responsibility for maintaining social relationships often comes to rest with the bereaved. We are the ones who must set the tone and pace for social relationships. If we don’t, we may find that no one will.

Contact your friends. Ask how family members are. Put people at ease by speaking freely…Invite someone over for coffee. Or suggest meeting at a restaurant for a meal.

…It is entirely possible – if not probable – that your first act of initiative will fail. In fact, you may fall flat on your face. But the second time you take the initiative will be easier until eventually you have mastered the art of communicating although bereaved. (p. 103-107)

I have to say that one thing I will never understand is how many people we thought to be good friends – and on whom we assumed we could count for support during the worst time of our lives – could have deserted us so badly and left us so alone after Jason died. Even when I reached out, I felt like I had my hand slapped away.

I realize that it is a very difficult thing to know what to do or say when a child dies. Conversation is awkward. People don’t want to do or say the wrong thing. But I entirely disagree with the assumption – even specific direction – that the parent whose child has died has to be the one reach out, to make the invitations, to take on the “burden for sustaining relationships.” With all the bereaved parent is dealing with, it’s just plain wrong and backwards.

It’s too easy a cop-out any more, in my opinion, to just say “I don’t know what to do,” and then do nothing or expect the bereaved family to give direction or reach out. Nobody really knows what to do, especially the family who has lost a dearly loved family member and whose lives have been entirely shattered. It’s all uncharted territory for everyone. We do notice who does and who does not walk with us. We notice who stepped up and who stepped away. We forgive, even without forgiveness asked, but we notice and remember.

This may sound harsh, but, when we, as bereaved parents and siblings, are at our most raw and most vulnerable, we don’t need to be deserted. People need to step up…and to continue stepping up. We may not hear them the first time – or even the second or third time – through the fog of grief or be able to respond right then, but we don’t have the energy to reach out to family members and friends and to teach them how to support us. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it should not be the norm.

There is a lot more information available now and a lot more research has been done on grief following the death of a child, as well as some very good information written about how to help a person who is grieving. One example is a book I reviewed previously titled “A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help,” by Ginny Callaway. In addition, various bloggers have written some excellent posts on ways to help a grieving friend. I feel like there is more than enough information for a friend who would like to “help,” if only one takes the time to look.

Marriage

Regarding marriage, Ms. Schiff accurately writes that it is unrealistic to expect bereaved parents to be able to support and comfort each other. The “at least you have each other for comfort” assumption could not be further from the truth. Not only could Joe and I not adequately support or comfort each other or our surviving children, neither could we, as Jason’s parents, support or comfort Alina’s parents, even though our children died in the same accident and we certainly understood to some degree the true and deep extent of their loss. I felt a strong assumption by people we knew that this should be something we could provide for each other, and, because of that assumption, some people felt that they were off the hook to step up.

Certainly having each other for comfort would be the logical solution. Unfortunately, as a number of parents whose child died have discovered, it is impossible to give comfort when you feel an equal grief. (p. 6)

On marriage, Ms. Schiff also makes the assertion that “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) In my reading over the years, I have heard this statement refuted, so I performed an internet search on “peer-reviewed articles bereaved parents and divorce.” (Just a disclaimer here: Because I can’t afford to subscribe to academic sites or educational journal sites, I only have access to and use free publications, peer-review/pre-publication manuscripts, etc. I do, however, try to find reputable free publications.)

One article I found states:

One particularly frightening myth about parental bereavement is the myth that suggests that a high percentage of parents divorce after the death of a child. It is hard to imagine a more painful prediction following the death of a child than the suggestion that one’s marriage is also at risk. Yet countless married survivors have been exposed to this myth in some form.

Like many myths, nestled inside is tiny kernel of information that snowballed into its current, unrecognizable form. One of the earliest books on grief and loss, groundbreaking at the time, was The Bereaved Parent by Harriet Schiff, published in 1977. It was the first of its kind, and bereaved parents everywhere found solace in the words of a woman who was also on the grief journey following the death of her ten-year-old son.

