“How Can I Live With My Grief?”
TRAGEDY struck Bob and Diane Krych 18 years ago. Their six-year-old son, David, had a congenital heart problem. Diane tells the story:
“A doctor had advised that we have a test done within a year or so, to which we agreed. David was full of life, almost hyperactive. I remember that it was January 25, and David had been bothering his sister, upsetting her room. When he asked if he might go outside to play, I let him go.
“Some time later I heard an ambulance, and then a neighbor came running up the path, shouting, ‘Diane, it’s David, you had better come!’ I went out, and there he was where they had laid him over the hood of a parked car. I could not move. I felt as if I were paralyzed. They took him away in the ambulance. But it was all in vain. His little heart gave out and he was gone.”
Awake!: “How did this terrible loss affect you?”
Diane: “I went through a series of reactions—numbness, disbelief, guilt, and anger toward my husband and the doctor for not realizing how serious his condition was. I had been so upset with David that day. I had visitors coming to eat and a ten-week-old baby to care for. It was just too much. And then the next thing I knew, they were taking my David to the hospital.
“I would not believe he was dead. I would not accept the words ‘dead’ and ‘death.’ As far as I was concerned, he had gone away on a journey. ‘He’s alive in God’s memory and he’s coming back,’ I thought. So about seven weeks after he had died, I started to write letters to him. I wrote those letters for 13 years!”
How Long Does Grief Last?
Diane’s long grief process supports what Dr. Arthur Freese states in his book Help for Your Grief: “Most experts feel the loss of a child produces a permanent bereavement in the parents, particularly the mother.”
“Grief returns with the revolving year” was poet Shelley’s sentiment. Yearly reminders of the lost loved one renew the pangs. Millions of people today can confirm that and ask, in effect, ‘How can I live with my grief?’ Yet grief is a healing process, though perhaps never completed. The acute grief does diminish, even though the sense of loss remains.
This opinion is confirmed by Harold and Marjorie Bird of Britain who lost their 19-year-old-son, Stephen, when he drowned ten years ago. To make matters worse, he was their only child, and his body was never found. Harold says about the grief process: “It is said that time heals, but in fact it only dulls the memory of the dear one. The only healing will come when we meet him again in the resurrection.”
One scientific study of bereavement explained the grief process as follows: “The bereaved may swing dramatically and swiftly from one feeling state to another, and avoidance of reminders of the deceased may alternate with deliberate cultivation of memories for some period of time. People generally move from a state of disbelief to a gradual acceptance of the reality of the loss.”
Dr. Freese introduces a ray of light into this somber subject. “One must always retain perspective—recognize that the vast majority of those who suffer grief and go through bereavement . . . come through the other side, recover and go on in pretty much the same physical state in which the pain and agony of the grief began.”
In fact, in many cases the person may come out stronger. Why is that so? Because the grief experience has taught empathy—a better understanding of and identification with those who are bereaved. And since empathy goes far beyond sympathy, the grief survivor becomes an asset, a counselor, a consoler of others who suffer the loss of a loved one. As an example, Bob, whose son David died of heart failure, said: “We find that helping others bear their load of grief has also eased our own.”
Why Guilt, Anger, and Recrimination?
Experts in the field of grief acknowledge that the reactions of guilt, anger, and recrimination that are often associated with bereavement are normal for this situation. Survivors try to find reasons when often there are none that are valid or logical. ‘Why did it have to happen to me? What have I done to deserve it? If only I had . . . ’ are some common reactions. Others turn against God with such thoughts as, ‘How did God let this happen? Why would God do this to me?’
Here the Bible’s answer comes to mind, “Time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all.” Accidents can happen anywhere, at any time, and death is impartial. Certainly a God of love would not pick on anyone by taking away his child.—Ecclesiastes 9:11; 1 John 4:8.
