By: Dave Roberts:
“The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.”-C.G. Jung
Human service professionals will inevitably address grief and loss issues with individuals requesting services for a variety of life issues. Working with parents who have experienced the death of their children presents unique challenges for human service professionals on two levels:
• From a personal standpoint, a human service professional who is also a mother or father will find themselves confronted with a parent’s worst nightmare. If this is not acknowledged by the professional (through supervision), he/she will not be able to effectively support parents and families affected by this loss. It is imperative and ethical to acknowledge our limitations when working with others.
• From a professional standpoint, conventional interventions such as stage theory and solution-focused therapy are not effective. There is no solution to death, and grief does not progress in a series of predictable linear stages. Grief related to the death of a child or any other catastrophic loss is circular, meaning that the pain of loss can surface at any time.
I worked as an addictions counselor for twenty-six years and in the human services field for thirty years. 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 a rare form of cancer. My past educational and work experiences, did not even remotely prepare me for dealing with the most tragic loss of my life.
Jeannine’s death compelled me to re-examine my personal and professional values and modify them to fit my new reality. As a result, I became a better-rounded and service oriented individual and a better therapist as well.
I want to share some suggestions with other professionals to effectively work 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. Also, therapists will get to know these children through their parents’ eyes.
• Be prepared to listen to parents’ experiences with non-ordinary phenomena. Parents will routinely ask if their children are capable of communicating with them after their death, and will long to share those experiences with you. Regardless of your beliefs, reserve judgment and listen. Signs that parents receive from their children are usually a product of what happened in the present; it is important for therapists to ask what transpired prior to the experience.
• Support parents in their quest to maintain the bonds with their children. Continuing bonds are crucial in helping parents adjust to the physical absence of their children.
• 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. If professionals can help parents identify the activities that they shared with their children, they can also help them find meaningful ways to mourn their deaths, honor their memories and continue the bonds with their children.
• Emphasize the importance of ongoing support. Usually support groups composed of individuals who have experienced a similar type of loss (i.e. child, spouse) are the most effective. In my next article, I will identify some support resources both locally and nationally for individuals who have experienced loss due to death.
• Refrain from using statements like “Things will get better.” “You will be ok”. They undermine the pain that the parent is experiencing and implies that there is a solution to that pain.
• Grief for parents who have experienced the death of a child is often lifelong. The pain of grief can surface at any time. Focus on helping parents develop the tools necessary to learn how to effectively manage their grief and to live in a world that is different because of
the physical absence of their children. Avoid the use of terms such as closure.
• Obtain knowledge on the topic. Books that I would recommend 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 parents who have experienced the death of a child, while the last two discuss after death communication and the different types.