Permission was sought from the client before publishing this case study, and all identifiable information has been changed in respect of the client and to protect their confidentiality.
Losing someone to death is often a painful and life-changing event but losing a child seems to add a very different quality to loss. I once had a client, Amy, who some years prior, had lost her teenage son, Taylor. Seven years later, at the time we met, Amy was still very much consumed by her loss. She had developed complicated grief disorder, which is why she’d come to see me. This meant that Amy had become stuck in the grieving process, or ‘stages of grief’. This can happen with other types of loss, but for Amy it was the devastating loss of Taylor who died aged 18, when he was on the cusp of adulthood. Amy felt her grief and loss much of the time.
Amy was working and had supportive friends and family. This included a husband and three adult daughters. But Amy seemed to be a shell of a person. She could not let herself enjoy her life, it was as if she was walking through a haze, in a fugue state, and thought that if she just kept on walking, she’d meet her son at some point…. but this point would mean the end of her own life. Indeed, she confided in me that the only thing that kept her in the world of the living was her other children. She felt torn and conflicted, almost as if by being in the world she was choosing her daughters over her beloved Taylor. This loss had resulted in depression, and anxiety, so had taken a serious toll on Amy’s mental health and wellbeing. She had several challenging emotions to process in her grief, including:
The death of a loved one can bring about feelings of guilt for a number of reasons. Amy held guilt for a few:
- Why was she still alive, when her teenage son was not? This was not the natural order of things.
- How could she enjoy her life, even small everyday things like socialising with people, when Taylor was robbed of his?
- Amy felt regret and guilt about how she disciplined Taylor when he was alive. Taylor would hang out with friends and smoke weed all day, rather than work or study. Amy gave him an ultimatum in her efforts to help him but Taylor called her bluff and moved out of the family home. Although, Amy had the best intentions, she now experienced regret because all she wanted was Taylor, but when he was alive, she (felt as though) she’d discarded him.
- She had begun to torture herself by telling herself that she could have prevented his death if he was at home. Taylor died due to epilepsy. Some exploration uncovered that in fact, this was near impossible. The same thing would have very likely happened had he been at home.
- Amy also felt guilty about her need for Taylor, above the need for her living children, and the way even now, she was feeling very much pulled in his direction, to wherever he might be.
A death can make us feel angry because we question why – this can be even more true for parents because of the unnatural order of things. And since the death of her child, Amy had heard many things over the years that added to her anger, often from well-meaning friends. For example, “You have to move on”, she asked me “How am I supposed to move on from something like this?”, or when her friends said seemingly benign things like “my pets are like my babies”. Amy had had pets and stated emphatically that although she loved them to bits, and had lost some along the way, there was just no comparison. She was so angry about some of the reactions she’d had, that she also experienced resentment and bitterness.
She said she did not want anyone to lose their children but she wished they could experience what she did for just one day. I took this to mean that she was hurting and just wanted those closest to her to understand her suffering, rather than to depreciate or disrespect it. This was a woman who was in immense….
Just as we experience physical pain from a flesh wound, we also experience degrees of emotional pain from the wounds that we take from life, and death. The loss of a child is the worst nightmare for parents, and when it happens, life is changed in a way that is unimaginable for those of us who are fortunate enough to escape such a fate. Indeed, I’ve heard accounts of people who have heard the most blood-curdling screams from mothers when they have just been told that their child has died. It can sound as if someone has struck them physically in the heart, but this is an emotional wound, and it goes deep because it’s a traumatic and unfathomable fate.
Amy was in a place in which she was now ready to process her loss and grief. She was able to let go of some of her guilt, to understand that by choosing to live again, she was not betraying Taylor, in fact she realised he would have been quite annoyed with her for taking so long. Amy started to socialise again, she became less hard on herself, her mood lifted, and it seemed she was now at the beginning of a new reality, one that included Taylor, and always would, but that did not leave her in a perpetual state of penance.
With The Right Support
It is important to understand that suffering alone is not the only way, bereavement support is an option and fortunately there are people out there who are highly skilled and trained to help individuals work through the challenging feelings that they experience, this is not with the aim to help parents ‘move on’, you will always feel the loss, and why shouldn’t you? Your child meant something; they were here and they are and always will be loved and missed.
You Can Move Forward
Yes, therapy can help you to make sense of how you feel about your loss and process it in a healthier way. This doesn’t mean your grief or loss becomes smaller. It means you can grow around your grief by learning ways to cope, so that life doesn’t feel like such a struggle. By doing this you move forward in life, rather than moving on and away from your loved one. This allows you to live again, in your new reality, in the way your loved one would want for you.
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