Agustín and Valentina, mentioned in our opening article, still gave way to tears when they discussed the death of Jonathan with Awake! Did they have any recriminations? Valentina responded: “I was never in agreement that he should go to Long Island in someone else’s car. I have to be honest. I laid the blame on Agustín. Now I realize that it was an irrational reaction, but at the time I kept thinking, ‘If only Papa had not allowed him to go, he would still be alive.’ I kept blaming him. I had to come out with it because it hurt me to keep it in.”
Diane Krych’s anger over David’s premature death even expressed itself in resentment at animals. She told Awake!: “If I saw a dog or a cat walking in the street, I felt, ‘That animal has a good heart beating in it. Why couldn’t my son have had a good heart? Why should an animal be walking about and not my David?’”
The experts assure us that all these reactions, although often irrational, are natural. The questioning is a form of rationalizing, part of the process of reconciliation with the reality. Eventually, a stable outlook is attained, and common sense prevails. As Dr. Freese puts it: “The test of good grief—of adequately working through the emotional problems of mourning and grief, of accepting the death and looking honestly at all the feelings that go with it—is that the mourner finally tolerates these bad times with passing pain or only slight, faint, sorrowful thoughts.”
This leads to a leveling off. Dr. Freese continues: “The ideal is for nostalgia and pleasant thoughts, an ability to talk about the deceased with honesty and affection, finally to take the place of the aching pain and the grief and the distress.” At this point, the memories promote affection more than grief.
Facing the Loss of a Stillborn Child
Even though she already had other children, Monna was dearly looking forward to the birth of her next child. Even before the birth, it was a “baby I played with, talked to, and dreamed of.”
The bonding process between mother and unborn child was powerful. She continues: “Rachel Anne was a baby who kicked books off my belly, kept me awake at night. I can still remember the first little kicks, like gentle, loving nudges. Every time she moved, I was filled with such a love. I knew her so well that I knew when she was in pain, when she was sick.”
Monna continues her account: “The doctor wouldn’t believe me, until it was too late. He told me to stop worrying. I believe I felt her die. She just suddenly turned over violently. The next day she was dead.”
Monna’s experience is no isolated event. According to authors Friedman and Gradstein, in their book Surviving Pregnancy Loss, about one million women a year in the United States alone suffer an unsuccessful pregnancy. People often fail to realize that a miscarriage or a stillbirth is a tragedy for a woman, and she grieves—perhaps all her life. For example, Veronica, from New York City, now in her 50’s, recalls her miscarriages and especially remembers the stillborn baby that was alive into the ninth month and was born weighing 13 pounds (6 kg). She carried it dead inside her for the last two weeks. As she said: “To give birth to a dead baby is a terrible thing for a mother.”
The reactions of these frustrated mothers is not always understood, even by other women. A psychiatrist who lost her child by miscarriage wrote: “What I have learned in a most painful way was that before this happened to me, I really had no idea of what my friends had to bear. I had been as insensitive and ignorant toward them as I now feel people are to me.”
Another problem for the grieving mother is the impression that her husband may not feel the loss as she does. One wife expressed it this way: “I was totally disappointed in my husband at the time. As far as he was concerned, there really was no pregnancy. He could not experience the grief that I was going through. He was very sympathetic to my fears but not to my grief.”
This reaction is perhaps natural for a husband—he does not undergo the same physical and emotional bonding that his pregnant wife does. Nevertheless, he suffers a loss. And it is vital that husband and wife realize that they are suffering together, although in different ways. They should share their grief. If the husband hides it, his wife may think he is insensitive. (See page 12.) So share your tears, thoughts, and embraces. Show you need each other as never before.
The Mystery and Grief of Crib Death
Millions of mothers live with a secret, daily fear. As one mother expressed it: “I pray every night that I will find my baby alive in the morning.” What they fear is crib death, or SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Dr. Marie Valdes-Dapena, professor of pathology at the University of Miami, Florida, states that there are from 6,000 to 7,000 cases of SIDS annually in the United States alone. She adds: “There can be no question that this is a very real public health problem.”
