Fear of getting it wrong can mean some people avoid the conversation altogether and this silence can be isolating, according to Jane Harris and Jimmy Edmonds, whose son Josh died in a road accident in Vietnam, seven years ago.
“We asked ourselves why in a world where death will always make front page news, real life conversations about death, dying and bereavement are so problematic,” they said.
Harris and Edmonds have chosen to share the things they as bereaved parents wish others knew about their grief in the hope it will help others to understand and empathise with those who have experienced a parent’s worst nightmare. Here is what they told us.
Understand that the people you knew have changed. Bereaved parents are very different people to who they were before their child died. When your child dies, a huge part of you dies too.
In attempts to reconstruct their life again, to find a purpose to carry on, many previous assumptions will be challenged and they will discover many new insights that will have a profound effect on who they are. They will be traumatised by their child’s death and that shock to the system will provoke a new way of looking at life. Their priorities and views may change, they will be in the process of finding themselves again, in what becomes a very uncertain world.
Do your best to have patience while they learn how to trust again. If responses to your offers of help seem ungrateful, believe that it isn’t personal.
Don’t be afraid to talk about their child or to say their name. They will not crumble or cry at the mention of their child’s name and even if they do, it’s not you that has caused their tears; they will more likely be tears of joy that you have decided to share a memory with them. These tears are a kind of release in the same way that laughter is.
Their child’s death has left a huge hole in their lives and they may want to talk about their child, to remember how they lived. To recall memories is to know that you cared for their child but perhaps more than that, sharing stories about their child’s life will help them to accept their death – to make it more real. Sometimes, the greatest fear is when everyone stops talking about her or him, as if they never existed.
Much of the time they will hide their grief. Bereaved parents can be very good at putting on a mask – and the longer it has been since the child died, the better they may become at hiding their grief. When you meet them, they may laugh and joke, but that could well be a cover for what’s really going on. Grief is exhausting and it’s not something people necessarily want to share, to them it may be akin to living in a parallel universe and wanting to do so alone. There will also be times when they will need to hold the pain of their loss so close that any attempt to relieve it may be rebuffed. Don’t be offended if you begin to feel shut out from their grief, it is not personal.
Don’t run away from grief. Grief is frightening and grief following the death of child is even more frightening. It’s frightening for you and it’s frightening for them. They understand how difficult it can be to connect, but don’t run away from their grief. If you’ve tried calling and get no answer send an email or text message, don’t be discouraged, let them know that you’re there and when the time is right, they will reach out. When that happens, try just to listen and to accept what are some very strong emotions. They will know how painful, how awkward and how helpless this could make you feel but if you can listen patiently, without judgement, then they will know how much you care.
Grief can be a period of growth. Grief is not all doom and gloom and there is much to be learnt from grief, perhaps even more from the grief which parents will experience after the death of a child. We all suffer – at some point in our lives we will all face tragedy and turmoil of one kind or another. Some would say that the only true connection between two human beings is through suffering. That it’s in those times that we can see change in ourselves and growth in our understanding of others. Bereaved parents have been broken by this grief and inevitably that forces them to look at life anew and to change – mostly to think for the better.