Linda Waxler's practical advice:
No one is ever prepared to approach and talk to a bereaved parent. And
no parent is ever prepared for the death of a child. It is our worst
nightmare; we believe it is unsurvivable.
Our son Jonathan died in 1995 at the age of 26. For a long time, I have
been convinced that many of us need training in dealing with parents
who have lost children. There are so many misconceptions and fears.
As a result, people tend to avoid the parents thinking, “I don’t
know what to say.” Not only do we have to deal with our overwhelming
grief but also with people avoiding us and friends abandoning us. It’s
almost as if our grief is contagious. So I am prompted to document some
important points with the hope that readers will be better able to deal
with friends and acquaintances who are living this nightmare.
1. Grief is not really a process that one goes through a step at a time.
Grieving is a roller coaster ride and it is circular. The first couple
of years, we are numb. When the numbness goes away, we are shocked to
see that the world has gone on without our child. When we come out of
this numbness we are new people, slowly beginning to adjust to what
has become our “new normal.”
2. We are parents without the right number of children. Adjusting to
this could take years. Some of the emotions that grieving parents feel
are fear, anger, guilt, sorrow, loss of future, isolation, abandonment—these
are not steps that we work through but feelings that come back over
and over again with different intensity and in different forms. There
really is no “closure.”
3. When a parent loses a child, his heart is literally broken. A huge
hole is left. This hole will never heal — only the jagged edges
around the hole may heal with time. Our grief, not always in the same
form and maybe not as intense, will be with us the rest of our lives.
4. It does not matter how our child died, whether he was 1 week old
or 60 years old, or if we do or do not have surviving children. The
loss of a child is an act against nature. The right order is that a
parent should die first.
5. It takes a long time for most grieving parents to accept the fact
that their child is dead. We can only allow the truth in a little at
a time. This may take years.
6. Bereaved parents are no stronger than anyone else. We survive for
many reasons. We may have other children; we need to be there for our
spouse and other family members; we may feel that if we die, our child’s
memory will die with us; but mostly we survive because we see no other
choice. We loved our children with all our hearts, the same way any
parent loves a child. It is not because we loved our child less that
7. What you say is not important—the important thing is to say
something. Ignoring a bereaved parent is only adding to her burden.
Just ask “How are you doing?” And, when a bereaved parent
returns to the workplace, make sure that you stop by once in a while
just to say “hello.” Remember, our “new life”
is just in the infancy stage and it is a very difficult road ahead.
Our grief is forever.
8. Call the bereaved parent just to let her know you are thinking about
her. Don’t be insulted if the person does not call you. For years
after a child dies, there are many days when the parent just does not
have the energy to pick up the phone. Grieving is not only difficult
but saps most of a person’s energy for a long period of time.
Letters are helpful also. Most grieving parents appreciate those letters
more than you can imagine.
9. Some people are afraid to mention our child’s name because
they will “remind” us of our sorrow or because we might
cry. You will not remind us because we never forget ; we are living
it every minute of every day. And don’t worry if we cry; we will
stop. You might want to cry a bit with us. We want to talk about our
child. Mention his name. One of our biggest fears is that he will be
forgotten and one of our biggest joys is to hear his name.
10. Everyone grieves differently. There is very little a bereaved parent
does or feels that is not within the normal range. We seldom ask for
help but if you listen and watch carefully, we will give out signals
that will show what we need.
11. Never think that a grieving parent is holding onto his grief. We
do the best we can and we move along as fast as we can but it is hard
work—probably the hardest thing we will ever do.
12. Remember there will always be certain times of the year that will
trigger immense sadness and overwhelming grief. Birthdays, anniversaries
of the death, holidays, Mother's Days and Father's Days, weddings and
funerals are just some. We can never prepare ourselves for these days.
Sometimes they end up being easier than we thought they would be and
sometimes harder. A simple “I am thinking of you and I know this
day must be hard” goes a long way with bereaved parents.
Can you help? Yes! One thing you can do, besides being there for support,
is to contact Compassionate Friends, a wonderful organization that forms
groups of bereaved parents around the world. Here a parent can find
comfort in the fact they are not alone and their feelings, no matter
what they are, are shared by other members of the group. We learn we
are not insane—our feelings are normal for bereaved parents. We
cry together but we also laugh together. Ask for information about the
group and offer to go with the parent to the first meeting. With the
help of this group, I am becoming a new person and I am working hard
on adjusting to my “new normal.” I can no longer see my
son’s face except in pictures or hear his voice except on a family
video but I am beginning to realize that Jonathan’s being and
soul are nestled in the hole in my heart and that for as long as I live,
he will be with me wherever I go.