Over my Son’s Death?

Dr. Neimeyer,

I stay so angry at people that expect me to be over my son’s death eight years ago. What can I say to them? They act like I have failed or just want attention. I hurt terribly.

Bette

Dear Bette–

No doubt it is hard, if not impossible, for someone who has not lost a child to imagine the pain of doing so; thinking back, perhaps it would have been unimaginable, even to you, a decade ago. The death of a child, as you have tragically learned, is not merely something a parent “gets over.” It might be more accurate and compassionate to say that the goal is learning to live with the grief rather than trying to “move on” without it.

But this does not mean that incapacitating depression and persistent anger need to become a life sentence. I recently had the pleasure of talking with the national director of The Compassionate Friends, the global support network for bereaved parents, who is himself a bereaved father. In the course of our conversation he noted that in his many years of experience with the organization, approximately 1/3 of the parents he has met remain stuck in a complicating, life-limiting grief, seemingly indefinitely, 1/3 mourn their child acutely for a significant period, but ultimately find a way of bearing their grief more lightly and adapting to their changed lives, and the remaining 1/3 ultimately show impressive “posttraumatic growth,” valuing life, family and relationships more keenly, living with enhanced purpose and clarified priorities, and engaging in altruistic projects to help others who suffer adversity, and especially the adversity of the death of a child. In other words, quite different paths open to different people who have had similar losses.

If you find yourself in the first group and feel profoundly misunderstood by people around you, you might find solace and wisdom in the presence of other parents who have known analogous losses. Especially as you share your experience with “veterans” who are a number of years out from the loss, as you are, you might find not only support for your loss, but also inspiration for how to accommodate it with less anguish and perhaps even growth through grief. Coming to know others who model that hoped-for outcome can help make the impossible seem more possible.

–Dr. Neimeyer

2 comments on “Over my Son’s Death?

  1. I lost my young-adult son nearly 2 years ago to suicide. I find that people say hurtful, ignorant things often because they don’t have context or are protecting themselves from thinking about it. I get that. However, the closer these people are to me, the more difficult it is to respond to their comments/questions with grace…especially at a time when I feel like I have none to give. I find it’s more helpful to concentrate on honoring my son, his memory, and the grieving process. Maybe later on, when I’m stronger, I can educate people about what the loss of a child is like.

  2. Thanks for always responding with understanding, Dr. Neimeyer, about those others who have lost a child and them not being able to imagine the depth of the sorrow these parents experience not just the first year but for the rest of their lives. I know this to be the case personally and clinically. It’s also a double agony for a bereaved parent like Bette because on top of the loss of her child she is made to feel abnormal or odd. It’s a confusing and maddening place and adds to the already broken heart she has. These projections are not always verbal; they might come as a look, an eye-roll, a smirk.

    So to Bette I would offer that she indeed follow your good advice to seek out support with like-minded bereaved parents. I also would add that men grieve and express their emotions differently than we women do. In that case I suggest Bette find a group or begin one herself for mothers who have lost children. Believe me, she probably knows many moms hurting just as she is in her very own area. Initially the women could all meet for breakfast just to be together. The connections are powerful and many become life-long. The group I have facilitated began nine years ago. We hold at 22 members strong and many side friendships have continued.

    We have our free-of-charge monthly meetings still and many other groups have begun locally (I helped to get them started or one of our more veteran mothers does). Yes, it takes a chunk of time and effort but the rewards are life-giving. Bette could also join my Facebook group called Mothers Finding Meaning Again if she would like. We have over 135 mothers now. It is a private group with women from all over the world and it’s fantastic because the women are tremendous. She only has to put that title into the search at the top of the page. I also have a small handbook to begin a support group that I put together and should Bette like one she could just contact me at maryjanebrant@gmail.com She could read more about the group at http://www.maryjanehurleybrant.com/groups/

    Lastly, checking in now and then with a grief counselor who is deeply aware and sensitive of child loss can be helpful and reading everything she can get her hands on is beneficial and validating, too. My book When Every Day Matters: A Mother’s Memoir on Love, Loss and Life has helped many as well as other books you have here on After Talk. Several mothers I know have also written books and poems and I’m happy to offer further suggestions if Bette or anyone would like to know.

    Kindly,
    Mary Jane Hurley Brant, M.S., CGP

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