My wife, Kathy, and I present a workshop for bereaved parents that we have titled, “Into the Valley and Out Again.” We conclude that presentation with some of our observations on our recovery and reinvestment. We believe that many of these observations apply to all forms of bereavement. So here are some excerpts from our workshop.
A few years ago the Queen Mother in England died after more than 100 years of life. She was much beloved as the “Queen Mum,” and even before her death, she was planning how she would help the people of England recover from their bereavement. She selected a special poem to be read at her funeral. A friend of ours in the UK adapted it for bereaved parents.
We can shed tears because they are gone
Or we can smile because they lived.
We can close our eyes and pray that they’ll come back,
Or we can open our eyes and see all they left
Our hearts can be empty because we don’t see them,
Or full of the love we shared.
We can turn our backs on tomorrow and live yesterday,
Or we can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
We can remember them and only that they’re gone,
Or we can cherish their memory and let it live on.
We can cry and close our minds, be empty and turn our backs,
Or we can do what they’d want- Smile, open our eyes, love and go on.
The first indicator we are in recovery is when we cry less because they are gone and smile more because they lived.
In the early stages of our bereavement, we are needy. Recovery begins when that neediness turns into a need to give back. In the beginning, we have this overwhelming desire to tell our story and talk about our child and tell people how we feel. Recovery begins when the need to talk becomes less and the need to listen becomes more.
We think it’s important for bereaved parents to have these signs and mileposts so that there are some criteria to measure your progress. But, remember, there is no time limit on your bereavement. Some may find they begin to recover in months or a year or so, while others may find it’s three or four or five before recovery starts. That’s okay because everyone grieves and recovers at their own pace and on their own time.
Many times bereaved parents complain that they don’t think they are making any progress. It is hard to see progress when you are in the middle of the process. One of the simplest ways is to keep a daily journal of all your feelings. That will identify your progress, and that’s important because sometimes when we don’t see progress. It is easy give up and quit working on our bereavement. So these little cues become important in seeing that you are moving positively, and hopefully will give you the encouragement to continue the effort.
Another critical measure of recovery is when you give yourself permission to survive. We hear many parents say there is nothing to live for and no reason to go on. This is especially the case where there may have been a long term illness and much of one or both parent’s time and effort was consumed with caring for that illness. Over time, most bereaved parents do find a reason to go on. It may be from a sense of obligation to the people who helped them through their struggle. Some may survive for their spouse, their other children or other family members.
Other may give themselves permission to survive simply because if they don’t, who will keep their child’s memory alive? The reasons for survival are many, and it makes little difference what your specific reason may be. What is important is that you decided to survive and at that instant you began your recovery.
Sometime after your child died you found yourself smiling and you were appalled. You child was dead and you were smiling. Apparently you didn’t love you child as much as the other bereaved parents who are not smiling. God forbid you get caught laughing. Smiling might be seen as a venial sin but surely laughing is a mortal sin.
What about the first time you find yourself actually enjoying something like a movie or the theatre or a nice meal? Surely burning at the stake becomes the appropriate parent punishment for any bereaved parents caught enjoying themselves.
Stop for a minute here. Earlier we talked about your old friend, guilt. Well if you got up close and personal with guilt early on, you will recognize this for exactly what it is — a revisit. Now take it one step further and ask yourself what would your son or daughter say about their mom or dad smiling, laughing or enjoying themselves. Personally, I think not only would they be okay with it, but also it would best describe their expectations of us.
That brings us to the subject of reinvestment. Over time, recovery is not enough. In time, we will be willing to reinvest in living our lives. Our reinvestment will take many different forms. You may feel compelled to be more actively involved in an organization that relates to how your child died. This may involve giving of your time and talent. Others may make a commitment of their treasure in support of these important causes or perhaps working with an organization like The Compassionate Friends.
Where you choose to reinvest is less important than why you reinvest. When people ask us why we do things like this workshop, we tell them it is important and significant because that is what Lance, Scott and Erin would expect of us. Someday, we are going to see our kids again, and they are going to want to know what we’ve been up to since they been gone. We need to be able to tell them we reinvested in our lives in their memory.