…In the book’s chapter entitled “Bereavement and Marriage,” Schiff writes, “In fact, some studies estimate that as high as 90% of all bereaved couples are in serious marital difficulty within months after the death of their child.” Schiff doesn’t cite her sources, and subsequent analyses of the bereavement research of that time do not clearly indicate where that opinion might have originated. Yet somehow this relative innocuous statement about marital strains became a divorce “fact.” People began to perpetuate the notion that 90% of all marriages end in divorce following the death of a child.

https://www.taps.org/articles/21-1/divorce

In 2006, The Compassionate Friends organization addressed this question in one of their surveys. The results found that only 16 percent of parents divorce following the death of a child, and a significantly lower percentage (4%) said it was because of the death of their child.

In a study entitled “Bereavement and Divorce: Does the death of a child affect parents’ marital stability?,” one researcher (Torkild Hovde Lyntstad) looks at the negative effects of the death of a child on marriage.

The death of a child can be an extreme stressor for the bereaved…Bereaved parents generally assume a more negative view of the world compared to non-bereaved parents…Multiple studies indicate that the grieving period can last for a very long time, even indefinitely…The results of psychological studies of bereaved couples show that bereavement serves as a major stressor in the marriage and negatively affects many aspects of marital interaction.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263221117_Bereavement_and_divorce_Does_the_death_of_a_child_affect_parents’_marital_stability

Yet another article, “Parents Positive Interpersonal Coping After a Child’s Death,” emphasizes positive evidence of marriages surviving the death of a child.

Despite the challenging context of grieving for the death of a child, evidence shows that it is possible for parents to manage and preserve their relationship…The death of a child can lead to marital distress and divorce…however, there is also evidence of resiliency in parents’ relationship. Research has shown that not only marriages can survive the death of a child, but that this loss may even contribute to parents’ greater cohesion and strengthening of their relationship.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10826-017-0697-5

Without a doubt, the death of a child creates some major stressors on all aspects of life, marriages included, and there has been considerably more research on the subject than when Ms. Schiff wrote her book. It’s important not to assume your marriage will fail as a result of the death of a child, but it’s equally important to be aware of the pressures that it puts on a marriage and to consider strategies on how to address these pressures.

In researching this section on marriage, I have read a couple of really good articles about the stress of grieving on couples and suggested coping mechanisms, and I will review them in another post.

Siblings

One of the most difficult roles for a mother or father, when a child dies, is to continue being a parent to surviving offspring…Parenthood now becomes walking and talking and listening and hearing someone else at a time when it takes everything just to think for oneself.

Unfortunately, many surviving children suffer because their parents were unable to fulfill this responsibility, and the effects can be lifelong…A recurrent theme appears to be that the living children received precious little by way of comfort from their parents.

…Children who from infancy turned instinctively to their parents to ease hurts suddenly and in the worst possible light see another side of a mother or father…They expect solace from people who themselves need consoling.

…It requires enormous strength to deal with others’ hurts at such a time, but it is important not to allow a living child to feel alone. Use any reserve you have to take time through the initial grieving process to switch roles from the comforted to the comforter…Remember, your children are suffering just as you are suffering. They also fear the strength of their grief. (p. 83, 84, 91, 96)

In this particular chapter on Bereavement and Siblings, Ms. Schiff uses some of her personal experiences to explain the difficulties siblings go through following the death of a child. Even though she felt she and her husband had adequately supported their surviving children following the death of their son, she found out in interviews for this book that her surviving son, in particular, felt alone and unsupported in his grief. Their younger daughter had not been allowed to attend the funeral of her brother, and Ms. Schiff states her opinion that “nothing constructive can be gained by taking a child under seven to such a tragic rite.” (p. 95) As an adult, however, her daughter expressed anger at not being allowed to attend her brother’s funeral.

Entire books could be – and, since this book was written, have been – written on the subject of sibling grief. It’s difficult to cover this topic in just one chapter. Ms. Schiff gives some suggestions for talking to children of different ages and gives a list of do’s and don’ts, including asking leading questions to help children open up to talk about their grief and resisting making a deceased child into a saint, something impossible to live up to by surviving siblings.

Siblings are often called the “forgotten mourners.” Surviving siblings are asked by friends and family how the parents are doing, yet no one asks how they are doing. We were once again reminded of this recently on the anniversary of Jason’s death. Although I received some messages of support and remembrance, particularly in response to a Facebook posting, our daughter received no such messages of support or remembrance at all. This has been true from the very beginning since Jason died, and it just breaks my heart. Her grief at the death of her beloved brother was – and is – equal to ours, and she deserved – and still deserves – support that has been woefully lacking. This could be said of other surviving siblings, too, I would venture to say.

