The Chronology of the Bereaved Parent, living with loss for a lifetime


used with permission

If you want to go the extremes of grief to try to understand the complexities of the bereavement process one should study the bereaved parent.  No other loss is more egregious, no other loss more onerous than the death and physical loss of a child.  No other loss leaves your heart as deeply mortally wounded for life. No other loss is more difficult to accept.  Even among bereaved parents there is a plethora of differences that sets individual grief journeys apart and how they process their loss.  There is although two commonalities we all share. 1.) We are forced to accept the unacceptable: the physical loss of our child forever.  2.).Our individual grief is the hardest grief to bear.

In the 1970’s Elizabeth Kubler Ross pioneered death and dying research.  Her five stages of grief have been accepted and used worldwide since that time; for the most part without question. Although I think her work is commendable and the best resource we had then and for many subsequent years. It has been in my experience with the terminally bereaved parent that some of her theories do adequately represent the true reality of the bereavement process following the death of a child

The five stages of grief were taken directly from the studies of Dr Ross with the terminally ill and dying patient.  When a person is first told they are dying they are in denial, NOT ME!!!, secondly they progress to anger, I am Mad at God for doing this to me and fight to stay alive, thirdly they start to bargain with God to stay here and pray for a cure, fourth, they become depressed at how rotten and unfair life is, and five is acceptance they are dying, and make peace with that reality.  In this context the use of the world ‘stage is used correctly’ as it describes a series of linear progressive events.  Grief is more like ascending a stairs. See my WordPress blog “Climbing the S.T.A.I.R.S. of grief, a new modality in grief processing.”

In processing the loss of a loved one there is no linear progression of events, no stage of grief that fits life as we know it following the loss of a close family member.  If there are stages, there is only two: shock and acceptance. Everything else falls in between.  Both denial and bargaining are insults to our intelligence, of course we know our child is dead, we buried them.  We cannot strike any bargain that can change that fact.  Depression and anger are very real emotions that we will experience but they are not stages, but a condition of our new normal which may be an on and off again challenge of the bereavement process that will affect us the rest of our life.

Bereaved parents trying to fit themselves into the accepted stages of grief find themselves frustrated if they have not gone ‘through’ the stages.  Very vulnerable the new bereaved parent, still in somewhat in shock find themselves processing their loss as the mores of society dictates.  Three days of bereavement leave, and then it’s back to work and get on with your life. In a few months you will be over it and quietly blend back into the workplace as hoped for and expected by most.  At first you will be greeted with embarrassed looks by co-workers who almost hurt themselves making an unanticipated hallway dodges or an abrupt u-turn, ad-hoc bulletin board readers, mutterers hiding behind magazines, skillful eye contact avoidance and spontaneous rest room needs all ruses to avoid the uncomfortable contact with the bereaved parent…

People practice avoidance to avoid bringing up the subject of your loss which they feel will be sure to inflict more pain.  They also have their own concerns that they will be put into a position to have to say something profound and healing to say when they know there is nothing that can be said to take away your pain.  We ourselves play the artful dodger role when we do not want “to go there ‘at any given time. Sometimes the actions we see in others are a reflection of our own projection.

I remember one time seeing a person coming towards me down the hallway at work one morning a few months after my son had died. He rounded a corner whistling and glancing cheerfully at the headlines of his morning paper, unaware of his overfull coffee mug leaving a trail behind him.  Then I see that he catches site of me in his peripheral vision and he scrunches into the pages of his paper. He became more engrossed in the paper as we neared each other in the narrow corridor. I was feeling down with a transitional edginess  and did not want to hear any morning weather reports or exchange cheerful dribble, so I dodged to the right just as we neared each other, he dodged the same direction, we both reversed several times and at the same moment we both said “ care to dance?”

We both laughed loudly in a very natural way and automatically hugged one another.  He whispered in my ear with the compassion of Mom tending her sick child “how are you doing man?”  I pulled back and looked him straight in the eye and responding that up to this moment I was having a very bad day “thanks for the dance”.  We both laughed as we walked away my heart lighter, his heart brighter.  Sometimes we avoid contact with others just as they seemingly do with us.  Just under the surface our racing emotions are left unseen and unexpressed. In a spontaneous or forced contact situation with another our emotions can be released like the welcome bursting of thick skinned pimple and although it hurts briefly we sigh with relief that the dam has burst.

