For the first time, I’ve been asked to write about one particular aspect of child loss. How we seem to push others away. I hope I can answer the question, fully, posed to me. This is written using my own experience and those others have shared with me. I always hope those struggling with child loss will find a trained professional who is equipped with the knowledge and tools to help them.
There are so many things that bereaved parents share on this path. Yet, each of our experiences is completely different. Grief is as individual as a fingerprint. Even two people, who have lost the same person, will have their own unique journey. Yet, there are enough similarities that we can recognize where another person is. The subject I’ve been asked to write about is very important because if we don’t recognize it . . . it can destroy us.
All bereaved parents seem to have, at some point, the propensity to push others away from us. The reasons we do this are varied and complex. It’s done both knowingly and without insight. There are times when we can see that we are engaging in this behavior. When we do, we can work through our isolating tendencies with help, so we don’t add more pain to an already anguished situation. Other times, sadly, we don’t see what our actions are doing to those around us, and more importantly, to ourselves.
Over the years, since losing my child, I’ve realized that I had to identify who I was after her death. After the “dust had settled” and life around me went back to everyone else’s normal, mine didn’t. The person I was before no longer existed. Not only did I have to find myself – I had to figure out how I fit into a world that was new to me. I was not a mother to a living daughter anymore. I was the mother of a deceased daughter. An identity I didn’t want and had no idea how to wear. I railed against this change in my who I was.
Please understand: It is going to take us an extremely long time to accept and become comfortable in our new life. We DO NOT want this life we were forced into when our child died. The time it takes for a bereaved parent to come to terms with the death and find peace surrounding it will be different for everyone. Sometimes, it never happens for the person. But, it will be on our personal timetable, no one else’s, and we have to do the work. The tricky part is knowing what work we need to do. There is no “one size fits all” guide.
The simple answer to why we push people away is: vulnerability.
We don’t, as a society, know how to be vulnerable and not feel weak. Instead, we feel as if we are failing when we show emotion, somehow. Especially, men. Vulnerability leaves us open and raw. There is always the chance we will be hurt more. So, we build that wall . . . we push away our family . . . before they have the chance to cause more pain. We are putting a boundary between us and the outside world.
I did this to my twin sons. One of the first blinding insights I had the day Becca was killed was that if something happened to them, I would never survive it. At that moment, I didn’t even know if I was going to survive losing her. So, I told myself I couldn’t love them as much as I did. I had to pull back and create a safe space. I felt relieved when they went to their dad’s because to look at their horrified and tear streaked faces caused my heart to break even more. And, loving them might kill them. Forcing distance between us could keep them safe, and would certainly help me, my fractured mind rationalized. Without the insight of a calm mind I thought we needed a physical separation. Therefore, I allowed it to happen. It was an attempt to protect myself.
Pushing people away, however, happens in non physical ways, too.
Most often, I think, anger sprouts from pain. If we trace the root system backward, and underneath, we usually find it to be true. It is hard to see pain, for what it is, when you are immersed in it. Like trying to gauge the immensity of the ocean when we are at the lowest point between two waves.
When children are little, and don’t have the words to adequately express what they are feeling, they act out. I’m not sure it isn’t the same for adults who don’t have a way to communicate the mass of feelings they are carrying after their child dies.
Responsibility, which can will lead to shame and guilt, when you look behind it. If you don’t take anything away from this blog but the next sentence, then it will still be worth reading. It does not matter if we were with our child at the time of their death, or not, we do feel responsible.
The one job we have as a parent is to protect our child. Our deceased child’s age does not matter, nor does how far away from us they were in the world: wherever, whatever, however, we should have been able to see it and stop it. I was not in the car Becca was killed in. I was not the driver. I didn’t serve the driver alcohol that night. I was home. Asleep. Powerless.
Yet. If my daughter hadn’t seen me go out dancing on the weekends, maybe she wouldn’t have thought it alright to do. If she’d never seen me drink . . . maybe she wouldn’t have ended up at the bar that night. Ridiculous, right? See how easily we can twist facts until we are solely responsible for their death.
Then, sometimes we may actually hold some responsibility. How do we even start to work through that? I am close to someone who believes she owns a portion of the responsibility for her child’s death. Whether she does, or does not, her perception is what matters most. It is the heaviest of weights to believe we caused our child to die. Somehow, we have to figure out how to put it down or it will drive us into the dirt.
To feel we could have saved them, but didn’t, makes us feel powerless, now. All of this emotion has to go somewhere. Either we destroy ourselves or those around us. Usually . . . a bit of both.
The guilt that is coupled with holding responsibility can be debilitating. With the guilt comes the shame. We feel shame in failing. In being part of the circumstances that led to our child dying. We may feel shame at some of our behaviors in the months that follow a child’s death.
These three things: responsibility, guilt, and shame are braided together so tightly – they are sometimes impossible to break because of the strength in which they give to each other. I think this might be one of the hardest aspects of grief to unwind and figure out.
The next part of parental grief I want to talk about is the “others”. The outsiders. The people around us who don’t know what to say, what to do, and often don’t realize they’ve said something which lands like a punch. When this happens to us enough times . . . we don’t allow ourselves to get into situations in which pain is added to us. People say stupid things not knowing any better. Sometimes they do know better yest say it anyway. We lose some friendships. Some relationships because the chasm between us and them is just great to cross.
Seeing intact, happy families, can be unbearable for a bereaved parent’s broken heart. I would time going to the store, late at night, so there was less chance of running into any families. Anger would swell up quickly when I saw mothers and daughters together. Rage. Jealousy. I wanted my child and I would never have her again. I hated the mothers who still had their daughters. Hated. I felt rage toward everyone and everything. I didn’t know where to put the hostility. So, I just stopped being around people.
After our child’s death, after the funeral, we will run into people that we are seeing for the first time since the passing. Of course, they will pay condolences and we have to re answer questions surrounding the whole thing. It’s exhausting. Immediately, we are shoved back into the first days and we relive, and reignite, the deep burning pain. We don’t have to survive these encounters if we just hibernate and see no one.
Other people’s expectations of what grief is often wrong. It’s not neat. It doesn’t run along a straight path. Dealing with A does not lead to B, and so on. The “stages of grief” that people know and expect us to follow is unrealistic. I had a woman call me just months after Becca was killed and asked: are you done crying yet? I blew up at her. After the passing of some time and with a lot of self evaluation I have come to understand what a question like this truly does.
It made me feel like I was failing in how I was grieving. I wasn’t “getting over it” quickly enough. Was I wallowing in self pity?” What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I grieve right?? Truthfully, to this day, I feel as if I’m not far enough along. When we feel judged, whether we can verbalize it or not, we pull away. It’s easier to just be alone.
Being alone can be easier. We don’t have to fake anything for anyone. We aren’t able to understand the maelstrom of emotions that have taken over our minds, yet, we react to them anyway. Sometimes, we even create situations that will force others to leave us. In an attempt to to protect ourselves. Or, to punish ourselves when we feel responsible for our child’s life ending.
The only thing we can do, to help ourselves and others, is to identify why we are isolating and pushing others away. Identify and find the help we need to do the work in order to start truly healing. If we don’t . . . we risk the chance of never finding happiness again. Of losing relationships with those we love. Of never healing.
And, our child wouldn’t want that for us.