Parents who have lost children need special care. By the time the grieving parent arrives in my office, they have exhausted their ability to cope with the loss to the degree that others may believe is normal. Grieving parents describe emotional and physical symptoms as a result of losing their child.
My clients' harshest counsel from their friends and loved ones is to "just get over it" or "move on." My grieving parents relate that the loss of their child feels like they have lost a part of their heart. The heart is a vital organ, and to lose part of it would undoubtedly result in emotional and physiological changes. Accordingly, when parents lose a child, the loss is personal, unique, and intense. Parents will never get over losing their children; however, they may learn to live "differently" as they adapt to the changes with the proper support.
When a parent loses a child, they must begin to think differently. Losing a child requires the brain to adjust to a reversal to a predetermined order and sequence of life. Parents are programmed and expect to watch their children progress through the developmental phases in life. Pregnant parents look forward to delivering a healthy infant. Parents of infants look forward to toddlers. When raising school-age children, parents anticipate them becoming more independent and even out of the house. Even parents of young adults wait for their children to have children to experience the joy and pain of parenthood.
Most important, parents expect to die before their children. Many parents have very detailed estates and living trusts that outline what their children should do after the parent's demise. Some parents even work hard and late in life to provide for their children once the parent is gone. When a child dies first, the parent experiences phases of Shock, Protest, Disorganization, and ultimately, Reorganization.
In 1969, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the book “On Death and Dying” in which she outlined the five stages of grief, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. The book's purpose was to teach medical doctors, the clergy, and family members to recognize and understand what a dying patient was experiencing. It was later postulated that the stages of grief might happen to anyone who loses a loved one.
The Grief Wheel outlines the stages of grief that people may experience when a loved one dies. The first stage is Shock, in which people may experience denial, outbursts, numbness, and even physical symptoms. The next phase is Protest. During this phase, there may be an increased shock, anger, yearning, and preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased. The third phase is Disorganization. People in this state may be confused, withdrawn, and restless. The final stage is Reorganization, at which time people may find new meaning regarding life and death and, most importantly, they may try to live differently, without their loved one.
Living differently does not mean better or worse, merely that they will experience life without their loved one. The Grief Wheel is not a roadmap for grief, the wheel identifies common emotions people experience when grieving.
The duration and direction of these grief phases are as unique as the individual. Recovery or deterioration could occur at any time. There are no time-tables for grief. Some losses, such as the loss of a child, may result in life-long grieving.
It is essential to validate a parent's grief. The most helpful advice you can provide for a grieving parent is to take the time to grieve and get support if needed. Let the grieving parent know that you understand that they are hurt but do not understand their feelings. Offer them to share how they feel. Listen for Grief Wheel stages.
Finally, ask them how you can support them on their journey of grief. Never suggest that a grieving parent gets over the loss of their child. To do so invalidates the child's life. When a child dies, it means that they lived for a while, even if it is in utero. Their lives mattered to their parents. To get over a child once they are gone is similar to erasing their existence. All lives matter.
Hale, E. - Navigating the Grief Wheel. https://gbcmpk.org/navigating-the-grief-wheel
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969) - On Death & Dying. New York