Crib death overtakes babies at night, often between the second and the fourth month of life. Science still has not come up with a satisfactory explanation, and even autopsies fail to supply a reason for the sudden death. It remains a mystery.a
The sequel to crib death is often a terrible feeling of guilt. So, what will help parents in cases of crib death? First of all, they must recognize that they could not have avoided the tragedy. SIDS is unpredictable and usually unavoidable. Therefore, there is no reason for any guilt feelings. Second, the parents’ mutual support, trust, and understanding will help both of them cope with their grief. Talk about your baby with others. Share your feelings.
Grandparents Also Grieve
Grandparents suffer too, in a special way. As one bereaved father expressed it: “They react not only to the death of a grandchild but to the grief of their own child.”
Yet there are ways to make the grandparents’ loss easier. First, take them into account. Their grandchild was an extension of them too. Therefore the grandparents should be accepted into the grieving process in their own way. Of course, that does not mean that they should take over without the consent of the parents. But if they want to be included, and usually they do, they should be welcomed.
In this brief coverage of grief, we have tried to understand the feelings of the bereaved. But there is still another aspect to consider. How can others help, especially with their remarks? And how can husbands express their grief? Please see the next article.
a A future issue of Awake! will examine SIDS in more detail.
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The Process of Grief
This does not imply that grief has any fixed schedule or program. Grief reactions can overlap and take varying lengths of time, depending on the individual.
Initial shock; disbelief, denial; numbness; guilt feelings; anger
Acute grief may include:
Memory loss and insomnia; extreme fatigue; abrupt changes of mood; flawed judgment and thinking; bouts of crying; appetite changes, with resultant weight loss or gain; a variety of symptoms of disturbed health; lethargy; reduced work capacity; hallucinations—feeling, hearing, seeing the deceased
Sadness with nostalgia; more pleasant memories of the deceased, even tinged with humor
(Based on Help for Your Grief, by Dr. Arthur Freese, pages 23-6.)
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Steps to Help You Overcome Your Grief
Each person has to work out the grief in his or her own way. The vital step is to avoid self-centered stagnation and self-pity. Some suggestions based on the experience of bereaved persons interviewed by Awake! are:
◼ Keep busy and continue your routine of work and activity. Those who are Jehovah’s Witnesses especially emphasized the value of attending Christian meetings and being involved in the ministry. Many expressed the great help they received from prayer.
◼ Let your grief manifest itself; don’t try to hold it in. The sooner you grieve and weep, the sooner you will pass the period of acute grief.
◼ Don’t isolate yourself; mix with people and allow them to mix with you. If it helps you, talk freely about your lost loved one.
◼ As soon as possible, take an interest in other people and their problems. Try to help others, and you will help yourself.
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What Can Others Do to Help?
Awake! correspondents had many interviews with bereaved parents in different countries. The following are some of the suggestions that were made for helping grieving families. Obviously, there has to be flexibility in their application, depending on the feelings of the bereaved.
1. Visit with the family from the very first day, and also invite them over to your place. Prepare meals for them. Keep this up for as long as is needed, not just the first few weeks.
2. Let the parents decide whether they want the clothes and other reminders of the dead child to be kept or stored elsewhere.
3. Talk about the dead child by name if the bereaved person indicates such a desire. Recall the happy and humorous aspects of the child’s personality and life. Don’t keep silent. The parents may want to talk about their loved one.
4. If too far away to offer personal help, write letters that encourage and console. Don’t avoid the subject of the deceased person.
5. When appropriate, encourage the parents to keep active and maintain their former routine. Get them out of the house and doing things for others.
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A Grandmother Writes:
“Having lost in death my dear parents, a brother, a sister, my devoted lifelong companion, friend-sweetheart-husband, my Jim, whom I met and loved at 13 years of age, and my precious little grandson Stuart Jamie—I can say there is no sorrow, no pain, no torturous grief, which comes flooding through me even as I write, as the death of a child.”
—Edna Green, England, on the death of her grandson, aged two years nine months.
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By openly sharing your grief, you help each other cope