Functioning and the Rest of Your Life

The last two chapters of the book, “Bereavement and Functioning” and “Bereavement and the Rest of your Life,” are an encouragement to look beyond grief and into the future.

Functioning even at the simplest level is not easy after a child dies. In fact, it is a very frightening time. Suddenly, everyday things begin to loom large because your senses actually feel distorted…bereaved parents come to feel the whole world has come to a standstill during that initial period just after a child’s death. It is shocking to discover this is not the case. The world has gone on. Life has gone on. (p. 130-131)

She goes on to make some suggestions of how function in a world that has not stopped, starting with small tasks such as everyday chores, followed by small incremental steps “to bring something to life.”

When I began to accept the premise that functioning despite my sadness was like hiking with a heavy backpack that could not be removed, I underwent a marked change in attitude. I decided that I wanted to cope, to function, to walk through the forest, even though I was burdened by a great weight.

Mere survival, mere existence, is no longer enough for me and should not be for you.

Anyone can exist. But you have endured more pain than just anyone. You have undergone the ultimate tragedy. You owe yourself more than a shuffling-along existence. You owe yourself some surefooted living. (p. 139-140)

She concludes the book with an encouragement to not be concerned with what other people think you should do or not do, but rather to listen to your own instincts and to “concern yourself with functioning as best you can.” (p. 146)

Final Analysis

Although this book has some very good information, some of it felt a bit dated (i.e. Vietnam-era references, etc.) and the book feels like a bit like a product of its time, one when grief was thought that it needed to be “managed” as soon as possible. As I stated earlier, it’s as though the book is written as a mixture of “it’s okay to grieve” coupled with an encouragement “you have to find a way to move on.” While both of these are true, to be sure, they feel a bit too tightly compressed together in the book.

It’s important to remember, however, that at that time the generally accepted time period for grief was a few weeks to a few months after death.* Also worth noting, in my opinion, is that Ms. Schiff’s son died 1968 and that the Kubler-Ross book on the five stages of grief was written 1969, a book that took on a life of its own as the “norm” of how people should grieve or be expected to grieve. It is no small feat that Ms. Schiff wrote this book challenging some of the accepted norms of the day and speaking of her experiences as a bereaved parent. Kudos to her for tackling such a difficult subject at that time and writing this “groundbreaking” book. I feel it may have opened the door for many that followed.

As with all literature on grieving, it’s important to read this book through the prism of when the book was written and the author’s experience and point of view, taking from the text what is helpful to your life and letting the rest go. This also applies to whatever I write.

~Becky

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

*Rogers, Catherine H et al. “Long-term effects of the death of a child on parents’ adjustment in midlife.” Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43) vol. 22,2 (2008): 203-11. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.22.2.203

 

Reviewing Books on Grief

A while back, I purchased some books on grief for the purpose of reading them and writing reviews here on my site. But, I sort of got burned out reading books on grief, the project languished and accompanying books sat in a box. When I ran across the box recently, I decided it was time to delve back into this project. Since I hope to begin soon writing reviews on some of these books, I thought I would share my book review process.

I’m old school when it comes to books and research articles – I like holding the actual, printed item in my hands as I read – and I mark up books and research articles as I read. I’ve always been one to make notes in the margins, underline and highlight things I think are important. (I think I got this from my dad; he notoriously wrote in his books and Bibles.) Keeping several pens beside me – several colors of gel or liquid ink pens and a highlighter or two – I make notes and highlight as I read. I think this process helps me maintain focus and also helps me find things later in the text.

After gathering my pens, the first thing I do before reading a book on grief is to look at the copyright date. Then, as soon as I can find the date of the event that led to the writing of the book (death of a child or loved one, date of research performed, etc.), I write that date beside the copyright date. That gives me an idea of the span of time between the two dates. I think this is especially important when writing about the death of a child. As most bereaved parents can tell you, there is a huge difference in perspective between year 1 and year 2, or year 2 and year 5. In my opinion, true perspective comes with time.

I also make notes in the front of the book as to the author’s relationship to the topic of grief. Has the author experience the death of a child? Is the author a medical expert writing on the topic? Is this book a subject of research rather than one of walking the walk? Does the author make a valid, strong connection to the reality of walking the walk of grief that he/she is trying to address?

