This is a very good read: 5 Rights of the Bereaved Parent. If you can take a moment to check it out, it really is worth the time.
The first “right” (You have the right to your feelings) begins like this:
No one knows exactly what it is like for you to lose your child. No one has walked the exact same path as you. No one has lost THIS child who was unique in his or her own special way.
This reminds me of my earlier post, A Continuum, in which I discussed loss as a spectrum that goes from Unrealized Potential on one end to Lost Reality on the other. Briefly, losing someone young means grieving more for what could have been while losing someone older means grieving more for what was.
This post is about how these two concepts come together in the way a person responds to grief.
The Compassionate Friends is a wonderful organization which has helped Mrs. New John and me in many ways since Jack died.
One of the main things I appreciate about it is that the people there have a deep insight and ready empathy for what we are going through because they share a similar loss. They get it on a level that others cannot.
But, just because we are all unwilling members of the world’s worst club, that doesn’t mean they understand us completely or that we can truly comprehend their loss.
At least three things factor into how you process the loss of a child:
(1) When you lose a child is important in defining how the loss affects you. For example, losing a child to miscarriage, losing an infant, losing a toddler, losing a teenager, and losing an adult child all have nuances which influence the impact the loss has on the parents of that child. This is what determines where you land on the Potential v Reality scale.
(2) The way you lose your son or daughter also makes a crucial difference. It matters whether the death was an accident, a suicide, or murder, neat or messy, sudden or slow, whether the parent(s) were there when their child died or were informed of the death by a friend, family member, or stranger.
One way these aspects matter is that they factor into how likely you are to have PTSD in addition to any depression, anxiety, and guilt. And how severe it will be if you have it.
(3) Finally, the personality of your child, if they were old enough to really have one, marks a third axis for charting your personal journey through grief. Their goofy grin or their special laugh or their then-annoying-but-now-precious-in-retrospect habit . . . these all become specific things you miss about your child. These are the things which make you cry as you try to go to sleep at night or as you walk through the aisle of a store.
Sometimes, when I hear someone else’s story of loss, I find myself unconsciously comparing it to my own, wishing I had the “benefits” associated with their form of loss. (1)
When I hear about someone who has lost an adult child, I may think “I sure wish I’d had XX years to spend with Jack before he died. All those years to generate the happy memories they have of their child which I will never get. The chance to get to know him as a whole and complete person instead of the (mostly) yet-to-be that he was.”
When I hear of someone who has had a miscarriage, I may think, “At least you didn’t have to see her just begin to express a true personality and then have that ripped away from you.”
At the same time, I can readily see how they could have similar thoughts when they hear my story.
They might think, “At least you are not losing XX years of knowing someone as a whole and accomplished person rather than just a range of potential. I lost a child and a friend.”
Or, “At least you had those three and half years with Jack. I didn’t get anything (or, ‘I got much less’) with my child. I don’t have any (or ‘many fewer’) memories like what you have of Jack’s life. You are lucky to have had three and a half years. What I wouldn’t give for even that much time with my child.”
Looking at the manner of death, Jack died by sudden accident. He was gone in seconds. There was no time to adjust to the idea that my son would no longer be a part of my life. There was only instant loss, horror, and trauma. Jack was there and then — *poof* — he wasn’t. (2)
When I hear of someone who lost a child through a slower process (e.g. disease), I might think, “At least you saw it coming. You had time to make your peace, tell them that you love them, and say goodbye. I said goodbye to Jack in those last few seconds, but I don’t believe he heard me. I think he was already gone.”
Conversely, they might hear my story and think, “At least you didn’t have to see your child suffer. I went through XX [months / years] of watching them [hurt / deteriorate / fade] and then went through the additional pain of their death. It’s not what you imagine it would be.”
The way a child’s personality affects the trajectory of your grief is, obviously, as unique as your son or daughter was in the first place. (I don’t think this one needs further explanation.)
My grief is not . . . more valid? . . . than that of another parent who has lost a child. It’s just different because the way Jack died, how old he was, and how his burgeoning personality come together to direct the arc of my grief in a way that simply cannot be the same as what others experience.
Restating the opening quote, “No one knows exactly what it is like for me to lose Jack. No one else has walked the same path I have, with the same time and manner of death of my extraordinary son. No one else has lost MY unique child.” (3)
The equivalent sentence could be uttered by any of my TCF friends with just as much truth.
In the original article, “rights” two through four can be summed up as, “We each have the ‘right’ to deal with our loss in our own way.” Timing and manner of death, as well as who the child is, have a lot to do with how those “rights” are expressed.
It’s not about determining which grief is “better” or “preferable.” It’s about how each grief is different and while we all share a similar framework, and each have a sincere empathy for our TCF friends, it’s not the same. It’s never the same.
(1) Of course, as pointed out in their imagined “responses,” I don’t wish for the associated ills that would accompany sharing the time and manner of their child’s death.
(2) For those reading this who haven’t lost a child, think of a time when you may have been in a serious accident and your car is totaled. Or maybe it was a fire which destroyed your house. Or maybe it was your new phone which got dropped in the pool or lake. In a span of seconds, something familiar and important to your life is just gone.
Now multiply that by a million and realize that was you lost is not replaceable. You can’t just “go get another one.”
(3) While obviously the most similar, even Mrs. NJ has her own experience of losing Jack which is not the same as mine. Her grief is her own and we do our best to help each other through it, day by day.