Its spring, winter is now a memory, buds appear on the branches of trees and Mothers Day is just around the corner with Fathers Day close behind. Some are planning a special brunch and searching for just the right card to bestow honor and love upon their parent. Mothers know it is their day and a time for feeling special and experiencing well deserved accolades.
Unfortunately for those parents who have lost a child the day will be one of great sadness, reflection and quiet grief. Although the day is dedicated to mothers the fathers too will experience sadness for it is actually a day that celebrates all aspects of parenting. The reminders of the day will touch siblings, grandparents and friends. In 6 weeks the scenario will repeat itself as we pause to celebrate Father’s Day.
There are millions of parents that have lost a child whether it was through death, adoption, failed pregnancy or as a missing person. Society is uncomfortable with parents grieving the loss of a child, especially on days of celebration such as Mother’s and Father’s Day. There is little support and acknowledgment for these families. An internet search yields 1000’s of results for Mother’s Day gifts, cards, and poems but only a few results for coping with grief, and sadness on Mother’s Day.
The parent child relationship never ends.
For mothers and for fathers who have lost a child the day will bring with it many memories and quiet reflections of special moments and thoughts of “what could have been”. The parent child relationship never ends. A mother or father will always remain a parent regardless of the age of the child at the time of death or the reason the child is no longer present. Time may bring more sophisticated coping strategies but the absence of the loved child lingers in the heart of the parent and remains there for their entire lives. Special days evoke memories bringing them to the surface to be experienced. Friends may notice and question the source of a fleeting wistful look that sometimes presents itself. Few people will acknowledge your loss. It seems more comfortable to remain silent. Yet it is during these special days when parenthood is celebrated that the loss of a child needs to be recognized. The joy and celebration of intact families will remind the childless parent of what they are missing and grieving.
When a child dies a part of the future dies.
At birth there is an implied promise that the parent will protect, provide and keep the child from harm forever. There is the expectation that the child will outlive the parents. When the child dies these expectations, hopes and dreams for the child are not forgotten and the grieving will continue over time.
With the passage of time we keep track of the child’s birthdays, impending graduations, becoming an adult, falling in love, having children and becoming grandparents. We wonder what they would look like, how they will interact with the world, will they be successful, and what types of adventures will they have. As these milestones for parents unfold grief continues. The absent child is not present for the continual progression of the parent’s life. The hopes and dreams for the child will never come to fruition. For this reason the loss of a child is also a loss of the future. The wedding gown stored away will not be worn; and the family business will not be handed down. There will be no grandchildren to dote upon and keep the family tree progressing.
When a parent dies a piece of the past dies.
If your mother or father has died the special celebrations of Mothers Day and Fathers Day may awaken feelings and memories of cherished loved ones, (assuming a supportive and loving parental relationship). Usually there are only a few people who can describe with authority and accuracy the story of your life, those who were around us as we explored, made mistakes, and learned hard lessons. Our parents have an experience of us that is unique only to them. They watched and guided us as we developed. Your parent may have been your only cheering section, especially during those really challenging times. They may be your first experience of truly unconditional love. Parents are our first teachers. We can track our ethics, values, and opinions back to what our folks said or did. As we move through the developmental stages of life there will be many times when you might reflect on a teaching or experience that only a parent would understand. Frequently the first healer, the first hero, the first protector and the most forgiving person in our life was our parent.
With the loss of our parent we grieve the loss of our past. Only a parent can remind us of our personal story. A current accomplishment could be just a bit more satisfying if we could look over our shoulder and see them nodding with approval. This type of approval can only come from the parental awareness of our humble beginning.
Honoring those we have lost. Taking care of ourselves.
Grief and sadness are difficult emotions and the tendency is to suppress our sadness which only makes it more intense. In addition to the grief we will have the additional stress of trying to cover it up. The avoidance of grief is also a subtle statement that our own sense of self, our sadness, does not matter enough for the expression of our tears. The gentler way to move through grief and sadness is to embrace it, acknowledge it and tell the truth about it. Remember there is healing in the telling.
Often the people who care about us do not know how to support us in the grief process. When they ask how you are doing, let them know. If they offer support accept it and let them know how they can be of assistance to you.
During special days do remember those who are absent. Bring out the photo albums, tell stories, and reminisce. The truth is life matters and your loved ones continue to make a difference. Pass their teachings on to others. Retell their jokes and favorite stories. Share how your life has changed and how you have expanded as a result of knowing them and surviving their absence. Say their name, tell their life story. Include them in a ritual, in a prayer. Display their favorite flowers, play a favorite song. Serve a favorite food.
Be gentle with yourself and honor the lives of those whom you love. Allow your tears, your loved one is worth it. Your relationships have not ended they have changed form, the love continues. You are still a parent to your child and you are still the child of your parent. Give yourself permission to grieve and honor your loved one by keeping their essence alive.
Julie Siri, LCSW