How To Be Brave and Learn To Love Every Day Again.
The Stages of Grief When you Lose a Child.
Written in Honor of Mary Elizabeth and Matthew
By Ginny Vose, MA, MeD, Counselor with JCAC
The worst thing that I went through as a teacher was the loss of two of my students. Mary Elizabeth died five years ago on September 2, 2015 from Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Matthew died on September 12, 2017 of sudden cardiac death associated with Long QT Syndrome. Both of these children were wonderful, sweet kids. I was only their teacher, but not a day goes by that I do not miss them. After watching these two sets of parents grieve, I have a heart for those parents who have lost their children. I want very much to always remember Mary and Matthew and to honor their memories. For those of you who have lost a child, I can, by no means, say that I know how you feel, but I see the silent tears that you shed.
Grief is a rough process. Research shows that there are 5 stages of grief. Sadly, these stages are not linear. Those who grieve go in and out of the stages. You may think that you are over one stage, only to find yourself right back there again. This does not mean that anything this wrong with your grief process. It is just how you are traveling this horrible journey. One grieving parent told me that grief is a road that he and his wife walked and to which they are sometimes return. Everyone navigates the stages of grief differently and there is no “right” way to grieve. Understanding grief and stages involved in it will help you to give yourself grace when you need it.
Stage 1 - Shock and Denial
In this stage, it is very normal to feel as if this really has not happened. You might feel physically sick or maybe just numb. You may find yourself saying that you can believe that this is happening. It may even seem as if you are dreaming or watching your own life from a distance. Forgetfulness and not being able to concentrate are common also during this phase of grieving. If you find yourself in this phase, your mantra needs to be that you do not have to do anything that you do not want to do right now. It is in this stage that grief is the most profound and debilitating. Because you are not thinking clearly, this is the time to let others help you and take care of you if you can.
Stage 2- Pain and Guilt
This is the stage in which the loss becomes real. The initial shock is gone, the numbness subsides, and the pain sets in. You may still feel physical pain, heaviness in your chest, nausea, or general aches and pains. You may experience panic attacks and find yourself in tears. Additionally, you may feel guilt over something that you feel that you could have or should have done to save your child. (Even if it is completely illogical.) You may even go so far as to wonder if there was something else that you could have done to prevent the loss. During this phase, you may say that you wish that you could have one more conversation with your child. You may think of all the things that you would have or should have said before your child passed.
When this stage hits, remember that it is a natural part of the grief process. It is not crazy to go to a quiet place or to the cemetery to talk with your child. Writing a letter to your child is a good thing to do when feeling the weight of that guilt. It is ok to write letters over time to your child at times when you are feeling the pain and guilt.
Stage 3- Anger
It is at this stage that anger and frustration about aspects of the loss of your child. You may feel anger toward a person, such as a drunk driver, that may have caused the death. You may feel anger toward cancer that took your child away. I felt anger toward the hospital in which one of my students died. You might become angry towards God or a higher power because they did not spare your child. It would not be uncommon for you to be angry at your child for leaving you. It is not uncommon to have screaming or crying outbursts because of the anger that you feel.
The best thing to do is to acknowledge your feelings of anger and even embrace them. Anger is a normal emotion that all of us feel. Try to find a healthy way to release the anger. Hitting a ball in tennis, golf, or volleyball can help to release the anger in a positive way. Listening to angry music and dancing is another way to release anger. You can draw pictures or even an angry pattern to get rid of the anger that you may feel after losing a child. If you are feeling that you need to wreak things, there are places called Rage Rooms where you can take a hammer and smash things. This might be a good place to take out anger.
Stage 4- Depression
The reality of the loss is felt most fully at this point. It is possible that you may begin to reflect back on all that you have lost or even think about the milestones that will not happen for your child. The realization of this can bring on a depression. Depression can be a very slippery slope. Allowing yourself to remain in a depressed state is not healthy. If you feel yourself experiencing poor sleep, not having an appetite, or having a lack of interest in things that you used to enjoy, you could be slipping into a depression. This is the time to reach out to friends, family., or a professional counselor.
It is also possible that you could feel that you need to spend all day, every day, grieving for your child. You may feel guilty if you attempt to start creating a new normal without your child. One thing that can help if you struggle with this is to set aside a half hour to an hour each day to grieve your child. This is a time to cry, scream, be angry, write letters, or even “talk” to your child. Then after the time is up, spend the rest of your day doing your new normal activities.
Stage 5- Acceptance
It may seem that you can never imagine getting to the point where you actually accept the loss of your child, but this is the final step. By no means does this mean that you have “gotten over” it. There is no such thing as getting over the loss of a child. This is also not a happy or uplifting state of grief. It does mean that you understand what the loss has come to mean in your life. At this point, you have more good days than bad. However, sometimes the bad days come, and that is okay.
It is also at this stage that you may want to make your child’s death mean something. Every set of parents that I have watched go through this process has started an organization to raise money in their child’s name. Mary Elizabeth’s parents joined with two other sets of parents who lost their children to AML to create an organization that raises money for research into this deadly disease. Matthew’s parents began a foundation that helps people become CPR certified, raises money to put AED’s in schools and other public places, and raises awareness about cardiac illnesses. Another family that I know holds a road race each year to raise money in honor of their son. I even know of a family who started an orphanage in China in their daughter’s name. One of a parent’s worst fears is that people will forget about their child. By doing things like this in their name, their children live on. You may not need to start an organization, but you could do something that would honor your child.
If you are struggling as you are working through the steps of grief, talking about it with a trained counselor can help. You may feel yourself going down the spiral of depression or feeling guilty after the loss of a child. You may be feeling the anger about the circumstances surrounding your child’s death. Having someone with another perspective, who will help you walk through the veil of tears while you are grieving. If you are feeling that you could benefit from reaching out, I urge you to do that today.
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