If you are a human service professional, it is inevitable that at some point a problem that clients will report is unresolved grief issues. The death of their child may likely be an issue one or more of your clients may face. Working with a parent who is facing a child’s death can present unique challenges for a human service professional on two levels.
First, from a personal standpoint, a human service professional who is also a mother or father will find themselves confronted with a parent’s worse nightmare. If this is not acknowledged by the professional (through supervision), he/she will not be able to be objective when working with parents and families affected by this loss.
Second, from a professional standpoint, conventional interventions (such as stage theory and solution-focused therapy) designed to deal with grief and loss are often not effective because the death of a child defies what we see as the natural order of the universe.
I have been employed as an addictions counselor for over 26 years and have been involved in the human services field for well over 30 years. I am a Licensed Master Social Worker and a Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor. I am also a parent who has experienced the death of a child. My daughter Jeannine died on March 1, 2003 at the age of 18 due to cancer.
After Jeannine’s death, I soon discovered that my previous education and experience in the human service field were not going to help me address my current situation. Jeannine’s death forced me to re-examine my personal and professional values and modify them to fit my new reality. As a result of my struggle, I believe that I have become a more well rounded and service oriented individual, and a better therapist as well.
I want to share some suggestions with other professionals who may be reading this article. You may find that some of these ideas will help you to become more successful in working with parents who have experienced the death of a child:
- Focus on being a companion on the journey: It is important for human service professionals to bear witness to parents’ pain. In this context, stories of relationships with their children need to be listened to and honored. Storytelling is therapeutic because it helps parents eventually make sense out of their new worlds. Also, as therapists we get to know their children through their (parents’) eyes. When we focus on being a companion, we are also creating a safe environment for the bereaved parent to do their grief work.
- Be prepared to listen to parents’ experiences with non-ordinary phenomena: Parents will routinely question if their children are capable of communicating with them after their death, and will long to share those experiences. Regardless of your beliefs in this area, reserve judgment and listen. I feel that Jeannine has communicated her presence to me in a variety of ways (i.e. butterflies, music), and other parents have shared similar stories with me. As a therapist, it is helpful to ask bereaved parents what thoughts they were experiencing prior to receiving the sign. The signs that bereaved parents receive from their loved ones are usually a result of what is happening in the present. Listening non-judgmentally to a parent’s experience with non-ordinary phenomena communicates that they are capable of being spiritual beings.
- Recognize each bereaved parent’s right to grieve as he/she sees fit: Each parent’s expression of pain is unique, and determined in part by the relationships they had with their children when they were alive. Some of the best memories that Jeannine and I shared were through music. So it made sense that after her death, music and lyrics were how I uniquely confronted the pain of her death. If professionals can help parents identify the activities that they shared with their children when they were alive, they can also help them find meaningful ways to mourn their deaths and celebrate their memories.
- Emphasize the importance of ongoing support: One of the major concerns for individuals mourning the loss of their loved ones is having access to adequate support. Usually support groups composed of individuals who have experienced a similar type of loss (i.e. child, spouse) are the most effective.
- Avoid using solution-focused approaches to dealing with a bereaved parent’s grief: When a bereaved parent experiences the death of a child, his/her world is forever changed because of their physical absence. Statements like “Things will get better.” “You will be ok”, though well meaning undermines the pain that the parent is experiencing and implies that there is a solution to that pain. There is no quick fix to the pain of losing a child.
- Avoid the use of terms such as closure: From my experience, there is no true closure when a child dies. Though I am at peace today with the circumstances of Jeannine’s death, I will always miss her physical presence in my life, to some degree. As therapists, we can serve bereaved parents well by helping them discover the tools that with help them as they adapt to a permanently changed world, as opposed to looking for “closure.”
- It is important to remember that the grief journey for bereaved parents is circular and not linear: The raw pain of grief can surface at anytime during the lifelong grief journey of a bereaved parent. In this context, avoid using the stages of grief to inform parents “this is where you should be in your grief.” Sadly, a parent told me several years ago that she got this type of advice from a “bereavement” counselor. She did not go back for further counseling.
- Remember that the sadness of loss is not the same as clinical depression: When we experience death of any kind, sadness is an expected part of the experience. With grief work and ongoing support, sadness will lessen and become more manageable over time. In addition, medicating grief may delay the work that is needed to effectively negotiate it. If you are working with mentally ill and/or chemically dependent parents who have experienced the death of a child (or any loved one), emphasize that they need to continue to manage their mental health symptoms and/or focus on abstinence from drugs & alcohol for their grief work to be effective.
- Help bereaved parents understand that forgetting is not a requirement of a bereaved parent’s grief journey, but remembering and staying connected is. From my experience and from listening to other parents experiences, embodying the positive characteristics of our children, redefining who they are, and finding meaning in the process are key to ongoing adjustment. More importantly, it allows bereaved parents to stay connected to their children while developing a spiritual relationship based totally on unconditional love.
- Educate yourself on bereaved parent issues. Books that I would recommend for human service professionals are: 1) A Clinician’s Guide: Helping Bereaved Parents, by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun; 2) The Spiritual Lives of Bereaved Parents by Dennis Klass; 3) Visions of the Bereaved by Kay Witmer Woods; 4) Hello from Heaven by Bill and Judy Guggenheim. The first two books address the experience of bereaved parents, while the last two books discuss after death communication and ways that it manifests.
It is also extremely important that we develop our own unique self-care program. Though I have found that facilitating grief work with bereaved parents and other bereaved individuals has been extremely fulfilling, it can also be emotionally draining as well. I know that it becomes draining for me when I am attending to many powerful stories at once and/or my own issues with Jeannine’s death are impacting my ability to be a grief companion. When either or both of those conditions exist, that is my cue to back off and do something that will recharge my batteries. As my good friend and fellow bereaved parent, Mitch Carmody (www.heartlightstudios.net) has often said: “If our cups are not filled, we can not fill anybody else’s cup.”
Updated: January 18, 2015