Words that were meant to console and comfort but missed the mark were a part of raw grief. “Give it time. It’ll get better,” I was told as I struggled to breathe within the nightmare that was my new normal. Haven’t we all been there? The well-meaning friends supporting us as we stand shell-shocked following the death of our child? But are they right? Does child loss ever get better?
In my view, the short answer is a quiet ‘no’.
Carrying the Loss
Whilst it’s true that with time we do get better at carrying the loss, developing as we do a large, invisible grief-muscle that helps us bear the crushing weight of our sorrow, my experience is that my broken heart will never mend. It simply can’t. This is one grief that you don’t get over. It, therefore, follows that my loss cannot and will not diminish in size and is today as vast and true as it was the first day without my child. Yet I’ve learned to live with the loss and to grow from it. What’s helped is this newly grown, invisible-to-others grief-muscle. It’s this that has made the difference between lying in bed incapacitated and living again because it’s what helps me carry the grief. I’m now able to get up in the morning, drive the car, go to work, smile, function, live life again. So my answer to the question ‘does it get better?’ is ‘no’, IT never gets better; IT just gets more manageable because I’m learning to live with IT. Not the same thing at all. Simply put, this grief is different; it’s a grief like no other.
When non-loss parents offer support or advice they perceive a grief timeline that simply isn’t there. They’re not to blame. There’s a widely held view that all cases of grief move within recognizable parameters. Who hasn’t had to deal with comments such as ‘it’s time to move on now’, ‘he/she would want you to be happy’, ‘it’s two/five/ten years since he/she died, are you stuck in your grief?’
And that’s because there is a misconception about child loss grief being like other griefs. Even in online grief forums, books, and therapists’ rooms, child loss grief is lumped together with every other loss. Until you’ve lost a child, you cannot conceive of how cataclysmically different child loss is from other forms of grief.
The moment your child dies, you’re catapulted across an invisible divide into a parallel world, never, ever, to return. Those on this side of the child-loss barrier recognize you for what you are now — a bereaved parent whose beating heart hides the fact it’s broken — and extend their love and understanding. Those on the other ‘living’ side see a loss parent struggle with grief yet believe that in time and with therapy things will return to normal.
There is no normal. There’s no going back or getting through this grief. The timeline for child loss does not exist. Child loss is not fluid, does not progress, does not diminish. It is.
Stages of Grief
Much has been written about the five stages of grief, originally identified by Elisabeth Kubler Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. These are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The widely accepted view is that there’s a process through which you must journey and that all the stages are experienced at some point, often in no particular order. Once done with this ‘grief work’ we supposedly reach acceptance and somehow move into a released, post-grief-work state.
Personally, I have travelled this grief road before and acknowledge that there is great merit in Kubler Ross’ analysis of how the bereaved (and the dying) transition from denial through to acceptance. In no way do I wish to detract from so learned and wise a teacher. I agree that we, as the bereaved, need time to engage in grief work in order to move past the initial shock of our loved one’s death (or our own terminal diagnosis) to a place of acceptance.
But — and here’s the thing — the death of my son felt and continues to feel nothing like the loss of my mother, father, brother, aunt, girlfriend. It falls into a category all of its own. I call it ‘parental annihilation’ and from that, there’s no coming back. Observers may think I’m journeying through the stages of grief and coming out the other end yet that’s not what’s actually happening. What I’m doing is building up my grief-muscle to the point that it’s a huge mass on my back able to withstand the devastation that comes with knowing that I’ll never share another moment with my son again. It may look the same, this perceived progress, but the outcomes are very different. I may go through the five stages of grief, but at no point will I accept the death of my son and move on.
Accepting the Absence of my Child
Acceptance as a term is tricky because it implies facing the truth and then letting go, and that last part I can never do. My love for my child impedes that. The most I can ever do is accept that he is no longer living and that I’m sentenced to carry the absence of him in my life forever. It’s an acceptance of my own condition now as a loss mother, not of his dying. Kubler Ross’ stages are useful, but they don’t reflect my experience of child loss on this vitally important point.
There’s no moving past this loss. It just is. That’s why we learn to live with it, with grace, humility, and sadness. In doing so we are gifted a deep wisdom that helps us find a way to build a new life around the physical absence of our child. My loss has become a part of me, an essential and enriching element of the new me that cradles my broken heart. I see child loss as a lifelong grief and accept it as my new reality, my new normal. I’m not stuck, I’m not moving on, I simply am.