Having been a bereaved mother for nine years I can now look back and see how I was able to get from, “I don’t think I can survive this all-consuming pain” to “I will always love and miss Kevin, but the memories and joy of having him for 24 years now outweigh the pain of losing him.”
Traversing this path of profound grief may be the most difficult thing you ever face in life. Unfortunately, there are no magic wands or quick fixes. How could there be? A parent’s love for their child is total and unconditional, unlike any other kind of love. Even if we didn’t always like their actions or choices, our children held our love and it never wavered.
Since we are each unique individuals, as was our relationship with our child, there is no one “cookie-cutter” way to grieve or heal.
However, there are things you can do to help yourself. The following are some suggestions that have helped me and others make the journey through grief a little easier and less frightening. Be prepared though, there will be some work involved, the mere passage of time does not magically heal grief.
Taking Care of Yourself
First and foremost you need to take care of yourself. Never feel guilty about taking time for yourself or asking for help. Be as compassionate with yourself as you would with a dear friend going through a tragedy. What is helpful varies greatly from person to person. Some find staying busy helps while others need solitude; some benefit by a bubble bath or massage, others prefer exercise, while still others prefer talking to a friend. No matter how you find small respites from the agony of grief, there is one important constant—taking care of your health. It is important to avoid under-eating or over-eating (especially with junk food.) Be sure to stay hydrated; dehydration puts an additional and unnecessary strain on your body. Avoid excessive caffeine or alcohol, water and/or juices are best.
Sleep is frequently a major problem, as it was for me. I needed prescription medication for the first three years. Talk to your doctor or psychiatrist if this is an issue for you. Sleep deprivation takes a major toll on both your body and mind.
Never underestimate the healing power of tears! They are the body’s way to release toxins and the mind’s way to express strong emotions. Allow yourself as much crying as you need. If it makes others uncomfortable, so be it. Obviously there are going to be times when it is inappropriate. Try to put the tears “on hold” until you can be alone, like in the car or at home. I believe I was lucky because I cried easily, and excessively. After a good cry, I would feel a degree of relief from the pain and anxiety. Some people aren’t able to cry, or can only cry minimally. If this is the case I suggest using a prompt to bring on the tears, for instance, a song or holding an item related to your child. Otherwise, try vigorous physical exercise to release some of those emotions.
Anger is almost always present, no matter the circumstances of your child’s death. A parent is never supposed to lose a child. We want to lash out at someone, even God. How could He take our beautiful child from us? We are often angry at ourselves, thinking that somehow we should have been able to prevent it. It is normal and natural to have these feelings in the beginning. Sometimes there is a person responsible for your child’s death—either accidentally or intentionally. If anger towards a particular person becomes all-consuming, especially to the point of wanting to take revenge, this is serious. If this is the case you should seek counseling as soon as possible. Extreme anger is not only harmful to you but delays healing. There is an old saying that, “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Although it sounds strange, letting go of the anger, and eventually coming to some form of forgiveness, is a gift of freedom you give yourself. This doesn’t mean that you need to make that person your new best friend or that you will ever forget, but giving power to the anger can destroy you.
Journaling can be a very helpful way to tame the jumble of thoughts that accompany any significant life tragedy. It is a tool that you can easily utilize. I found that writing provided an excellent outlet for me. I wrote down my thoughts and emotions, significant dreams, as well as things I wanted to say to Kevin. It doesn’t have to be seen by anyone else and can be rambling or repetitive. Journaling also provides a way to measure your healing. As you look back, months or years later, you are able to see your progress and appreciate just how far you have come.
Is There a God?
Not everyone believes in God (or a higher power) but if they do, as in my case, faith is almost always questioned in a life-altering tragedy such as this. I remember screaming, “Why did Kevin have to die when bad people get to live? Eventually, as my anger subsided, I thought of a famous book by Rabbi Kushner, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” His theory was that God didn’t cause the tragedy but he can be a source of strength afterward. When I was finally able to pray again, I was rewarded with the comfort and strength I needed then, and still, do.
Eventually, as I let go of the anger, I came to some realizations that helped me put things into a better perspective. These included: I appreciate all the many blessings and people who still exist in my life; the depth of the pain is not as great as the depth of the love; I will see Kevin again when it’s my time to cross over.
Look for the next two parts in this series of Taming the Grief Monster: Beginning to Heal, and Moving Forward.
Linda Zelik is a graduate of the University of Southern California and a retired occupational therapist. Her world came crashing down in 2010 when she suddenly lost her 24-year-old son. The devastation led her through years of depression, tears, and a long and painful journey to heal her broken heart. She wrote the book, “From Despair to Hope, Survival Guide for Bereaved Parents,” to help others through their grief.