The first year back to work is a difficult challenge for the bereaved parent, but remember you are still an infant in your new normal.  We get lost in a forever wandering mind of our own internal dialogues.  We have no attention span for the language of the real world and depend on Post it notes to remember everything, we trip more, and spill things more, lose things, and get lost on a simple errand. We develop techniques to get things done, but the color is gone from our life.  We are changed for ever. The loss of a child is terminal bereavement.  We start all over again and try to figure this our ‘new normal’ (new abnormal).  It is a new beginning in all sense of the word and our clocks are reset.  We construct new concepts, new ways of looking at life…not from the passage of time but from an amalgamation of events and experiences. In the depths of early grief time seems to stand still, so as with an infant time has no meaning, all that matters is that we be comforted. When we are infants in our grief journey time stands still and all we want is to be comforted. As an infant grows to childhood time will appear to accelerate just as it will as we move through the years following our loss.

In essence I believe we are born again into a new life that starts the moment our child dies and ends the day we die. We start marking time just as a new born baby does, day by day, year by year in a slow progression of discovery of the person left behind. A slow metamorphosis of the psyche, like the Phoenix we rise from the ashes of our despair and become our new found destiny as surely as the baby keeps trying to walk.  We need to go through that progression of life developments and stages of growth that a child goes through in becoming an adult. We need to grieve naturally, not stages of grief but stages of life development that takes years not months to progress through.

In support of this theory I offer parallels to similar behaviors as drawn by the famous behaviorist and psychiatrist Erik Erickson in 1956 and his 8 stages of social –emotional development of a child from infant to adult.  These stages of development are accepted world wide and using in most institutions of higher learning.  According to Erickson, the socialization process consists of eight phases- the eight stages of man.  Each stage is regarded by Erikson as a “psychosocial crisis” which arises and demands resolution before the next stage can be satisfactorily negotiated.  Stages that build on each other, each previous stage supporting the next and  so on in a structural sense that demands each stage be achieved before moving on to the next.  The stages with Erikson’s words that are used in this article are in bold print. I merely compare them to the grieving process, and postulate their relevance in understanding the long term grief process that a bereaved parent is suffered to endure. I believe we are vulnerable and needy as a new born child and we grow into our new normal just as a child takes his first steps.

The world stops spinning, time stops your brain is a code blue and reality as you know it fades from conscious thought and you are propelled into a world of disbelief.  Taken from a world that you knew and understood, a world of warmth and security and you find yourself head first into a cold painful world of the unknown.  It’s hard to see, you are shaking, insecure and frightened of what’s a head. Tears flow from your eyes, you feel cold and lost and just want someone to hold you and tell you it’s just a dream.  Am I describing a baby just being born into this world or a parent just hearing the news of or witnessing the death of their child?   It could be both, both describe being thrust into the unknown and faced with the continuing challenges of survival.

Life without our child; our new normal; Just as a newborn baby needs to adjust to a new environment, so do we.  As an infant does that first year we shall cry a lot, sometimes way into the night,  sleep for a few hours, only to wake up frightened, cry and then sleep some more. You will find people taking care of your simplest needs for you and without compunction, you offer no resistance. As if in a daze you allow them into your close personal space but it feels good to be cared for. You will have accidents, you will be unsure of yourself, you will be scared to venture out, be hesitant with strangers, and testy when you’re tired, and you’re always tired.  You will want to explain what hurts and find you have no words that can express your thoughts.  Food will be tasteless and you will eat in a perfunctory fashion, yet coupled with an unabated thirst that cannot be slaked; a bone itch we cannot scratch. So we find pacifiers to slake the unquenchable indefinable thirst that gnaws at are being. Again does this describe an infant or a bereaved parent functioning at the base primal level of 1st year survival?

The first year of life as outlined in Erikson’s stage of development:

 Stage One.  Learning Basic Trust Vs Basic Mistrust (hope).

Chronologically this is the period of infancy though the first one or two years of life. The child well handled nurtured and loved, develops trust and security and a basic optimism .Badly handled, he becomes insecure and mistrustful.

The world, God, Kismet or fate has stolen our child from our arms, caused them pain and continues to assault us with more pain and deprivation. How do we ever trust again?  Baby steps; we learn all over again. We will try to stand and fall, we will try to walk and stumble, we shall try to explain and cry in frustration with no words that anyone can understand. We are dependent on others for our own survival, we reach out for anyone to pick us up and pat us on the back make it all right. We want to be comforted on our own terms until we can understand this new world we are forced to accept.

