John Canine, Ed.D., Ph.D., noted expert and author on grief, is President of Maximum Living Consultants. Maximum Living provides bereavement counseling services to individuals, employers and funeral homes. Dr. Canine is a member of the Tomorrow’s Child Advisory Council and consults with the organization on grief support for families.
Tomorrow’s Child/Michigan SIDS is a nationally recognized resource whose broad-based programs are making a major contribution to the welfare of infants, families and professionals around the state.
Executive Director Sandra Frank, of Tomorrow’s Child Michigan, had the opportunity to speak with Dr. John Canine about the questions and concerns they frequently hear from families who have experienced an infant or child death. We are pleased to share his comments all of you.
In terms of the experience of grief, many experts say that the death of a child, particularly an infant or young child, can be the most traumatic. Could you explain?
If you lose a parent, you lose some of your past. If you lose a spouse, you lose some of your present, and, if you lose a child, you lose some of your future. The most difficult loss is the loss of our future. Why? Our hope is in our future. We can not change the past, it is just “there”, but we can design the future and, to some degree, make it what we want it to be. In essence, that is hope. We expect our child to have a future where life’s goals and dreams are fulfilled, and we instill in the child hope for that future. Death comes and the goals and dreams are destroyed and hope is gone. Yes, it is quite traumatic.
Is sudden death different from an anticipated death? In what way?
There are a lot of reasons that sudden death is different than anticipated death, but there is one that stands out…reality. When the sudden death of a child occurs the world does not seem real. With either sudden or anticipated death there is something very unnatural about a child predeceasing a parent. Since the basic function of the parent is to preserve the family and protect the child, there is a clear expectation that the parent will die before the child. The order of the universe is called into question when this expectation is not met. The unrealness of the situation is not associated with the age of the child (although the younger the child the more dependent on the parent) as much as the fact that the child dies “out of turn” with the parent. All of this is greatly intensified when the death is sudden. This is why parents will say, “how can this happen, it does not seem real”. When a child’s death is anticipated, the loss is great and the pain severe, however, for years parents have said that they had some chance to adjust to the death of the child. The cruelness of sudden death is…no time to adjust.
After the death of a child, parents often ask us if they will ever return to normal and if life will ever be the same. We have heard you describe ‘a new normal’ for grieving parents. Can you explain what you mean by ‘a new normal’?
When my infant daughter died years ago, I did not want anyone to tell me that I had to get back to a “normal” life. That does not make sense. As we have already discussed, life seems so unreal when a child dies. It also seems unfair, out of balance, complicated, anything but “normal”. However, to become personally dysfunctional only adds to one’s list of problems. Over time it is important to give oneself permission to pursue a functional lifestyle. This becomes the new normal and it is different for every individual. Another way to look at it is: a chapter of your life has ended, a new chapter is beginning. Keep in mind you are still writing the book and there is a future for you with hope. You may not always feel that way, and that is okay, but in the end there is something worse than a child dying…and that is when the parents die, too. No one should expect a surviving parent to return to normal, but everyone should expect over time that the surviving parent will, in the spirit of the child who has died, begin to live again. To be functional and to have purpose. This is the new normal.
Are there things parents can do to help move toward a new normal? For example, in the context of:
b) Within the family system/home
c) Within the community
In the spirit of the child who has died, a parent needs to make a commitment to heal emotionally. Emotional healing involves a lot of issues, some may even have to be worked through with a counselor. However, I have listed three questions every parent should consider answering:
a) Personally: What have I learned? Children do not die to teach us a lesson. It is not God’s punishment on anyone when a child dies. On the other hand, life is the classroom. We should learn something about life and love with every experience, good or bad. Sometime ago I was counseling a mother whose infant daughter had just died. After a few sessions I asked her one day if her daughter had taught her anything. She pulled out a legal size piece of paper and started to read all the things she had learned from the life and death of her baby. She ended by saying her daughter could be the greatest teacher in her life. If you have had a recent loss, sit down right now and make a list of the things you have learned…it will surprise you.
b) Home: Who do I want to love? This is a simple one, all the love you gave to the child who died needs to go somewhere. Some of it will go into your grief, but over time you will find you have a lot of love to give and it needs to find a “home”. The other people in your home may need it. Give that extra love to your spouse who is dealing with his or her grief, give it to the surviving children, or give it to a grandparent who is grieving the loss of a grandchild and YOU. Give your love away and do not be afraid to let others benefit from it.
c) Community: How do I want to live? You can spend time in self pity, you can be resentful, angry, guilty, anxiety ridden, distrustful, sad, lonely, withdrawn, and get nowhere. Or, over time you can accept what has happened and realize that people die… relationships don’t…, and busy yourself with activities that will make a contribution to the society of mankind.
Parents also talk about the reaction of friends and family – after a period of time, they want the grieving parent to stop talking about the baby or there is the expectation that the parent should just get over it. Could you discuss the benefits of:
a) Getting involved in constructive activities
b) Memorializing the infant
c) Interacting with similarly affected parents
Can these activities be part of a therapeutic approach?
First of all society can not think about the death of a child, it is too painful. Second, most people do not want to talk about it because if it can happen “to my friend”, it can happen “to me”. Third, no one likes to feel uncomfortable and for most people being around a grieving parent is truly uncomfortable. This is why it is important to be with people who have had a similar experience. No two people have the same experience–so we should not say, “I know just how you feel”, but grieving people do find some consolation in being with other grieving people. This is especially true of parents after the death of their child. They have an appreciation of being with other parents who can share in the understanding of the complicated grief process. For many grieving parents a support group with other grieving parents becomes a place of refuge, sharing intimate thoughts, and comfort. Also, private counseling can normalize feelings, or in some cases, be the therapeutic intervention that an individual or family needs to bring peace of mind. Actually, there are many things that a person or family can DO to bring some relief to their painful grief. Here is a partial list:
Memorializing the child…the types of memorialization are endless:
• Getting involved in community activities
• Personal and family rituals like lighting a candle on a daily basis and talking about the child who died. When you blow out the candle, give yourself permission to go on with life.
• Becoming involved in church activities
• Creating a “Child Life Book” with pictures, stories, and quotes all about the child who died
• Donate to save the lives of other children through an appropriate agency
Newly bereaved parents often ask us ‘when is the right time to get involved’?
Anything that is done should be done in an emotionally safe environment. The activities and programs offered by Tomorrow’s Child are a good example. A grieving parent is very vulnerable and any activity is going to have some risk associated with it. That is why it is important to engage in the activity WHEN YOU ARE READY, THE TIME IS RIGHT, A PLAN IS IN PLACE FOR THE ACTIVITY, THERE IS PLENTY OF SUPPORT, and the GOAL OF COMPLETING THE ACTIVITY IS REALISTIC.
Any other thoughts you would like to share with the families?
Remember, we grieve because we love…your movement through the grief process is the best eulogy you can give your child.
Updated: April 12, 2013