I had just met with a father whose deceased son’s birthday had been the day before. I knew synchronicity, my life path, passion and the arduous, amazing walk with losing a child myself, would connect us so that I could share the following message.
Transforming loss into healing is a difficult path, but healing is possible if someone chooses to consciously grieve, act, and honor their own grief process. Life will have the opportunity to seep back into a place that seemed so lonely and dark. I know the excruciating anguish of loss as my own life story includes a window of time in which I experienced miscarriage, my brother’s death in a commercial fishing accident, my wife’s death from cancer, and then my six and nine-year-old daughters’ and mother-in-law’s deaths in a single car accident. The years between 1986 through 1996 were filled with a level of compounded and complicated grief that left me shattered and emotionally stripped with very little motivation to move forward in life. With gratitude, I can honestly state that today, more than any other time in my life, I feel authentic, joyful, spiritually connected, self-realized, grateful and deeply passionate about healing from loss and living life to its fullest. I’m grateful for my life and yet, that does not mean that I don’t continuously grieve and honor my losses, especially the death of my children. I am very aware that grief does not make everything “okay.” However, grief can change and transform into the fuel needed to drive one forward toward growth. The lyrics from the song, “There’s Still My Joy” capture the healing I feel inside myself each and every day. I celebrate my daughters’ lives and they live on inside of me– like the sparkle on the snow as the first sunlight ricochets off that perfectly formed crystal. It warms my heart.
Today I am a minister, licensed psychotherapist, certified grief counselor, and licensed school teacher. I’m also a person who still grieves, lives, and honors my life, as well as the lives of my loved ones who died before me.
While writing this article, I’m reflecting back to a time following the deaths of my daughters. If someone had said to me then, that I would find joy in any form, ever again, I would have scoffed in disbelief. However, I’ve found I can indeed feel joy and pleasure as well as sadness and longing all at the same time. This balance is my dance and I am grateful for all the shining lights that beam down upon my path helping to direct my next step. In fact, research backs up this possibility for all of us by sharing that certain coping behaviors can assist with the balancing of our past, present, and future lives.
Six themes have been identified that appear to positively impact the emotional healing from the loss of a child. These are: positive beliefs, faith beliefs, everlasting love, pleasant memories, social engagement and staying connected (Barker & Dunn, 2011). Barker and Dunn (2011) focused their research on mothers whose children had died suddenly. They discovered a congruency within these themes pertaining to the mothers.
The following information expands on the six themes: (1) Positive Beliefs: People have a “need to connect” in order to share memories and to be around others. This gives a feeling of calm and peace, as does avoiding activities and people that have the potential for negativity. (2) Faith Beliefs: This is a helpful level of connection to a God of their understanding – which allows a level of connection to their child, as well as with something bigger than them. (3) Everlasting Love: The fear that the love for the child may end decreases as love continues to grow for the child. This allows great relief as the relationship transforms but the love and relationship with the child is forever. (4) Pleasant Remembrances: Having the opportunity to share pleasant memories and stories helps as a coping mechanism. It’s helpful to celebrate their lives and those pleasant experiences as they help nurture the heart. (5) Social Engagement: At some point there is a feeling to reach out in some way — to explore how their experience can be of benefit to someone new in the grief process. There is also a need to stay in contact with the child’s friends and family, thus allowing a connection to the past and their child. (6) Staying Connected: Over time, parents will find a way to stay emotionally connected to their child. This can include special activities such honoring the child’s birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. These types of activities provide present action and new experiences to happen, thus building upon the parental/child relationship throughout one’s life.
Barker and Dunn (2011) found two themes that were not productive. These are: (1) Avoidance: When people completely avoided the parent or avoided talking about the child. This felt hurtful. (2) Rumination: Dwelling on the actual event in which there was death or anything negative pertaining to the death that did not serve the parent positively (Barker & Dunn, 2011). Grief allows for someone’s life to regain meaning. It does not always include a conclusive answer for the meaning of the death of a child. The question of “why me?” is one that arises approximately 80% of the time from people experiencing a traumatic situation. This craving for understanding the “why” is natural and normal. Not all people resolve the “why” of the death, but the transformation of one’s life to include meaning can be the larger focus in someone’s healing and growth (Davis, Wortman, Lehman, & Silver, 2000). Consciously grieving and observing the healing process can allow for meaning, passion, and reason to grow. It helps to feel the emotions, thus manifesting a meaningful life.
In closing, it’s important to remember grief is a natural and normal healing process and through conscious actions, a person can claim themselves while no longer being confined and defined by his or her story.
Barker, B., & Dunn, K. (2011). The continued lived experience of the unexpected death of a child. Omega-Journal of Death and Dying, 63(3), 221-233. Retrieved from https://lopes.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edswss&AN=000294731800002&site=eds-live&scope=site
Davis, C. G., Wortman, C. B., Lehman, D. R., & Silver, R. C. (2000). Searching for meaning in loss: Are clinical assumptions correct? Death Studies, 24(6), 497-540. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07481180050121471
Poteat, C., & Wiard, T. (2011). Witnessing Ted: The journey to potential through grief and loss. : CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
By: Rev. Ted Wiard
Psychotherapist, Founder Golden Willow Retreat