This is an excerpt from Grief From the Inside Out: Creating Meaning Around the Loss of a Child from Substance Abuse or Suicide, By Fran Gerstein, MSW, LCSW. It is available through Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/0999563513/
Losing a child makes you feel empty and challenges your sense of purpose, especially if you have identified yourself first and foremost as a parent. Chances are there are many other people who need you, and things you have yet to accomplish. As you grieve, you must also focus on these future goals and keep them in mind. If doubts or worries about your purpose are consuming you, consider getting professional help as soon as possible.
Honor each and every feeling. Your grief process IS the processing of all these feelings, even the ones that tell you that you want to die because your grief hurts so much. Grieving is like a wheel that sometimes spins toward healing and other times toward pain. Trust the process and let it unfold.
I was convinced I could power through my grief process by acting or seeming normal, returning to work and keeping up with my life. I’ve known many others who also tried to do this. It doesn’t work. Grieving a child is a long, hard process. It will inevitably last a lifetime.
It is normal to become very despairing after losing a child. And there is a thin line between grief and depression; it’s not always easy to know which is which. Do not hesitate to seek out support, which can come in many forms. If you choose to seek psychotherapy, be sure to work with someone who specializes in grief and is familiar with the loss of a child, either personally or professionally. Also, strongly consider joining a support group. These can be in the form of “grief classes” or groups like my Life After Loss Group, G.R.A.S.P, Compassionate Friends, and others.
Support can also come from churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions or though spiritual pursuits like meditation or yoga classes. Our society is becoming more savvy about grief. Becky is part of a group called the Dinner Party, which was founded on the west coast when two young women who had lost parents decided to band together and invite other young people into their grief circle by sharing pot luck dinners. The Dinner Party now has chapters all over the country.
HOWEVER, if you feel like you are going to hurt yourself or are contemplating suicide, go to an emergency room or call 911 immediately! This is not a normal grief reaction and must be dealt with as a psychiatric crisis.
Make time to be with your partner. An intimate relationship can be a great source of healing. Take walks, relax, and make love if you can. But also keep in mind that your intimate relationship may be strained, especially if you and your partner disagreed over what to do when your child was alive. Be kind to each other. If you find yourselves quarreling or blaming each other, take action. Seek out couples counseling to prevent the further destruction of your family.
I found that some books spoke to me, while others didn’t. Find the ones that are right for you—ones that speak to your heart. Here are some recommendations:
When Every Day Matters: A Mother’s Memoir on Love, Loss and Life, by Mary Jane Hurley Brant
A Grief Like No Other: Surviving the Violent Death of Someone You Love, by Kathleen O’Hara
The Grieving Garden: Living with the Death of a Child, by Susan Gilbert and Suzanne Redfern
When a Child Dies from Drugs: Practical Help for Parents in Bereavement, by Patricia and Russ Wittberger
Consider a writing group or an art or dance class. Ideally, find a context in which people who have sustained a loss are gathering to heal together.
Write poetry or prose, journal, draw, paint, decorate, dance, garden, cook, knit, color—the possibilities are endless. Do what appeals to you. But make sure you have some sort of vehicle of self-expression.
You won’t go back to normal. You’re going to feel different for the rest of your life. Don’t fight it; let it be. It’s best to honor it. You can ask “What’s happening to me?” but ask it without judgment.
Who you used to be is no longer relevant. People may tell you that you seem different or that you’ve changed. Yes, you have. Embrace it.
You are probably angry at others. Allow yourself to feel it. Notice it, accept it, and let it pass through you. Allow it to take as long as it takes to move through you. There’s no rush.
You did not mean for your child to die, no matter what you said or didn’t say, no matter how tough or soft you were, no matter how much you did or didn’t do for them. Their death was not your fault. Yet there will be days when you wonder if it was your fault. If and when you need to go there, ask yourself the difficult questions and take your time. If you suppress these feelings, they will eventually come up again, with a vengeance. It is human nature to wonder.
When I’m in a self-blaming place, I let myself go there. But I’m careful to keep myself from spiraling down and then getting stuck in the “rabbit hole”—the mindset where I ruminate and obsess about what could have been, should have been, or would have happened if…. If I find myself there for more than a day or so, I know it’s time to seek out a better distraction. I contact a friend, I find a good book to read, or I write something new—about grief or something completely different.