There is a common theme that comes up, like clockwork, in the various parental grief support groups I belong to on Facebook.
It goes something like this: someone will describe an encounter they had with a dear friend or a trusted therapist or a family member (people who generally have the griever’s best interest at heart). This person will advise the bereaved that it’s time to stop grieving.
The sentiment comes in a variety of flavors. I’ll paraphrase a few of them:
It’s time to move on.
Your child would want you to be happy.
You can have another baby.
Let him or her go. (I wish I was kidding with this one)
You need to get over it.
This is just a bump in the road.
You can choose to embrace life and be happy.
All of the above statements, but especially the last one, imply that grieving is a choice, that one can simply choose to be done with it.
This brand of advice is rampant no matter the age of the child or the cause of death. When a grieving parent hears some version of “it’s time to move on” from a well-meaning friend or relative, particularly someone who we expect will understand our level of pain, it feels hurtful and dismissive. It can even feel like a betrayal.
This topic comes up so frequently in closed Facebook groups because many parents aren’t comfortable posting to their own feeds about the level of pain we’re in, so we retreat to the safety and solidarity of our fellow bereaved.
I also suspect that for some of us, the belief that there is an acceptable way to grieve (which includes a fixed time limit) is so ingrained in our psyche that it’s hard not to feel like a failure or a freak when you still find yourself grieving and heartbroken over the course of many years.
Losing a child of any age is the worst thing that can happen to any parent. That’s not a subjective statement. One study revealed that the psychological trauma of losing a child is ongoing — that is, it doesn’t get better over time.
The study found that bereaved parents reported poorer well-being, more depressive symptoms, and more health problems than non-bereaved parents fully 18 years after the death of their child. Mothers, in particular, were at increased risk for psychiatric hospitalization for five years or more after the death of their child.
A 2011 UK study of five thousand bereaved parents found that parents in Scotland who lose a child before their first birthday are more than twice as likely to die within 15 years of their child’s death. Bereaved parents in England and Wales were more than four times more likely to die an early death.
Obviously, everyone grieves differently. Many of us (myself included) will move through the first year of intense grief into a different stage, one where we rejoin the world of the living and begin to function — work, decorate for the holidays, help our remaining children with their homework — in a relatively normal way. But this does not mean we are over the death of our child.
The sadness is still there. Every missed milestone is a reminder of what we lost and are still losing. The colors, sounds, scents, and textures that we associate with our child have the power to bring us back to a place of longing and despair in an instant. Living with this longing over time is incredibly exhausting. It’s also lonely, particularly as the years pass.
But bereaved parents cannot move on (at least, not fully) because we will always long for our child. This longing is not a choice. It is simply our reality.
Some days my grief feels a lot like a highway with cars rushing past as I wander along the edge of the road, alone. The thing is, I don’t want to get into the car with you and drive away. I want you to stop the car, get out, and walk with me.
Parental grief is large. It’s endless. It takes up more space than most people have the understanding or patience to allow. A culture that covets health, happiness and youth simply does not allow time for the kind of grief associated with losing a child. You can’t understand this unless you’ve been through it. Trust me — I didn’t get it either.
I am glad that most people don’t understand the intensity — and longevity — of my grief, because the only way to understand it is to lose the person you love most in the world. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to be understood. On the contrary, I want people to see the endlessness of my grief for what it is, something completely out of my control.
That’s why I keep writing about losing my daughter. It’s also why I visit the parental bereavement groups on Facebook even though they are the saddest places on the internet. There is space in these desolate groups where I can let my grief expand and allow others to do the same. They are places where no one ever says, “it’s time to move on” even after a year or two or twelve.
The idea that there is a fixed and appropriate time limit for grief does a disservice to all grieving people, particularly bereaved parents.
Losing a child is forever. It is a life sentence. Getting over it is not an option or a choice. There is only moving through it, learning to live with it, and trying to find a new way to fit into the world.
As bereaved parents we’re constantly swimming upstream in a death-denying culture that is always looking forward, always trying to move on to the next thing. What we need is space to walk slowly in our new normal even though it’s uncomfortable. Finding this space takes years. It takes a lifetime. But, really, what’s the rush?