The motivation and accurate understanding of the author is important when reading a book, especially as a bereaved parent trying to understand this difficulty walk. For example, I recently read a statement in a book about the percentage of couples who end up divorced following the death of a child. Since there was no supporting data, I did an internet research of peer-review articles on “divorce following death of a child” and printed off several that caught my interest. One article directly refuted the statement in the book, so I highlighted this portion of the article. Another article in a well-respected magazine compared the author’s experience of how her marriage was affected WHEN HER DOG DIED to a couple’s marriage survival following the death of their child. It was an astoundingly horrific comparison, in my opinion. No matter how much you love your dog, there is absolutely no basis of comparison to the death of a child. Quite honestly, I was so offended by the comparison that all I could do was rip the article to shreds in disgust. I think most parents who have lost a child would agree.

The next thing I do is to look to see if there are any references listed in the back of the book. I think this is especially important when making strong statements. For example, if a book is going to a statement that 90% of couples who have a child die end up in divorce, I’d like to see the supporting research behind such a statement. References also give me further suggestions of books to read or articles to locate.

As I read, I make notes in the margin, underline and highlight things that catch my attention – interesting items, things I agree with, things I disagree with, things I want to further research. I’ve been know to write a great big “NO” right on top of a paragraph that seems especially egregious to me.

When I’m done reading the book, I’ll go back through and re-read what I underlined or highlighted and perhaps make further notes. If there are references or unsubstantiated statements, I’ll try to do some research on my own to see what the research source says or see if I can find some research on the unsubstantiated statements (either in support of or refuting the statements). I’ll also make note of any books mentioned that I might like to read.

And then I write.

This has been a proven way for me whenever I’ve needed or wanted to read a book or article for a deeper purpose than pleasure reading – school, reviews, research, etc.

And that’s it. That’s the process I will use when reviewing books on this site…in case you were curious and wanted to know.

~Becky

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

Book Review: A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help by Ginny Callaway

IMG_0587In a gift shop, alongside books about local lore and tourist information, I recently found a book on grief written by an author who practically lives right in my own backyard, so to speak. The book is entitled “A Friend in Grief, Simple Ways to Help” by Ginny Callaway and is a Next Generation Indie Book Award winner. Since I always keep an eye out for helpful books on grieving to read and recommend, I picked it up.

The first thing I look for when reading a book on grief written by a bereaved parent is how much time has passed since the death of the child. In my opinion, a lot of perspective and practical wisdom can be gained with time. If a book is written by an “expert” (as in psychologist, etc.), I look to see whether the author’s experience is clinical or experiential. To me, it makes a lot of difference whether an author has walked in similar shoes and how long he or she walked in those shoes. This book was written by Ms. Callaway in 2011, 22 years after her 10 year-old daughter died in a car accident. She states that the book is written from her “experiences as a grieving mother and from…suggestions of more than 100 people…who have first-hand experience with the death of a loved one.” (p. 15)

IMG_0588A Friend in Grief is a small book which I found to be very well-written and very readable. Each chapter is brief, to the point, and contains specific helpful suggestions. The Content page is also helpful in that it lists each chapter title and briefly states what the reader will find in each chapter.

Ms. Callaway starts off the book with an introduction telling the circumstances of her daughter’s death, followed by the first chapter which tells the reader how this book could help. Ms. Callaway says, “Most people feel ill-equipped and awkward when faced with a friend’s grief. We want to be supportive, but we don’t know how…Our society doesn’t provide us with much guidance on how to go to our neighbor’s door…Instead, we stay behind our own door, peeking out the window, when we really want to reach out.” (p. 14) She then encourages the reader to step forward instead of stepping away. “There is a rewarding aspect in comforting your grieving friend. As you put aside your own fears and self-consciousness and put an arm around someone in need, your fears will drop away and you will feel better about yourself.” (p. 14)

In the chapter on “What to Say that Is Kind and Helpful,” Ms. Callaway says:

I always thought my words to a grieving friend needed to have a certain power, be meaningful and make everything better. I sincerely wanted to say the “right” thing, to be the one with the memorable words of wisdom to make the problem go away…The real question is: Can I really do or say anything that will make my friend feel good and make everything better? The answer is no. There are no magic words…It’s important for us to let go of these unrealistic, self-imposed expectations that keep us from reaching out when we are so needed…Our role is to be the friend, no a counselor. Friends are there without being asked, to help do everyday things and to listen. It’s as simple and as powerful as that. (p. 30)

