Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Thursday's Therapy "Recovery" from Child-Loss...Are You Kidding? ~ Part Three

Thursday's Therapy

"Recovery" from Child-Loss...Are You Kidding? ~ Part Three

Continuing from our Thursday's Therapy posts, we hear more from Dr. Judith R. Bernstein, a bereaved parent and psychologist, about why the expectation for child-loss grievers to "recover" is cruel:

The Uniqueness of Child-Loss

Parents who lose children are thrown into chaos. The loss of a child is shattering, unique among losses.

Anticipatory Grief

Judith describes her own personal pain when she discovered her son had cancer and then watched him as he struggled through the chemotherapy:

"I felt a crushing weight sitting over my heart and felt my chest constrained by steel bands that prevented me from taking a deep breath. I can remember going out to take a walk one day and feeling such an ache in my chest that I thought I was coming down with the flu. As I walked, tears began to wet my face and I started to sob but couldn't get enough air because of the tightness of those steel bands. I remember thinking as the spasm of grief subsided, 'So that's what the word heartache means.'

"I didn't know it then, but that's what grief is, or in that case anticipatory grief, what happens when we're hit with the possibility of losing someone we love. It is physically painful, intense, overwhelming, confusing, and even frightening--frightening because it's so dark, so unknown, and so powerful a force."

~Judith R. Bernstein

Difference between Grief and Mourning

Grief is an individual's subjective emotional response to loss. Mourning is the process of coping with grief over time. We...use the term "grief-work" to describe the tasks of mourning, the job of resolving the many predicaments brought about by grief.

Confusion and Chaos Abound in Child-loss Grief

...A high percentage of parents we interviewed said they searched feverishly through books to try to find some instructions in how to go about this work of mourning. Books did help some. The parents needed to know what is normal, what to expect, how to face the dilemmas that confronted them daily within themselves, with their surviving children, with their spouses, and within the social context. Confusion compounded the grief, adding conflict and uncertainty.

I felt desperate. There was nobody who really understood how I felt. I was absentminded; I was confused; there was the insomnia...; I couldn't cook anymore; I couldn't do all the things I loved to do. I thought that I was physically ill and started going to doctors....

I was angry at all of (my family), for something. I felt that they needed me and I was annoyed that they needed me. I didn't have anything to give; I was vacant; I was empty. I wasn't sure that I was going to live....


Many mourners report the experience of being in a maelstrom, having the sense of spinning out of control.

They reach for life-lines. They read every book within grasp that might tell them that one day they may again find value in life. They read to reduce the feelings of isolation; they read to find order and predictability; they read to find hope.

They are lost, frightened by the intensity of their emotions and the craziness of their thoughts.

They are in turbulent, uncharted waters without a guide.

No one ever taught us how to mourn, how to deal with the intense emotions, the isolation, the chaotic thoughts, the dizzying ups and downs.

Grief can only be described as a time of craziness when all the rules that govern life are suspended, when coping mechanisms that used to work no longer do, when the foundation and rhythm of your days are shattered into an unrecognizable crazy-quilt.

Some people stop functioning; others hyperfunction as if nothing at all had happened.

No one gets an instruction booklet about how to deal emotionally with the death of any loved one, let alone the death of one's child; it's too unthinkable.

Mourners desperately need to find order and predictability. Many seek counselors, therapists, clergy, friends.

Some are helped and some find very uninformed advice, i.e., "You should be over this by now."

That bad advice increases the sense of being crazy and out of control. It adds the burden of feeling they are mourning all wrong, that they are violating the customs of this alien land without knowing how to do it right and certainly not having the power to do it differently.

Books and groups of other bereaved parents provide an anchor. It is reassuring to see that others are indeed experiencing the same violent, chaotic emotions. A few souls wander this barren desert together.

Self-appointed experts, professionals, clergy, and well-meaning friends and family are ready with solace, exhortations, and ultimately the admonition that it's time to "get on with your life," as if life could ever be the same.

And yet, the experts have it down to a finite time period--a year, two tops, and then "get on with it," the business of living your life. Put the tragedy behind you. The expectation says that you've been derailed and now it's time to get back on track.

When you're in the clutches of grief, it's easy to feel that you're abnormal, reacting too much or too little, or somehow doing it wrong. The uncertainty and confusion are compounded when friends and professionals suggest that there is a well-beaten path you should be following.

(highlights and subject titles, mine)

Picture of puzzle from
When the Bough Breaks: Forever After the Death of a Son or Daughter, (1997) ~Judith R. Bernstein, Ph.D. - excerpts from chapter one, pages 3-6

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