Posted by: Jody Glynn Patrick | 10/25/2009

After the death of a child… Is there a role for faith in healing?

Time does not completely “heal” this heart wound. It only creates scar tissue: a natural process to protect our self after traumatic injury.

Maybe you have a more tangible scar on your body than the invisible one now forming over the wound of losing a child. A burn. A dog bite. A surgical scar? The skin scar tissue over that visible injury is different than the surrounding healthy skin. It is less pliable. Tougher. It’s a protection that says, “This area has endured a traumatic event. All my body’s resources have rallied to knit it back together make it even more impenetrable — to protect it.”

Following a child’s death, we figuratively begin to form that scar tissue around our hearts, oftentimes making it more difficult for those who love us to penetrate it. We close our hearts to others and focus on our own repair. Strangers’ needs become less compelling and forgiveness less accessible. Sometimes we even harden our hearts to the faith that we knew (or longed for, or scoffed at) prior to the assault on our mental existence.

Letting go of a death does not mean letting go of a child. Nor does letting go of grief (after it has helped bridge the “then” and “now”) signal the end of an intense love for the child.

A. K. Finkbeiner, in “After the Death of a Child: Living With Loss Through the Years” explains acceptance, the fifth stage of grief using most models: “But in time…nature takes care of it; the waves of pain lose intensity a little and come less frequently. Then friends and relatives say the parents are getting over it, and that time heals all wounds. The parents themselves say that as the pain lessens, they begin to have energy for people and things outside themselves…This is a decision parents say [they] must make to live as well as they can in [their] new world…They can come to be happy, but never as happy.”  The continuing grief, even when a life under control, becomes a comfort of sorts: “a measure of the depth and breadth of the bond between parent and child”.

Sadly, the parents who may need the most help in the aftermath of a death may find it the least forthcoming, and so the grief may be harder to bear or last longer. Murder; suicide; abortion (the parent not choosing that option); a death with a “fault” like a drowning accident in a pool left uncovered – these deaths, if anything can be measured quantitatively (and grief “rights” are the hardest and most inappropriate to assign) — these deaths are hard to recover from.

“Unnatural deaths” wherein the child was not killed accidentally or by disease often result in longer grief cycles and they may leave more instances of depression, divorce, and mental illness in their wake. We may be driven by a need to determine “blame”, and too often, assign it to ourselves or our significant family members. Forgiveness is a great concept, but hard to find after the death of a child. Even forgiveness of God.

Prolonged grief may be a fact of life for a parent, but how the parent copes with those feelings ultimately is — like every attitude and behavior in an adult life — a choice.

 Where is our God or Higher Power? Is the door opened or are we pushing against it?

 In the message of today’s self-proclaimed prophets with “The Secret” and yesterday’s traditional prophets with “In all things, give thanks,” there is a consistent message that does unite all religions in the world: Seek an attitude of gratitude and forgiveness. This is how we come to be blessed, in turn, with faith. And faith has sustained Humankind since the beginning of Time; certainly during the most impossible of cruelties and injustices.

Separation from child oftentimes (you aren’t alone) results in feelings of separation from God as well.

There is little gratitude, if any, to be found in the event: Death. Only when a child’s life is filled with physical agony or mental anguish or silence — only when life is more painful than death — do we welcome the event.  We do not welcome the prospect of living the rest of our life separated from our child.

Why, then, is gratitude important now? Gratitude for the love of family, friends, colleagues and professionals who cared for your child can help sustain you. Being grateful that the child lived — even if only in a womb — is a healing focus. Being grateful to have known a significant love in your life is critical to creating scar tissue that allows love to flow through it in the future.

When the death, or grief, consumes our lives

Grief is intended to be a bridge from our loss to our new life without the child physically present — we need professional help when it instead becomes an independent entity.  Grief (or the death) can easily become the bane of our existence, the focus of our activity and mental energy. If  it takes on a parasitic life of its own, it then depletes the emotional, physical and mental resources we have to deal with other family relationships. The death, in some ways, can become more important than the life it took or the lives of our remaining family. It’s hard to see that happening when you’re kneeling at the pulpit of grief, but it can happen. 

If we allow that grief to become more than a bridge – a being that we need to feed with ourselves, instead of it helping us – it will be at the expense of our ability to reach out to our other points of joy and love, and to our faith. And in the end, faith can make the scar tissue more pliable, most like it was before, with flexibilitiy and strength of heart to allow memories and love to flow into (and back from) the outer world.  Faith is not a gift you give to God; it is a gift God gives to you.

We don’t have to believe there is a reason for the death, but we are human and we need comfort when we are hurt. We do need to believe that God or a higher authority, or the universal energy source – whatever paradigm is consistent with your belief system — mourns our heartache with us and offers us the possibility of helping us come to terms with it. We need the promise of different (if lesser) joys and loves ahead in the life we have yet to live.

All I suggest is that we try to wedge open the door to faith. If you are not strong enough today, it may be sufficient just to think about where your energy is going and if you can redirect any of it to that door. If not today, perhaps tomorrow you can stop pushing against the door, and perhaps the next day, take a step back from the door. Perhaps soon you can one day pull instead of push, and find sufficient energy and belief to let in a sliver of sunlight. And gratitude. And forgiveness. And by that blessing, healing.

Thanks for visiting the Bereaved Parents Watering Hole. Your comments are appreciated.


Responses

  1. After two years since Anthony’s accidental overdose by poisoned drugs, I still grieve hard. The first year, I was numb, not wanting to feel the shock and horror, disbelief being my mental shield. Anger came next in a tidal wave, with devastation and guilt coming at its heels. I clung to my sorrow and self-blame like badges of courage in war, acting like a Prisoner of War deserving only torture and suffering at my own hands because I, in effect, had killed my son by not being The Perfect Parent.
    I have since quit “Head Gaming” and have tried to look only at the facts. My Mom came up with that one. I was a good mom. I did the best with what I had to work with at the time.
    I did love my child completely and my heart was full of joy. I gave him the gift of humor and taught him how to laugh and not take himself too seriously. I was 18 years sober when he died so I tried to be an effective role model. I tried to love him into being a good man and at 22, he did his best, too. He is in a place now where he feels no pain, neither physical nor mental, emotional or spiritual. I feel joy for that. He has become my Guardian Angel. What a gift he was for 22 years in my life. I hope I was a gift in his. Peace and Love, Anthony’s Mom.


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