Bereaved parents often hear the phrase “new normal” about their lives after a child dies. From an early miscarriage to the death of an adult child, the way we start to find that dreaded normalcy without them happens in different ways; therapy, the gym, a new job, moving, a divorce – or a combination of things. One thing we all have in common is the thought process that deviates from before we lost a child, to the strange and often uncomfortable thoughts after.
After my infant son died, I remembered looking in the mirror one morning and was struck with the sudden thought that I wanted to shave my head. Badly. My fingers itched for my husband’s electric razor, to hear the whirl of blades and watch my hair fall into the sink in neat little piles. I’d never shaved my head before and had no idea where these thoughts came from. I was only a few weeks postpartum and had struggled with depression and anxiety heavily after my pregnancies. But I was also utterly overwhelmed with grief, and something in me knew, just knew, if I could shave my head bald, I’d feel so much better.
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Instead, I called my therapist who promptly scheduled an appointment and asked me to at least wait until after seeing her before I did anything.
I kept my hair.
In the years that have passed since my losses, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a community both online and off who walked through grief alongside me, with all of us confessing moments and thoughts about our new lives to each other. We waited, with a sense of dread, to hear how the other person would react to these thoughts we feel are crazy. And time and again, each time the words, “I thought I was the only one who felt like that” and “I completely understand because…” float back.
For many of us, especially women, it’s the guilt that can overwhelm. When our child dies, and we suddenly have more free time, it can feel horrible to use it or enjoy it with the nagging knowledge that had they lived; we would be doing something completely different.
Others struggle with wondering if their spouse or partner might have been better off with someone else – someone who was able to give them (more) living children.
One fear I’ve heard a lot in the loss community is, “I wasn’t excited at first/wasn’t at a place I wanted another baby” and then they carry the wonder of, “Is that why my child died?” Rationally, we can tell ourselves that is not the case. Many babies are born into families with various feelings – but losing a child amplifies those guilty feelings.
In those with various faiths and beliefs, our thoughts often go to, “What did I do wrong to deserve this?” This stems from not only our questioning but from many belief systems that are taught that if we pray enough/love enough/are nice enough/do all the right things, our child would have been healed/lived. Almost beyond anything else, this line of thinking is the most hurtful to a grieving parent. Not only is the guilt heaped back on them, but it encourages silence in their healing and questioning of their faith.
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Some of us have more physical reactions – like how I wanted to shave my head. When my twins were carted away from me in the hospital, I had a full blown panic attack that they hadn’t died, but because they were so little, the nurses wouldn’t care. It ate away at me for months. I didn’t know anyone else had ever gone through this until one of my friends told me, “When I was at the cemetery I wanted to dig him up and take him home. I had a strong desire to dig him up with my bare hands… And I was afraid that everyone had made a mistake, that he was still alive and I would picture him crying in the casket, under the ground needing his mommy.”
Most (all?) bereaved parents struggle with parenting living children after a loss. Kids aren’t easy when you aren’t a complete mess, but when you are (and deserve to be), it makes it even more difficult. And children of all ages pick up on when things are wrong and tend to use terrible ways to share that knowledge. Extra whining, acting out, more tantrums, less sleeping – so here’s a parent trying to get up in the morning with the constant realization that one of their children is gone, and on top of that, they often don’t like the children they currently have. So much guilt surrounds this since our current generations are told at every turn we are parenting wrong anyway. Now we think we’re screwing them all up, and we can’t seem to do much about it at the moment.
There are the lies that our brain and feelings tell us – we’ll never feel happy again. You didn’t deserve this child. You’re a terrible parent. These are coupled with things other people carelessly say – be thankful for the children you have. Maybe this was a blessing in disguise. God needed another angel. Cherish every moment with your living children.
No matter what your thoughts when it comes to life after loss, you can know that someone somewhere, and probably more than just them, has had the same ones as you. I’ve yet to confess to another grieving parent my darkest thoughts and have them say, “I couldn’t ever think like that.” Some of us may need to talk to a professional, because grief can get scary, but know that in this journey – you are never alone. Not even in your thoughts.