If we are well handled and cared for, we shall develop optimism, a sense of hope and we grieve naturally. If the grieving is delayed, so will the first step towards optimism and the whole bereavement process chronologically delayed and sometimes without help can be stuck forever, never finding hope, never building on that next stage of development that we must go also go through.  That is just the first year following the loss of a child, and at the risk of being glib we then head into the terrible twos, our second year of grieving that is more often worse than the first.

Every morning when you open your eyes your get a mini-jolt that their death was not a dream, a year ago on this day they were dead (but we still cannot say that word).  This morning is real and it has another full day of painful memories in store to rip your heart apart. The world thinks you are on the mend, and you are just beginning to understand it’s going to take a long time, a very long time.  Every day after the first anniversary of their death now contains memories of their death and the ensuing life change that follows. It is like starting all over again without the numbness and for the most part the world has now expected that you should be over it.

The terrible twos, the second year of healing, when anger, frustration, apathy, anxiety and depression play tag team for control.  The loss begins to become very real, and separation anxiety kicks into high gear.  Extreme concentration becomes necessary for to accomplish almost any task, and every task seems to deplete you physically.  You will have accidents; lose things, trip, stumble and fall.

You want to feel better, be able to talk normal, care about things again, but yet it’s hard to leave behind that initial, albeit painful but protective cocoon of grief that has protected you for so long.  As a baby longs for independence, yet it longs for the security and comfort of bottle and crib we struggle with mixed emotions on our second year of healing.

We can fly into a rage at a moments notice, cry uncontrollably out of the blue, so NO to everything, don’t eat what is on our plate, we want our nap, we scream out “It’s not fair”, we pout, we are difficult to be around, we sometimes runaround like a chicken with our heads cut off and we fall into a exhausted pile and sleep.  Begging o be left alone one minute and then begging for hugs the next.  Are these symptoms of our second year and third year of our bereavement process? Or a two year old just beginning to assert his/her autonomy?

The second stage of life development as listed by Erikson is from 1 to 4 years old.

Stage Two. Learning Autonomy versus Shame (Will)

The second psychosocial crisis of a child from age 18 months to 4 years old is finding autonomy.  Autonomy is not, however, entirely synonymous with self assuredness, personal initiative and independence, but for children in the early part of this stage includes the stormy self-will, tantrums, stubbornness and negativism.  The well parented child emerges from this stage sure of himself, elated with his newfound control and proud of it and not ashamed and ‘NO’ rings loudly through the house.

 We as bereaved parents entering our 5th of year of experiencing life without our child will usually feel we have hit a bench mark, a milestone in recovery from our devastating loss, yet may still feel without purpose.  If active steps have been made to integrate our loss into our new life, by this time we are starting to broaden our experiences, reaching out to the world and see how we fit into it.   We may go back to school, change careers, start a foundation, lead a recovery group, get involved, and dare I say make plans for the future. Imagining we can have a life again.

No longer a toddler we are discovering the nature of our selves (our new normal) and gravitate toward experiences that can bring interaction with the world. To hunger for knowledge, love, and pleasure, to experience growth and may be even fun again.  To become involved again in groups, meetings, as a leader and or contributing follower all show a desire to invest in life again; not working on ways to heal from your pain you may become stuck in anger or apathy and not want to move beyond the terrible twos, staying dependant on others for your needs and avoiding interaction with the world that has hurt you so bad, taking your ball and staying home.

The third stage of life development as listed by Erikson is from years 5 to 7 years old.

3Learning Initiative Vs Guilt (purpose)

This is the  third psychosocial crisis  and occurs during what what is called “play age” or the later preschool years to formal entry into school.  During this period the healthy developing child learns (1) to imagine, to broaden his skills through active play of all sorts, including fantasy. (2) to cooperate with others (3) to leas as well as to follow. Or immobilized by guilty, he is: (1) fearful (2) hangs on the fringes of groups (3) continues to depend unduly on adults and ( 4) is restricted both in the development of play skills and in imagination. 

 Seven to twelve years following the loss of your child you have more than likely fully integrated back into the work place and the world in general. Your loss to most people is not known or forgotten about and is ancient history.  At this point in our journey we may be even playing catch up with the world that has moved on so quickly while we were gone from it.  At this juncture of our bereavement process we are honing the new skills we have learned in our survival of the horrific loss we have to bear. Our social skills improving, once again we hunger for more of what life has to give, experience more love, more joy, to see more of the world.  We are willing to take on tasks, become a team play once again and work hard to accomplish goals.

