Hi, there! If you’re reading this, that must mean you’re in the club. “What club?” you may ask. Well, the club that one in four of us, unfortunately, end up in without signing up for. The “I lost my child” club. It stinks, but here we are. My name is Heather and I joined the club in April of 2017 after the passing of my sweet boy, Owen. I was already on the path to becoming a mental health counselor, so now my passion is working with individuals who have experienced devastating losses such as ours. It’s rare to find people who truly understand what we’re going through. I’m here to tell you that I hear you, I see you, and you are not alone.
So, grief. Let’s talk about it. It’s one of those words that we feel like we know what it means, but it’s also shrouded in a dark cloud of mystery. When we think of grieving the loss of a family member, it’s natural for our minds to dredge up the most closely associated memory. For instance, the grief we experienced after losing a grandparent. After we find out about their passing, we cry with our families and maybe we feel a sense of togetherness that we haven’t felt in a while. All of our family members are gathered together to celebrate a life well-lived. We swap funny stories, a few sentimental ones, and in the end hope we do their memory justice. It’s painful, but it’s also a natural loss in life, and one that we knew would one day come.
What’s not natural is the grief we’re experiencing right now—the grief of losing a child. From the moment we find out we are going to be parents, our lives change in the most extraordinary ways. We’ve created life! Now, here's where our paths begin to diverge from most folks around us. Their dreams of parenthood come to fruition while ours come to a screeching halt. For some of you reading this, your loss may have occurred weeks after finding out about the life you had created. For others, it may have been much later down the road. Either way, what we experienced were not typical occurrences. Our losses were out of line with the normal processes in life. Because of that, we shouldn’t treat our grief as typical, structured, timely processes either.
A harsh truth about our humanity is that we are often quick to dish out compassion to others and just as quick to criticize ourselves. We say things like, “I should be over this by now. It’s been three weeks, three months, three years…” and “I can’t believe I just cried in front of all those people! I’m so weak.” Jeez—we are tough on ourselves! What if we, instead, change those thoughts? Something like, “It’s ok that I’m still hurting. I survived life’s greatest loss and I’m getting stronger every day.” Or, “I’m going to give myself grace for getting upset. I have every right to be upset. Crying doesn’t make me weak.” No matter how many people we interact with each day, we spend the most time with ourselves in our own heads, even more so when we isolate ourselves in our grief. Make it a place that’s not so horrible to be.
One way to do that is to speak truth. It’s critical that we speak truth into our lives, especially when we are in the deep trenches of grief. When we cling to the truth, we’re more likely to show ourselves the grace and compassion we deserve. When I dealt with self-defeating thoughts as a child and into adulthood, my mom would always ask me a very important question: What is truth? I often use that question with my clients as well. The truth is this: you survived a trauma so insanely gut-wrenching that no one should ever experience, so your grief isn’t going to be pretty, properly formulated, or understood by others. The truth is that some days you’ll feel unexplainably happy, and that’s ok. Soak it in. It doesn’t negate the fact that your heart is still broken. You’re allowed to be happy, too. The truth is that you might break down when you see a pregnancy announcement on Facebook. You might be angry, you might unfollow that person, or you might even—God forbid—be jealous; and that’s ok, too. Lastly, the truth is that you might have to leave family events, parties, and holidays early because it’s too painful without your little one beside you. It might make people mad because they can’t comprehend your pain, and it might ruffle some feathers because you don’t want to explain yourself, yet again. And, you know what? That is absolutely, positively ok! Give yourself permission to experience your grief as it, inevitably, washes over you in waves.
Your grief. It’s just that—it’s yours. It’s not Sally Sue’s grief who also lost a child from similar circumstances who seems to be managing life like a rock star and isn’t in and out of therapy each week. It’s not your living children’s grief who still can’t wrap their minds around where little brother or little sister went. It’s not your parents’ or your in-laws’ grief who also experienced the loss, but still don’t truly understand your loss. It’s not even your partner’s grief, the person you feel understands your pain the most. It’s yours. Don’t get stuck in comparison mode. Be kind to yourself. Show yourself grace and compassion because this grief thing is rough. Most of all, listen to yourself and acknowledge your needs because your healing depends on it.
Journal Topic 1: How do you show yourself compassion and grace? How can you incorporate compassion and grace more into your life?
Journal Topic 2: Write out truth statements about your grief.
Heather Olivier, M.S., PLPC, NCC, is a counselor with Present Hope Counseling, LLC in Walker, LA and is currently working on her doctorate in Counselor Education and Supervision at the University of New Orleans.