As part of a Pregnancy and Infant loss training I’m currently participating in, I’ve been instructed/assigned/challenged to read three books about grief, loss, and bereavement and write a summary. (Really, this is just giving me the accountability and motivation to follow through on reading these books, since they were already on my to-read list!)
I just finished reading a short book called Healing A Parent’s Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Child Dies by Alan D. Wolfelt.
I was attracted to this book because, while as a therapist it’s important for me to draw from theory about grief and healing, I find that I come up short in sessions when clients are looking for practical ways to express and move through their grief. Each of this book’s 100 ideas is a simple one-page topic, mostly bullet-points and brief sentences. I could see this being a helpful book for parents who don’t have the mental capacity or time to sit down and read long paragraphs, but are looking to know they are not alone in their loss. In fact, in the introduction, the author suggests keeping the book in easy reach and just reading a few pages at a time. There are also simple suggestions on each page called “Carpe Diem” on how to take a step today to implement that idea.
Here are a few of my take-aways from this book:
- #4 Understand the difference between grief and mourning.
The author defines grief as “the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we have when someone loved dies—the weight in the chest, the churning in the gut, the unspeakable thoughts and feelings,” and mourning as “the outward expression of grief— crying, journalling, creating artwork, talking to others about the death, telling the story, speaking the unspeakable.”
As a therapist, I use the term “grief” often, but I’d never thought about the differences between “grief” and “mourning.” In sessions with bereaved clients, we do begin by acknowledging the grief and what that feels like in their bodies. However, mourning is also an important part of the healing process because it gives expression to the experience.
- #6 Be compassionate with your spouse.
One of the difficulties of losing a child is that each parent will grieve the loss differently. This sometimes causes conflict and distance between couples because they might feel alone or angry at their spouse. This is especially a time to assume the best in the other person, communicate frequently, and not judge or isolate if you are not expressing your mourning in the same way. This author encourages couples to talk about any unreconciled feelings you have with your spouse: “Your goal is not to accuse or judge but rather to listen and love.”
- #8-13 Understand the six needs of mourning.
- Need 1: Acknowledge the reality of the death.
- Need 2: Embrace the pain of the loss.
- Need 3: Remember the person who died.
- Need 4: Develop a new self-identity.
- Need 5: Search for meaning.
- Need 6: Receive ongoing support from others.
Although far from a simple process to walk through, I like how these steps outline a blueprint for moving through grief and toward healing.
- #17 Expect to have a multitude of feelings.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes of this book: “Grieving parents feel a multitude of emotions: numb, angry, guilty, afraid, regretful, confused, even relieved… Grief is not experienced as a single note but as a chord.” What a beautiful metaphor to validate and allow bereaved parents to feel whatever emotions are coming up in each moment.
- #49 Write a letter.
This is an exercise I frequently recommend to clients when they are looking for closure or wanting to move forward from hurt and sadness. This author suggests writing a letter to the lost child, and offers some writing prompts such as :
– “What I miss most about you is…
– What I wish I’d said or hadn’t said is…
– What’s hardest for me now is…
– What I’d like to ask you is…
– When you were born…
– I’m keeping my memories of you alive by…”
It may also be healing to write and send letters to hospital staff, family members, neighbors, funeral directors, surviving children, etc.
- #54 Acknowledge all the losses this death has brought.
“When a child dies, you lose not only the physical presence of the child, but also a part of your self. Your child came from you and was a part of you.” Parents may also lose a sense of security, expectations and dreams for the future.
- #59 Don’t be alarmed by “griefbursts.”
I had not heard this term before, but this is a concept that I address with grieving clients. After a loss, even if you are feeling fairly stable and adjusted, unexpected rollercoasters of emotion can wave over you. Sometimes these are triggered by anniversaries, seeing symbols or pictures that remind you of the lost child, or even changes in weather. Sometimes they are just surprising and don’t seem to be tied to any physical reminders. In any case, the author encourages readers to “allow yourself to experience grief bursts without shame or self-judgement” and to reach out to others and avoid isolation when they occur.
A theme in this book that is mentioned over and over is the importance of continuing to talk about the lost child. Parents are encouraged to share— with their spouse, surviving children, family, friends— memories or stories of their child.
I found this book to be very helpful for me in my role as a therapist, because as I support bereaved parents I want to create a safe space for them to both feel their grief and mourn their loss. My goal is never to place a timeframe on their healing, since everyone experiences grief in different ways, and also because it’s a continual process. This book will be an encouragement to my clients who are looking for validation in their emotions, as well as giving practical ideas for making meaning and continuing to take steps forward in their healing process.
If you are grieving a loss– whether it’s the loss of a child or a different type of loss– I would be honored to walk through this with you. Contact me today to set up a session and feel the difference of having an objective, supportive person by your side.