Just a side note…I’ve pondered this difficult situation many times – that of stepping forward into grief or stepping away when someone we know has lost a dearly loved one – and I’ve sort of settled on the following theory. When someone we know has lost a loved one, we do what we know to do immediately following the death. We send flowers or a a gift or a card. We go to the funeral or memorial service. We tell the bereaved how sorry we are and that we are praying for them or thinking of them. We sign up to make a meal for the bereaved. After that, there are crucial times that set the path for our continued relationship with the griever.

The first crucial time is not long after the first few weeks. Awkwardness steps in, the initial “action” tasks are done, and then we don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to say. When the initial activity is done, what do we do then? Do we step forward…or do we step away? Do we walk alongside the griever…or do we cross to the other side of the street (or down the next aisle in the grocery store), hoping we haven’t been seen, to avoid contact? Do we disappear or do we support? It’s not easy to step forward into grief. It’s awkward. It’s not very pretty. It’s fearful. But, I think that once that fear has been conquered and the effort made, the stepping forward on a continual basis becomes a bit easier and, as Ms. Callaway says, becomes rewarding. It takes a lot of guts and it takes a dedication of time, but it can be well worth the effort. We feel better about ourselves and that becomes self-perpetuating. The result is that the griever feels loved and supported.

The opposite is true, too. When we avoid the griever and disappear, we feel guilty and bad about our behavior towards the bereaved. We know we’ve avoided them; they know we’ve avoided them. Then what do we do? We feel even more awkward and fearful, don’t know how to step forward, and that becomes self-perpetuating, too, on our part. As time goes by, it becomes even harder to break the cycle and step forward. The result is that the griever feels hurt, abandoned and alone. Perhaps if we put aside some of our “unrealistic, self-imposed expectations,” it would be easier to step forward.

This becomes self-perpetuating on the part of the bereaved, too. I’ve written extensively about how many people disappeared and how little support we had following Jason’s death. For me, I had a hard time believing that the person who called me once every three or six months to “see how I was doing” (when I didn’t hear from him or her at all in between) actually cared. I felt like I was free-falling into a pitch-black pit and there was no one there to reach out and help stop my fall. I quit trusting in friendships very much and built walls around my heart to protect it from further hurt, and I would periodically peek out from behind those walls. I think I realized those walls were not healthy, and I tried reaching out. When I did try to reach out to people I knew, it was not always successful. I sometimes felt like I got my hand slapped. I felt rejected because of my grief…and the other person’s fear and awkwardness. I would then pull back behind my walls to protect myself and my heart. It’s a hard cycle to break once it’s set.

There are other crucial times when we can choose to step forward. As I said above, I realized the walls I had put up to protect my heart were not healthy for me. When the bereaved reaches out at a later time, we once again have an opportunity to choose whether to step forward or step back. I had one friend who, months after Jason died, sent me an email to apologize for disappearing. I was so relieved that someone finally “got it” that it was hard to see people disappear from our lives. But, then I didn’t hear from her again for a long time, and that was really hard for me. I also got a letter from a gal about a year after Jason died, apologizing for avoiding me because she didn’t know what to say. I appreciated the apology, but I didn’t hear anything else from her. With so many people in the same boat – awkward and avoiding us – who was there to step forward?

Another crucial time is down the road. You have walked with your friend for a while. You are getting tired of your friend being so sad all the time, are tired of hearing the same old stories over and over again as your friend tries to work through her grief, and feel like it’s time for her to move on…or maybe you feel like it’s time for you to move on. What do you do? I ran into a fellow bereaved parent ten years after Jason died. I felt like she had adequate support following the death of her child, both immediately and the continued years. I was surprised when she told me that, now that she was ready to “do things,” there was no one left. The people that had offered support initially grew weary and tired of waiting for her to “move on,” so they had moved on themselves. Her support base had moved on without her, and she didn’t have friends to do anything with. It’s hard to be there for the long haul. If some people feel like they need to move one, hopefully there will be others who step forward.

