Feeling misunderstood

Dr. Neimeyer,

I stay so angry at people that expect me to be over my son’s death eight years ago. What can I say to them? They act like I have failed or just want attention. I hurt terribly.

Bette


Dear Bette–

No doubt it is hard, if not impossible, for someone who has not lost a child to imagine the pain of doing so; thinking back, perhaps it would have been unimaginable, even to you, a decade ago. The death of a child, as you have tragically learned, is not merely something a parent “gets over.” It might be more accurate and compassionate to say that the goal is learning to live with the grief rather than trying to “move on” without it.

But this does not mean that incapacitating depression and persistent anger need to become a life sentence. I recently had the pleasure of talking with the national director of The Compassionate Friends, the global support network for bereaved parents, who is himself a bereaved father. In the course of our conversation he noted that in his many years of experience with the organization, approximately 1/3 of the parents he has met remain stuck in a complicating, life-limiting grief, seemingly indefinitely, 1/3 mourn their child acutely for a significant period, but ultimately find a way of bearing their grief more lightly and adapting to their changed lives, and the remaining 1/3 ultimately show impressive “posttraumatic growth,” valuing life, family and relationships more keenly, living with enhanced purpose and clarified priorities, and engaging in altruistic projects to help others who suffer adversity, and especially the adversity of the death of a child. In other words, quite different paths open to different people who have had similar losses.

If you find yourself in the first group and feel profoundly misunderstood by people around you, you might find solace and wisdom in the presence of other parents who have known analogous losses. Especially as you share your experience with “veterans” who are a number of years out from the loss, as you are, you might find not only support for your loss, but also inspiration for how to accommodate it with less anguish and perhaps even growth through grief. Coming to know others who model that hoped-for outcome can help make the impossible seem more possible.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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