A Kaleidoscope of Feelings
“It feels like I have been on an emotional roller-coaster since my son died. I don’t even know what I am feeling anymore. My moods and feelings change every day—sometimes every minute. Is this normal?”
The death of a child in our lives brings about many feelings. Many of us feel guilty about our parenting and look for someone or something to blame for the loss of our precious child. Just about every grieving parent wonders whether they were a “good parent.” Questioning our parenting is evidence that we were—and still are—good parents.
Most of the time, our feelings of guilt and blame are really motivated by our love for our child. And, we are searching for answers to questions for which there are no answers, trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. However, when our guilt is so intense that it causes us more and more pain, and when our blaming turns to resentment, anger, and lashing out we need to consider getting help. It takes a lot of time and a lot of tears, but with support many of us have been able to let go of and move past our guilt and blame. It is possible and it is healing.
Some of the most common of these grief feelings are:
Shock and denial. We say to ourselves things like: “This can’t be real!” “Things like this just don’t happen to people like me!” “I can’t believe that my child has died!” It is as if we simply cannot accept that such a terrible thing as the death of someone we love so deeply has actually occurred. We may try to protect ourselves psychologically by pushing the reality of the event away from us and putting up walls to the outside world. For example, many of us have felt like closing the blinds, shutting doors to the rest of the world, and pretending like it never happened.
Anger and rage. We say to ourselves things like: “Why me?!” “Why my child?!” “Why our family?!” Often, it is as if we are trying to take our pain out on others. The world may seem like an unfeeling place in which such an awful thing has occurred. We may see the world as a horrible, cruel place. We may be angry at God for allowing this to happen. There are two ways extreme anger can come out. We can take it out on others, which sometimes leads to violent behavior. Or, we get angry at ourselves, which can turn to depression and suicidal thoughts. It is important that we get help before our anger leads us to hurt others or ourselves. (See the article, “When to get help” in this section.)
Guilt and blame. We say to ourselves things like: “What did I do or fail to do that caused this tragedy to take place?” “Why was I not able to protect my child and prevent his or her death?” Many of us feel guilty for “not doing enough” for our child. We question our parenting, wondering if we could have done it better. We blame ourselves for every little mistake we may have made in parenting our child. OR: We blame others: “Who was it that brought this about—some doctor or other healthcare provider, a hospital or other institution, some careless or evil stranger, or perhaps even a cruel God?” After all, we think, when bad things happen aren’t they always the responsibility of someone or something?
Sadness and loneliness. We say to ourselves things like: “I feel terrible, just miserable.” “I am overwhelmed by this unspeakable loss and I don’t know what to do.” Especially as time passes, we add: “I miss my child so much.” “I feel so alone.” “My child was the very center of my life and now it’s like my heart has been ripped out of me.” Loss is very hard to bear and the death of a child is often accompanied by many other losses that affect every part of our lives. It affects our everyday routines, how we act, and who we are in the world.. For example, how do we answer a simple question like, “How many children do you have?” (See article on “How many children do I have now?”)
While these and many other feelings are common among grieving parents, everybody experiences feelings differently and feels things at different times. There are no specific emotions or “feeling stages” that every parent must, will, or should experience. Each person’s experiences in grief are unique. For example, your husband may be feeling like closing the blinds, shutting the doors, and feeling his grief alone. You may feel like you want to begin to get on with your life, get out, and be with people. Neither one of you is “right” and neither is “wrong.” Your feelings can and probably will shift. Next week, he may want to get out and you may want to close the blinds. It is important to understand that we all grieve differently. Avoid blaming yourself or your loved ones for how you grieve and give others the same freedom.
So how should you regard the kaleidoscope of feelings that you may be experiencing after the death of your child? Think of it this way: You wouldn’t be having these feelings if you did not love your child. All of your emotions in grief, as difficult as they are and may continue to be, are actually expressions of your love and caring for your child.
Is there any limitation on how you might experience or express your grief feelings? Yes: Do not allow yourself to go to such an extreme that you cause direct harm to yourself or to others.
Beyond that, many of us have been surprised by the intensity, changing character, and the mix of our grief feelings. All that shows is that such feelings are unusual life experiences, but not abnormal ones.
What is “normal” for you is anything that is appropriate to your loss. Honor your grief.