Letter to Bereaved Parents

“You will survive this. It might feel like you won’t right now, but you will.” Those were the words told to me by a lady at my son’s viewing. I later learned that her 4 year old son died about 9 years prior. You never would have known it. I asked her in the following weeks, “Are you happy? I mean really happy?” She knew what I meant. You feel like there will never be another happy day, another smile, another joy. She said, “Yes, I am. Of course there are days when I am not, but most of the time now, I am.”

I hung onto those words with all my hope and strength. I knew that she had been heaven sent and that she would lead me to happiness again, or at the very least, to a day when I could smile at my other children, who so desperately needed me.

I am now over four years on this journey. I can say with a full heart that I am happy again. I have found joy again. This happened not by running away from my grief, but by falling into it. I had to fall into that deep darkness, just as Steven Curtis Chapman writes, “So deep and dark that I could barely breathe”. I tried to escape it, but it just made it worse. So I succumbed. I learned fairly quickly that by succumbing to it, giving in, as horrible and frightening as it was to be in that pit, I was not there alone. There were many others there with me — other family who had met J.T. when he passed from here to heaven, the many angels who hold us up when we feel like we just cannot take another breath, and, of course, God. God was there in that pit too. I didn’t recognize it was him until much later, but now looking back, I know he was there holding my head above the muck.

I cannot explain it very well, but I keep trying because I really want other parents to understand this. It is only by truly BEING in your grief that you are able to rise above it. I found that each time I would feel that wave come over me, I would just let go and let it carry me wherever it may. Sooner and sooner, I was carried to the top of the pit, able to climb out and breathe again. We humans don’t like to be “uncomfortable”. We don’t like to be in pain. Losing a child blows that all out of the water. There’s nowhere else for us to go. We HAVE to be in the pain. Try not to run from it, escape it, numb it or postpone it. It will just come back again. You must deal with it.

I’ve learned so much since J.T. left, and I wanted to share it with you. I AM on the other side of that pain. I DID survive, and I DID make it. You can, too. Life will never be the same without your child here, but you CAN make a new life, a new normal, and truly function.

Be easy on yourself. Don’t expect ANYTHING from yourself for at least a year. Do what you can for your other children, as much as you can give, but don’t feel guilty about not being able to engage with them or stop their hurt. It just doesn’t work that way. Their grieving is different than yours and may need professional help down the road. I put both of my children into grief counseling — one was fine and we stopped the counseling, the other one is still going and probably will for some time. You will know what and when to do that. The biggest thing is to not think it’s your responsibility. You have a lot to deal with yourself.

Take all the help you can get right now. I had people offering to clean my bathrooms. Ordinarily, I would have said no. But, it made that person feel like they were helping me, and it was not the time for pride, so I took them up on their offer. Take the help. It makes others feel like they are doing something for you.

I want you to also know something very important. Our children do bring us signs that they are OK. Watch for them, but try to not obsess on them. Sometimes, grieving parents try to look too hard and then miss the obvious ones, like a butterfly landing on your shoulder, or pennies and feathers in random places in the house. You might hear “Mom” spoken in your child’s voice, look around and no one is there. That really is him, and he wants you to know he’s OK. They are not truly gone, as I have learned in depth since J.T. left. And they will not leave us. Right now, it is your child’s job to see you through this, and he will. So take the signs and hold them in your heart. Know they are real. Don’t second guess yourself. These gifts will get you through those tough nights when everyone leaves and goes back to their normal lives.

In the beginning, I had to have someone come sit with me at night. I called them my “mommy sitters”. I was terrified to have the house quiet. I would have panic attacks, and I never had them before. I had plenty of them those first few months. Don’t think you are being “weak” or not dealing with things if you have to have someone come over to talk with you, or just watch the kids while you have a meltdown. It is part of this wilderness we are in now. There are no rights and there are no wrongs. Don’t judge yourself thinking you should be done by now, or why this again? It just is.

I wanted to say a couple of things about siblings. I received so much advice on what to do and what not to do with my children as far as “letting them see you cry” or “keeping them from the pain.” I learned some very important things. First, you do need to let them see you cry initially. I found, though, that after the first month, they kept trying to comfort me and wanted to take away my grief. Definitely not something a child should have to do. So I spent more time at the cemetery without them. It’s a great place to scream, yell, beat the ground, throw things, etc., but not have the kids see it. I don’t want to say to hide your grief from them, because they know more than we think they do. But I did have to limit it. Your children might be different. You will know what is best — go with your instincts and forget what everyone else says.

Whether we wanted it or not, we are on this road. There are many of us on this road and we hold onto each other with all our strength. We are all at different stages of this journey. There are many who feel they are helping by sharing their story with you, but you may find it just brings you down. It’s OK to limit that kind of support. They mean well, but sometimes it would leave me more depressed than when I came in! Do what you feel is right.

You are loved. You are loved by many in your community, by your child, by God. You did not do anything to deserve this — it is not a punishment. I know this for a fact. There is meaning in this, even though you cannot find it right now, know it is there. You may find that meaning one day, or you may not. But it has nothing to do with judgment, condemnation, past sins, etc. I hope you know that. You are loved, and you are never alone. In the depth of the pain, I know you will feel that hand reach down to you, those arms holding you, just like I did. Hang onto that love, and know that it is real.

My family and I are praying for you, with all our hearts.

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