Losing a child – whether by a miscarriage, stillbirth or the death of a living child – is an overwhelming experience. And for many, grief feels like a permanent state of sadness from which you will never recover. The experience of grief can also be surprising; you may have emotions that feel inappropriate, good friends may say the wrong things, and your spouse or partner may respond very differently.
For all of these reasons, seeing a grief counselor can be immensely helpful. But if you have not seen a grief counselor (or are unable to), I want you to know that you are not alone. Your feelings do make sense, and although it may seem completely unbelievable, you will be able to live with this loss in your life and still find hope.
Grief is a normal response to many different kinds of losses, not just death. It can come from losing a hope or a dream, such as the dream of having a child or having a child who does not have special needs. Grief can also come from having to let go of the beginning of a child (miscarriage), losing a child before you never got to know (stillbirth), or losing a living child you knew and loved.
Grief brings all kinds of emotions. We associate it with sadness, but there is often a mix of other intense and painful emotions including dread, anguish, anxiety, guilt, resentment, helplessness, and shock. Grief can even include such unexpected feelings as anger or even relief (especially if you sensed something was wrong). It’s not unusual to feel several emotions at once.
Grief is physical. Your body feels grief almost as acutely as your mind. You may become physically ill, oppressively tired, or have trouble sleeping. Sometimes you may feel outside of yourself, even disoriented. At times you can feel so disoriented you may ask yourself: “Am I losing my mind?” No, you are not. You are grieving.
Grief can change your behavior. You may not want to eat or you may eat a lot. You may feel absentminded and forgetful. Withdrawing from other people is common. You can feel intensely irritated or angry about anything that anyone says to you. It’s ok. You are coping and evolving, and you can and will be connected to people again.
Spouses often grieve differently. Some people grieve by tackling and solving problems while others respond in more emotional ways. These differences are natural. Mothers tend to experience the loss of a child in a uniquely physical way (often because they carried the child in their bodies or were the primary caregiver). One of you may think the other is minimizing or exaggerating the loss. Different responses do not mean that the loss is more or less significant to one of you.
It will be hard for other people to see you in pain. Their reactions may sometimes seem cold. Some may tell you to stop feeling sorry for yourself. Others may be so scared by what you are going through that they withdraw completely from you, as if death could be contagious. Their reactions are not about you. They are about their emotions and fear surrounding your loss.
Having a confidante is important. Friends may tell you it’s time to move on or wonder how long you are going to talk about your pain. If possible, find a trusted friend or family member who can tolerate your complex responses without trying to “fix” anything. Grief counselors can also provide this support.
It is good to take care of yourself. People often tell me, “I want to get a haircut for the funeral, but I feel guilty about wanting to look good.” Don’t. Taking care of yourself is one of the best things you can do to keep healthy and move through this difficult time.
Grief will get worse before it gets better. Often the hardest times comes four to six months after a loss. At this point, the numbness and shock have worn off and you are finally feeling the full weight of your new reality. This can be particularly hard because friends and family may expect you to feel better at precisely the time you are feeling worse. Let them know it’s normal.
You may need professional help. If your grief continues to feel raw or if you feel stuck in it, ask yourself, “Am I having trouble? Would I like help?” If the answer is yes, look for a counselor who has experience helping people cope with grief. The Association of Death Educators and Counselors offers certification programs. Ask a potential therapist if they have participated in such a program.
You can be happy again. Grief never fully goes away. But it changes, becomes less fresh and raw, and will eventually become integrated into your life. As that happens, it will be possible for you to build a rich and satisfying life.