Back to the book review…Each chapter is concise, giving helpful suggestions on what to do and what not to do in order to help the bereaved. Ms. Callaway dedicates chapters on helping a returning co-worker and how the medical community can be supportive. Some chapters, such as the one entitled “Immediately After The Death,” give a checklist of helpful suggestions, and the Resources section at the back of the book not only lists groups to contact, but also repeats these checklists.

Ms. Callaway dedicates a chapter to ways to help during the first year. She points out obvious days, such as the deceased’s birthday or a holiday, but also makes suggestions to think of the less obvious times. “Other days may be more subtle, like your friend’s birthday. Often the few days before an anniversary date or special day can be especially taxing, sometimes more than the actual day itself.” (p. 71)

The chapter on “In the Future: Holidays and Anniversary Dates” is only two pages long, but encourages the reader to be the one who notices and remembers.

For the person in pain…the grief remains…Life is still difficult and support is still needed. The year of firsts will pass, but every year thereafter, the same birthdays, death dates, anniversaries and holidays will happen again. Though the punch they pack will gradually lessen, these “special” days will always be there to be remembered and acknowledged. (p. 72-73)

Remember. Remember. Remember. Keep remembering. Tell your friend what you remember. Write down what your memories to give to your friend if you aren’t comfortable talking about them. Give your friend pictures of her child that she may not have. It makes a lot of difference. One gal sent me a card on the anniversary of Jason’s death. It meant so much to me, and I realized one year I was looking forward to getting her card. Unfortunately, that was the year she quit sending them.

Ms. Callaway’s husband, musician David Holt, finishes the book by writing a chapter for the bereaved, entitled “A Roadmap for the Grieving.” He offers some helpful suggestions to the bereaved on what to expect and how to help oneself during this time. It also is concise, but offers some good things to remember.

I would recommend this book to both the bereaved and friends. As I said at the beginning, it’s short, well-written and easily readable in one sitting. It encourages proactive behavior, giving the reader specific suggestions and reasons to step forward instead of away. I think the premise of the book can be summarized in the last paragraph in the chapter on “In the Future”: “Reaching out can feel infinitely difficult. But if you stop and think for one minute what a hard time your friend is having, it will seem easy for you to pick up a pen, make a call, or pay a visit.” (p. 73) It bears repeating: As difficult a time as you are having, it pales by comparison to what your friend is going through. Stepping forward can make all the difference in the world. If not you, then who???

© 2013 Rebecca R. Carney

Work Cited:
Callaway, Ginny. A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help. Fairview, NC: High Windy Press, 2011.

Book Review: Beyond Endurance: When a Child Dies by Ronald J. Knapp

I recently checked out from our local library Beyond Endurance: When a Child Dies (1986 edition) by Ronald J. Knapp. (Beyond Endurance was updated in 2005 to include a chapter on internet resources.) Dr. Knapp was a professor of sociology at Clemson University, and also co-authored Motherhood and Mourning: Perinatal Death with Dr. Larry Peppers in 1980, covering losses from miscarriage to postnatal death.

The jacket flap states that this book is “the first book based on empirical [information gained by observation] studies of the death of children.” Dr. Knapp had not lost a child, but based his findings on “an assessment and analysis of in-depth interviews with 155 families…who had suffered the loss of a child ranging in age from 1 to 28…three months to five years prior to the interviews” (xii). In some ways, this book reads like a research paper filled with heart. His goal is “to know better how to respond and how best to offer our help and assistance to families and parents undergoing the agony of losing a child (21).” Beyond Endurance offers suggestions to professionals, to those surrounding grievers, and to grieving parents.

Although an outsider, Dr. Knapp states that he tried to see and feel what the parents went through, eventually becoming a “participant experiencer” as the parents talked about their stories (xiii). The people and stories became real to him as he listened and then took the information he had collected and synthesized it into this book. He does acknowledge that, although he can imagine what it’s like to lose a child, he “can draw away from it and the ‘experience’…[and it] becomes a simple exercise of the mind, a large step away from the real world…But persons who have actually lost a child cannot pull themselves free…They must face this grueling, gut-wrenching reality every hour, every minute, every second of every day. There is no place to run, no place to hide (18).”