 If we have in our journey have still not gone through an earlier developmental stage of  our new normal we may still be in a negative, guilt based position of being defeated and have no thoughts to the future. Most thoughts locked in the past, anger still has control they and used to living life feeling inferior with no hope or redemption.  Life sucks; I have no friends who understand. I am lonely. I am bitter. I am a victim. We have choice to become a survivor or a collateral victim.

  1. Industry Vs Inferiority (Competence)

The fourth psychosocial crisis is handled for better or worse during what is calls the “school age” presumably up to and including junior high school.   Here the child leans to master the more formal skills of life: (1) relating with peers according to rules (2) progressing from  free play to play that may be elaborately structured by rules and may demand  formal teamwork .(3) mastering social studies, reading and math.  Homework is a necessity and the need for self-discipline increases yearly. The child who because of his successive and successful resolutions to earlier psychosocial crisis is trusting, autonomous, and full of initiative will learn easily enough to be industrious.  However the mistrusting child will doubt the future. The shame and guilt filled child will experience defeat and inferiority.

From twelve years to 18 years in your bereavement process and if you have experienced every previous developmental stage of life progressions you may finally have come to terms with who you are now; the transmogrification of your post child- loss identity almost complete. You have now fully integrated into your new normal and recognize how the loss of your child has changed your life. You accept that change and build on it, even looking for growth opportunities that are presented to you in your new life and may find you have the strength to take on causes and make positive changes.  At the same time you will still have feelings of self-doubt and despair and may not want to move forward, frightened you may forget and long for the security of the old days despite their extreme pain.

  1. Learning Identity Vs Identity, Diffusion (fidelity)

During the fifth psychosocial crisis ages 13 to 20 the child, now an adolescent, learns how to answer satisfactorily and happily the question of “Who am I?”  But even the best adjusted of adolescents will experience some formal identity diffusion: most boys and probably most girls experiment with minor delinquency; rebellion flourishes; self doubt floods the youngster’s thoughts.

By this time in the process of your bereavement you may have allowed you self to love again. You may have lost many friends, some even being the closest of friends or relatives; relationships lost through attrition or by choice in the battle to survive your loss and there may be collateral damage. You now value more than ever the relationships that survived and the new ones that were created.

  1. Learning intimacy Vs Isolation (Love)

The successful young adult, for the first time can experience true intimacy, the sort of intimacy hat makes possible good marriage or a genuine and enduring friendship.

At this point in our “new normal” we may be working productively and creatively in most aspects of our life.  At this point in the stage of development in our new normal we find that it merges with the normal stages of life development that everyone is faced with, regardless of the loss of a child in their life. You may have more deep loving relationships in your life than ever before.

  1. Learning Generativity Vs Self-Absorption (Care)

In Adulthood, the psychosocial crisis demands generativity, both in the sense of marriage and parenthood, and in the sense of working creatively and productively. 

On our grief journey if we have built upon our success and challenges we have faced through the years we have become productive and we have successfully turned our loss into legacy.

  1. Integrity Vs Despair (Wisdom)

If the other seven psychosocial crisis have been successfully resolved, the mature adult develop the peak of adjustment; integrity.  He trusts, he is independent and dares the new. He works hard, has found a well defined role in life, and has developed a self-concept with which he is happy.  He can be intimate without strain, guilt, regret, or lack of realism; and he is proud of what he creates – his children, his work, or his hobbies.   If one of more of the earlier of crisis has not been resolved, he may view himself and his life with disgust and despair.

At this point on the journey we may have reached a point in our life where we have found joy again. Living in the present moment with a attitude of gratitude, honoring our loved ones/ones  who have died with how we live our lives. If we are happy we shine by example. At this point we are wise and seasoned grievers.

In summation I would like to say that I feel every one of us goes through, or does not go through all these stages of human development in the process of experiencing life on this planet.  If we experience the first six stages of development fully and sequentially, the last two stages will only enhance your life and the lives of those around you and you will find yourself making a difference in this world.

When you experience the loss of a child your life is changed forever and in essence you start all over again in the developmental stages of life.  Just as in your own birth experience and its developmental stages of life that we complete or do not complete is so unique, so it is with our bereavement experience for the loss of a child.  Everyone’s journey is so different.  What is the same is the life time journey to find purpose in our life. The loss of a child can cripple you forever or empower you to change the world. We do have choices.

Blessings on your journey