While I’m referring to the loss of a child in this article, a lot of these feelings go for any loss.
The photo above was taken a year before my son Charles’ death by suicide. Charles is on the far left, and my older son Richard is on the far right. My husband is next to me and we are in front of my parent’s house.
It’s been over 8 years now since we lost my baby boy and the holidays are still hard although not as unbearable as they once were. Charles won’t be part of the laughter and love. He won’t be there relentlessly coaxing us to sit down and play a game together. The absense is still piercing.
The ones that leave too soon can be more difficult losses because it’s not the normal order of how it should go.
There are moments when I am enjoying family and friends during the holidays
And then other moments when I am somewhere else, lost in memories and hearing everyone in the room as background noise but not feeling part of everything. I have nicknamed these episodes as being “emotionally underwater” and it’s now just part of my experience. At 8 years out I am not expected to cry anymore and I steal away moments to grieve alone.
What those of us who have lost a child want more than anything is that our child is mentioned and remembered, especially during the holidays and family vacations. We are starved for stories about the child that is no longer with us
What we usually run into is a wall of silence and avoidance. All we have is those memories that are locked in your head and we want them! That doesn’t mean an exhaustive conversation, just here and there.
When our child is not mentioned or remembered, it makes us feel like our child has been erased
What’s more, many parents tell me that when they mention their child at all in a group, others quickly change the subject. Being cut off like that feels like having a limb removed. It can come across as a “don’t spoil our good time” kind of feeling but I do think in some situations it’s because it feels uncomfortable. Fortunately, that is not my situation but this is supremely painful because it has happened to me in the past.
We talked about this in our support group the other night. There were lots of tears from group members in anticipation of how it would feel not hearing their child or loved one mentioned and we discussed ways to address it but most of all empathized with one another and shared our experiences.
For those of us who’ve lost a child to suicide or drugs, it’s hard for us not to compare ourselves to other parents with “successful” children in the family or in a group of friends. Being the mother of a child who died from an overdose or killed himself doesn’t exactly scream “parent of the year.” Nor is it something I’d put at the top of a parenting resume. Avoidance by others magnifies those feelings because we feel as if we sucked as parents. Even if we have long since forgiven ourselves and know intellectually that this isn’t the case, those barbs of feeling like a failure are still present years later.
That one is on us, the bereaved.
That’s when we need to pause, take a deep breath, be brave, and tell ourselves to stop filling in blanks we don’t know exist because we are just making ourselves feel worse.
What I will propose to those of you who have lost a child
Tell at least one friend or relative who will be present and you trust what it is you want.
Because they are likely not saying anything because they don’t know to say anything or what to say. Sitting with someone in their tragedy is unbearable to others, too especially when it’s something they can’t fix. Our friends and loved ones can’t read our minds. And it’s fear that prevents people from saying anything out loud.
Ideas to inspire you:
- Why not share that you want your child mentioned, and remembered even if it’s just in the prayer? Share that with one trusted person who is part of your holiday gathering so they can share with the rest. Keep in mind the tolerance of the group you are surrounded by and accept baby steps as progress.
- Take a picture with you.
- If the celebration is at your home, make a table that includes family members who have died and that you want to remember.
- Wear their clothing if it makes you feel like you are wrapped in their embrace. Don’t let a single soul make you think you’ve lost your mind. This is normal and healing!
- Light a candle in their name on the holiday table.
- Share this post on your social media and then write what you would want. This is especially helpful if you are early in your grief process and having any kind of organized conversation is challenging.)
Feeling as if your child has been erased from the family tree is more excruciating than sharing with one trusted adult what you would like from your loved ones. And being proactive can blunt the pain and reduce some of the suffering at a holiday gathering. Often others appreciate the guidance.
No matter where you are in your process, do not let our cultural norms of “you should be over it by now” write your script on how to grieve.
For those of you who are friends or relatives of a bereaved parent
Mention the child’s name even if the loss was 20 years ago.
Ask your friend or loved one who lost a child how they are doing. Because this far out no one asks anymore. Or rarely. Just a brief story, just a pat on the back and something like, “I miss [name} and I know you do too. I also know it’s still hard for you.”
Our greatest fear is that our child will be forgotten
I hope your family and friends don’t make that feel as if it’s coming true. Bereaved parents tend to grab hold of that narrative and run with it.
Keep in mind most responses or lack thereof are merely the result of ignorance. You wouldn’t want others to know what this is really like anyway, would you?
And while you can’t control what someone says or does, you can control how you react to the situation with love and empathy. That, my friend, is your real superpower.
This 14-page guide will help bereavement providers and friends know what to say.
- What to say, how to help someone struggling with a suicide loss.
- How to spot the bereaved at risk for suicide, what to say and do.
- Understand what a loss by suicide feels like. (Landing page in case button doesn’t work)