Dr. Knapp focuses on three types of child death – from a long illness, sudden death, and murdered children – and devotes a specific chapter to each (including comments on his observations of the differences between the specific types of losses). He also notes common patterns he observed in the bereaved parents, including the fear that memories will fade away and the inability to find a context for understanding the death of a child. It was interesting to read Dr. Knapp’s assessment that “in the case of death after a long illness, parents were more successful in their attempt to describe and work through consequences of their loss.” He found that parents who lost a child after a long illness had already gone through the initial stages of shock and denial, and had experienced an anticipatory mourning; therefore, they were better able to vocalize their experience and feelings in talking about their child’s death. The parents felt they had a chance to prepare, to wrap up loose ends, and to say goodbye.

Dr. Knapp found that parents whose child had died suddenly (including suicide and murder) had “difficulty responding” when asked to describe their emotions and experiences. “It was as if they were forced to relive those scenes again (70).” He found that family members could clearly and accurately describe the reactions of other family members, yet were unable to put into words or sometimes even remember their own reactions immediately following a child’s death (72). “Apparently the mind has a way of protecting the self from too harsh a reality. We all have the ability…to reject something that is too threatening to our system to absorb all at once (71).” Parents whose children were murdered had the additional horror of the crime being intentional.

The chapter on “The Family in Crisis” covers how availability of internal and external resources can help the family…and how lack of them can be a detriment or cause additional stress. The chapter entitled “Some Special Problems” deals with topics such as lack of community support, the child’s empty room, and special days. Both chapters contain good, practical suggestions.

Probably the most helpful chapter in this book is entitled “Coping.” Dr. Knapp defines coping as “allowing ourselves to mourn a loss actively…Grief work cannot be hurried. Each person has a built-in time frame for completing it. However, one must make a determined effort to met it — to face it — head-on, and to accept the pain that realization of the loss will bring (187).” He feels that the parents who are most successful in dealing with the loss face it and actively work on grieving while being supported by family and friends. He states:

“Of course it is easier to do this if one has help and support from the community of friends who surround the individual. This tends to remove feelings of isolation and leaves parents with the impression that the death of their child was an event that mattered in the eyes of others as well.

However, this kind of support, particularly in response to child death, is often terminated too quickly. Family supporters and friends often treat the death of a child as they would any other type of death. They give support and assistance for a few weeks and then expect the grieving to end and the survivors to get on with living as usual. Thus support and understanding are curtailed too soon and the survivors are left on their own to fend for themselves in the wilderness of their intense emotions. This produces a double hardship for parents… (187).”

Dr. Knapp then personalizes the question “How do I respond to this? Can I help? Can you help? Can anyone help? (emphasis his) (187)”, giving excellent suggestions in the chapter to both supporters (external support) and grievers (internal support). He addresses the question of why the family can’t help or give adequate support from each other (“We cannot expect one crippled person to pick up and carry another [crippled person] (191).”) He also addresses the necessity of continued support (“The sharing of grief with other human beings who are there, willingly giving of themselves, has enormous therapeutic value (192).”), and why the lack of support causes grievers to turn inward and feel isolated/alone. Dr. Knapp encourages “participatory grievers” (those most intimate friends) to “break down the walls of resistance that many families throw up to protect themselves from the insensitivities of others…As true helpers, we should be there as their safe havens. And most important, we should be there for as long as it takes, as long as there are needs to be met (192)”. Although it seems to me that “breaking down” walls of resistance might come across as a bit heavy-handed to a grieving parent (perhaps a more gentle and kind approach would work better), there is no doubt in my mind that support makes all the difference in the world.

He finishes up the book with chapters concerning depression, support groups, and one specific chapter dedicated to the group Kinder-Mourn. (Although I don’t doubt the helpfulness and legitimacy of this group – and I am certainly grateful for any group supporting bereaved parents! – it seemed odd to me to include one entire,  specific chapter on Kinder-Mourn. It seemed more like a specific plug for the group, written by one of its board members. Just my opinion.)

Overall, I would recommend this book. I think anyone – professionals, those surrounding grievers, and grieving parents – would find helpful information here. Probably my only wish was that his sample size had been a little larger (although each group leader from which his interviewees were pulled felt like a good/accurate cross-section of participants was represented), and that his research had been from all sections of the country (his interviews of “white, generally middle-class Americans (28)” took place in the southeast). I’m sure time and financial constraints made both of these difficult. However, Dr. Knapp does feel that the group is accurately “representative of the ‘typical’ American family (28).” As always, one must filter out what applies to his or her own specific situation. There is no one shoe that fits all, but it bears mentioning that I made so many notes while reading this book that I bought the updated version to re-read and for reference.

