Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I lost my daughter, a 12-year-old, Melissa three weeks ago today. Earlier this summer she was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder but was in good health—at least we thought. But when she got her first treatment, within a week she was in the CVICU and then we had to make the heart-wrenching decision to take her off the machines two weeks later, because her heart was severely damaged. My question is this: I have read about the steps of grieving, but I am so all over the place. I feel guilty, like I failed her as a Mom. I’m sad, and have difficulty eating and sleeping. Is this normal for sudden loss and since it just happened? I do not even know what to do or how to grieve. I’m just so confused!
First, throw out everything you’ve read about “the steps of grieving.” Your steps will be your own, not the idealized progression that begins with denial, advances to bargaining, shifts to anger, collapses into depression, and then progresses toward acceptance. As you say, you “are all over the place,” and the map you might draw of your grief journey will surely contain many strong emotions (like guilt, but also yearning, anxiety, despair, and more), all in a confusing and unstable tumult of feelings. Your world has been violated, your daughter tragically taken from you, and all others who love her. Profound grief is an appropriate response to such a loss.
So the immediate question is what you need now to weather this hurricane-force storm of anguish. To begin with, very basic self-care may be an early priority: eating even when you don’t feel like it, getting some temporary help from your doctor to get some restorative nightly sleep, striving to find your way back to basic routines. In addition, many parents in the throes of anguish over losing a child find solace in one another’s company, as they wrestle with similar questions and feelings, and seek the companionship of the only people who really “get it”—one another. Groups like The Compassionate Friends, Bereaved Parents of the USA, and similar mutual support groups that can be found readily on the Internet can provide a great deal of tangible assistance and information that can reduce the confusion and sense of aloneness that mothers and fathers contending with this uniquely hard loss face. And if you find after some months that you seem to be heading in the wrong direction, in the sense of falling apart rather than gradually pulling yourself together, or if family relationships begin to suffer serious damage as a result of different ways of coping, then these same bereaved parents are often a good source of referral information to mental health professionals who can help you with the hard challenges of making sense of this tragedy and your life in its aftermath.
Above all, remember that you did not rob Melissa of the life she deserved; a rare and random medical condition did that. Your task now is to carry on for your family and for her, keeping her close in a heart that mends and enlarges to contain both life and loss, while still making a place for her.