Why Going to a Grief Counselor
May Not Help... Part Three
~by Angie and Tommy Prince
In the last two weeks in Thursday's Therapy, we discussed some of the important findings of the study reported in an article on Medscape called,
"Loss of a Baby Linked to Increased Mortality in Parents"
From the results of a study reported in September of this year, it seems it is a huge revelation to mental health experts that the likelihood for a parent grieving the loss of a child is 4 to 5 times more likely to die or become widowed within the following decade than parents who do not experience this type of bereavement. (And in this study, the researchers, mind you, restricted their research to only those parents who had lost a child in the first year of life.)
The study was an important one that should help to sensitize the professional helping field of the distinction to this type of grief, and the distinction is that
Child-Loss Grief is like NO other grief known to mankind.
Too often when a child-loss griever goes to counseling, we are treated as if we were just like any other griever out there, and we all know that's just NOT the case. Our grief is more profound than any other loss out there, so to be met with expectations to "get over it" in ANY certain time-frame could be absolutely devastating to our war-torn hearts and souls. So while we want to take nothing away from an important mile marker that this study provides to help professionals better understand our child-loss grief, it is incumbent upon Tommy and me who are in that same helping field to point out the still-prevalent cluelessness among the professionals you (and we) may be subjecting ourselves to in our deep grief. Even the professionals quoted in this article jump to some pretty biased and/or ignorant conclusions about our child-loss! Tonight we will cover just one of the professionals mentioned in the article, to expose to you some of the ignorance that was exposed even after concluding a brilliant study! (We hope to cover the other professional mentioned in the article next week.)
For instance, in the following quote, look how the conductor of the research contradicts her own study's findings from one paragraph to the next!
"Other research by Dr. Harper and her colleagues seemed to confirm that the child’s age at time of death is not a significant predictor of grief or depressive symptoms. Cause of death, whether illness or accident, also didn’t make a difference, said Dr. Harper.
"It may be even more devastating to lose a child early in life rather than, say, when he or she is a teenager. 'You could argue that when you lose a child very early on, you’ve lost a whole lifetime of experience,' said Dr. Harper. 'You’ve lost a part of yourself and the future.'"
Her conclusion may sound heretical to those of us who have lost a teenager or a young adult, as she had no grounds from her clinical study to even make such a startling extrapolation, just pulling ideas from thin air that have nothing at all to do with any of the results in her study! In contrast to her shocking words, lets look at other experts in the death and dying field, and see what they have to say.
Jane Bissler, PhD, writes about identity change in “My Child has Died and so Have I!: Grieving the Loss of an Adolescent Child.” Her article is published in the January 2009 issue of “The Forum,” the printed newsletter of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. In another article entitled, "Coping with the Death of a Chidl" the mental health expert for CNNhealth.com, Dr. Charles Raison, was writing regarding the devastation that John Travolta and his wife Preston were facing with having just lost their 16-year-old son, Jett:
The loss of a child is "the most painful loss that humans can sustain," said Dr. Charles Raison, CNNhealth.com's mental health expert.
It's a sentiment to which many parents can relate.
"Parents are particularly devastated when their children die in their late teens or 20s; they've raised the child who is growing into maturity and just beginning to blossom into his or her own life.
"'Part of the tragedy of Travolta is that it's right in that time period, right when the grieving is horrible,' said Raison, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.
"It's also the unfulfilled possibilities that the child could've brought to the world -- the child was going to carry the family name, write a book, contribute to mankind -- and all that is torn away.
"'When an adolescent dies, we're in the stage of launching them,' said Bissler, a member of the board of directors for the Association of Death Education and Counseling. 'When they're adolescents, we start looking to schools, colleges, their first apartment. When they're about to be out on their own, we're looking forward to that. When we're not able to take child-rearing to fruition, we're left with a hole. The child is gone and I can't finish my job as parent. I can't launch this child to adulthood.'
"Sometimes the parental grief is compounded, because teenagers are often at odds with their parents and their death could have occurred during a difficult time in the relationship.
"Grieving parents can fall into blaming themselves for their child's death although it may have been completely out of their control.
"'That recrimination is especially painful when there are what ifs,' Raison said.
'What if we had been there?
'What if I had taken keys away from the kid? Those are the worst types of incidents that drive people crazy.'
"These recriminations can make people anxious and depressed. If the grieving parent begins to feel hopeless, useless, lose weight or have trouble concentrating, these could be symptoms of depression.
"When people are really distraught and it goes on for a number of weeks, get professional help," Raison said. "There's nothing that would take away (the grief) from the loss of (their) child. You don't want to do that. You also don't want to get into a process where it leads to full depression and people can't function in their lives and their other children suffer.'"
As you can see, these are quite different perspectives within the same mental health helping field. It can be quite confusing to those of us who want to go into therapy and trust that any given professional knows what he or she is doing only to find such wide discrepancies in the understanding of the very real aftermath of child-loss with which we are trying so hard to contend.
However, Dr. Harper, the conductor of the child-loss parent research did come up with this conclusion that should present a new message to those professionals who want to treat ALL GRIEF as the same:
"It’s possible that the type of bereavement experienced by parents who lose a child might be different than, say, losing a spouse or a parent. 'Perhaps losing a child needs a special level of consideration and I’m not sure that’s the case at the moment.'"
And, yes, Dr. Harper, we would agree, child-loss does need "a special level of consideration" that you recognize you're not sure is currently out there in the field! And we urge you on in your research, possibly even to broaden your study to many other ages of children lost to parents so that we could all broaden our understanding of
the vast devastation with which, it is our contention, ALL child-loss parents are now grappling.
For we believe,
No Matter Who You Are Nor How Old Your Child Is, If You Are A Child-Loss Parent, Your Heart Is Going To Be Broken In Two, And Your Life Will Never, Ever, Be The Same.