Knapp, Ronald J. Beyond Endurance: When a Child Dies. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney

Book Review: The Lively Shadow by Donald M. Murray

I don’t know about you, but when I read a book written by a bereaved parent concerning the death of his or her child, one of the first things I do is try to figure out the distance of time between the loss and the writing of the book. I think it’s an important factor to take into account. How long did it take this particular author to reach a place where s/he could talk about the loss or to reach the point where s/he felt s/he had something to say? How far into  the journey of integrating the loss into life is this person? Has s/he walked along the path of grief long enough that this person might have something valid to speak into my life?

I recently finished the book The Lively Shadow by Donald M. Murray, written concerning the death of his middle daughter, Lee, from Reyes syndrome in 1977. It took Mr. Murray 25 years to reach the point where he could write the story of his daughter’s death – even though he was an accomplished author, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Boston Globe, and an English professor at the University of New Hampshire; even though both Lee’s doctor and his family agreed (six weeks after Lee’s death) that he needed to write the story of his journey; even though (to his horror) he felt like he was “a reporter to my daughter’s death” at the time and kept “recording external and internal specific details in my mind as if I would write this story (ix).” I find it extremely interesting and profound that it took 25 years for Mr. Murray to be able to put his words to paper in talking about his daughter’s death.

Although Mr. Murray is an excellent writer, I have to admit it took me a little while to get into this book. At the beginning, it seemed to jump around a bit too much for my liking. Once I reached Chapter 5, though, I found Mr. Murray’s descriptive writing riveting as he recalls the beautiful summer day and general feeling of well-being on the day they received the call that their daughter was terribly sick. In continuing to tell the story, Mr. Murray puts into words what I’m sure many bereaved parents have felt.

Imagining the future:

Lee’s death will be part of us forever. It will mark us forever. There will be healing as there is when a leg is amputated. We will become who we are: “the Murrays, who lost a daughter, you know.” And as we live this life, we will always feel the leg that others cannot see, that invisible leg I have heard amputees talk about that feels cold, pain, itches, lives on in memory.

It will not get any better, and I feel a strange comfort in that. I will have to live this changed life as well as I can. There will be no healing, but I will become familiar with this new life, always having at my side the daughter no one else can see. I might even find it a comfort to know she will always be near (105).

Disorientation:

At times I have to sit for what seems a ridiculously long time to remember how to start the car, how to turn on the TV or stereo, eat dinner, answer the phone, keep the calendar, pay attention to what someone is saying…We pass each other in the house as if we are sleepwalking, not speaking as we all search for the way to live our lives around the edge of the crater left by Lee’s death (105).

Emptiness:

One of the personal and artistic problems is how to deal with emptiness…This morning [25 years later] I pass an empty field, rich with new spring grass, but see only its emptiness. Usually I take pleasure in the tidal flows of fields that seem to move under wind or shadow…And then there are days like today when the empty fields remind me of the space in my life empty by Lee’s leaving…I miss the casual conversations we have not had, the communication of gesture, glance, or movement, the anticipation of a visit or its memory…It is still achingly hard never to hear her voice from the other room, never to pick up the phone and talk to her (151).

Getting over it:

To those who wrote asking for help in getting over it, I gave this counsel: Imagine that you could forget. Think how terrible it would be not to dream, not to remember, not to miss, not to be sad, not live with this lively shadow that no one can see by your side, always alive in memory, laughing, teasing, worrying, suffering, sharing the life you go on living. Remembering may be a celebration or it may be a dagger in the heart, but it is better, far better, than forgetting (193).

I think what I took away from reading this book is a confirmation of what I’m learning: it takes a long time to integrate the death of a child into the fabric of life; it takes a long time, even for an experienced writer, to talk about the depths to which a child’s death affects a parent; it’s only with extended time that we have the perspective to look back and say, “this is what I’ve learned from this experience,” because each year teaches us something new or reveals something that we may not have realized at that time as we were walking the grief path; and, it’s important that bereaved parents give voice to their experiences so that others will know they are not alone.

Murray, Donald M. The Lively Shadow: Living with the Death of a Child. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney