Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Good Grief

I'm no stranger to grief.  I grieved the loss of my father when he abandoned me at the tender age of 6 after my parents divorce. I grieved the loss of my 15 year old sister when I was 18.  I grieved the loss of my (original) hopes and dreams for my unborn son when he was born prematurely with severe disabilities when I was 23. I grieved during my father's last year battling lung cancer (yes, his illness brought my estranged father back to me in the end).  I grieved the loss of my marriage (abusive as it was) when it ended in divorce.  From the age of 23, I grieved continually for the pain and suffering I had to watch my son endure with each new medical condition/treatment. And recently, I began the journey of grief that no parent ever wants to travel, the grief from the loss of a child.

Over the years, I've learned a great deal about inner strength, stress management, coping skills, and other such things.  I'm able to handle much more stress in my daily life than I think is probably typical, mainly because I had to for so long.  A high stress level just became my "normal."  I've had many people, during their own moments of grief, reach out to me for connection, and now I understand that they needed someone that wasn't going to shy away from what they needed to talk about.  I was a good choice, because I didn't shy away.  I listened.  Their grief didn't make me uncomfortable.  I was understanding and I was compassionate.  And when asked, I gave advice from time to time.

As time went on, I found that I rarely needed to vent about my own troubles, and I learned quickly that I didn't find therapists effective because they all said the same thing to me: "Reduce the stress in your life."  Um, I just told you I'm caring for an extremely disabled child as a single parent, going through an abusive divorce that took 2 years to complete, trying to work full time to support myself, while managing my son's care and the 18 nurses in and out of my home each month caring for my son.  Not exactly sure how the therapists thought I was going to accomplish such a simple instruction.  So instead I told myself "That therapist is an idiot.  And YOU will survive."  And that is what I did.  I rode each wave of grief, each high, each low, as best I could and I survived.

But this time the grief is different. I thought I'd had 19 years to prepare for the death of my son.  He wasn't supposed to live past the age of 3.  I knew this day was coming, eventually, some day.  I steeled myself for years against that eventuality.  I thought I'd built a thick enough skin, developed enough coping skills, and had enough time to prepare for the loss of my son, that I'd be able to deal with that monstrosity of grief just like I had with all the other bouts.  On the day my son died, I learned that a parent is never ever prepared for the loss of their child, no matter how many years they have to prepare themselves.  They all find themselves brought to their knees or flat on their asses, a wreck. I was no different.

It's been a little over a month since my son died. The only person I really have to talk to that 'really' understands what I'm going through is my mother, because she too has survived the loss of a child, my sister.   I thought I'd be able to go back to work, throwing myself into the normalcy of my professional life as a brief weekday reprieve from my grief.  That's what I've done in the past and it always worked for me.  But all those other times I was established with my office, people knew my abilities, and I had a certain level of familiarity with the work I was to do.  Unfortunately this time, I'm in a fairly new job, and was only 1 week into my most recent assignment when my son passed away.  The group I'm working with doesn't know me, nor my abilities.  On top of that I'm obviously not functioning at 100% capacity now.  Not even close.  My coping skills are limited.  My ability to concentrate restricted.  My memory spotty. On a good day I'm at 70% I'd say but, on a bad day, I can't even get out of bed.  I try to be proactive and be my own advocate and tell people explicitly what I need (even in writing) and how my capacity is limited in several areas and ask for patience and understanding as I try to get through this difficult time.  This time I even asked for assignments that were low-key, low profile, low stress, and mentioned that I wouldn't be at top form with my work.

As I said, it's been a month since I lost my son, and now I find myself thinking many of the things I remember hearing my mom say over and over again all those years ago after my sister died.  "Nobody cares."  "They just want you to forget about your child and move on."  "Nobody wants to hear about your feelings."  "Nobody wants to hear you say your child's name yet again."  "Nobody understands."  "Nobody wants to understand."  "Nobody gets what you're going through."  "Everyone wants to pretend that you're just fine, that things are just fine, and go on like nothing has changed."

I believe I am thinking some of these things because there are people who I think honestly believe that I should be getting over the worst of my grief already.  Yes, in 4 weeks, they truly believe that I should be able to pick up where I left off before I had to stand over my child's grave.  And that is absolutely the most ridiculous expectation anyone has ever tried to put on me.  4 weeks?  Really??

I'm not a psychologist, nor a grief expert, but I can say with a degree of certainty that the grief of a child is one of the most traumatic forms of familial loss that a person can experience and the grief process for that loss takes a very long time.  And we're not talking days or weeks, and for most we're not even talking months, we're talking years (yes, that is plural: yearS).  Does that mean I won't be able to perform my job, fully functional, for years?  No, of course not.  But it certainly means it's going to be some time before I'm able to cope with all the demands made on someone in my profession the way I was able to do prior to the loss of my son.  It's going to take time.  More than 4 weeks.  A lot more than 4 weeks.  I am still spontaneously crying while waiting at a stop light, or while taking a shower, etc., never knowing when it will strike me next.  And I know that what I'm going through can't be rushed, or stifled, because that's how you really cause permanent damage on a grieving psyche.  I need to go through this, in my own time, in my own way, and I need to keep myself in a supportive environment around individuals that are compassionate and understanding and patient.

I don't think the people that are expecting me to be "better" in 4 weeks are bad people.  I believe they are just ignorant to the grieving process and particularly that of a parent that's lost a child.  How does one go about educating such persons?  Can you educate people that aren't motivated to be educated?  It seems unlikely.  And if I advocate for myself too much, I imagine I'll end up finding myself unemployed and not in an emotional position to be interviewing either.  It's quite a pickle.

When my son was born with all his problems, I went back to work a week later, but I'd already worked for the state for 3 years and my job was clearly outlined and the coworkers knew my abilities and supported me during that very difficult time.  When I filed for divorce and a 4-year restraining order against my spouse, I returned to work a week later, but I'd already worked for LE for 4 years, my job clearly outlined, and my coworkers knew my abilities and supported me during that difficult time.  This time I have none of that security or familiarity with my coworkers, and on top of it, they are asking me to start new contracts with new clients which is a huge stressor all by itself, but nearly unbearable when you're grieving over the loss of a child.


  1. (*HUG*) I am sorry that you are dealing with new coworkers and bad communication on top of everything else right now.

    Grieving the loss of a child is not like overcoming a head cold or stomach flu. You don't just recover and move on. I don't know if it helps any, but I'd guess most of the people who are putting out these unrealistic expectations have never had this kind of experience, so they're taking out of context things you said about knowing this was coming and thinking that means you did your grieving in advance. If only it worked that way...

    (*HUG*) take care, and keep your trusted friends and family close to you.

  2. Thanks Tanya. It's impossible for someone who hasnt lost a child to truly empathize. And the grief is so much more complex with him being special needs. All I can do is communicate my state and ask for what I need...even if it isn't understood.

  3. Wow, I just reread this a few years later. I have to say that my employer was extremely compassionate in not having fired me which he most easily could have done due to poor performance. Things probably could have been handled better in a few instances, but all in all it isn't an experience that I look back on negatively. It's nice to know that, looking back, I survived and advocated for myself and am a better person because of it, I think.