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The Psychology of Parental Bereavement

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Few of us can imagine the pain of our children dying. The impact for many is devastating. How do people cope with such a tragedy? How can they recover? How can we help if we know someone in that situation?

‘There’s no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were,’ says Dwight Eisenhower

Parental bereavement can come in many forms

Imagine the loss after getting married, planning to have a family, then one month at a time, over many years, learning that you can never conceive a child.

In that situation, most people instinctively empathise with the woman grieving the children, who will never be. The man can be equally or more bereaved.

For some people who can conceive, another form of parental bereavement occurs. During routine screening ahead of having a family, imagine discovering that you and your partner both have a recessive gene. Together, your potential children will not make it to birth or, if born, will suffer a horrible disease. You are then faced with a choice, find a new partner, or face a lifetime with none of your children.

Miscarriages are much more common than is widely known. 50% to 75% of potential pregnancies end before implantation at around week four after conception. Around 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage after week five.

Around 15% of pregnancies in younger women end in miscarriages, and up to 35% end in miscarriages in women aged 3545 years. In women over the age of 45, fully 50% of pregnancies end in miscarriage.

Many miscarriages trigger parental bereavement, and it seems the further in the growth cycle of the unborn baby when the miscarriage takes place, the greater the sense of bereavement.

‘With deeper attachment, we usually have deeper grieving and usually longer grieving,’ says Ron Johnson

An often-overlooked form of parental bereavement comes from abortion. Many factors drive women to abort a pregnancy: the fetus will not go to full term because of some disease, the fetus will be born with a life-limiting disorder and health risks to the woman if the pregnancy goes full term, conception by rape or incest, lack of financial or social means to raise a child, lack of a societal structure to safely put up a child for adoption, social stigma, the list is long and horrible.

For a moment, put yourself in one of those situations: for circumstances beyond your control, you will abort a human life.

Imagine the trauma and the bereavement. In many cases, post-abortion trauma psychologically scars a woman for life. Again, in this situation, little consideration is given to the man. Consider that the woman you love has to go through this and that the child you conceived together will no longer be.

Men are just as vulnerable to parental bereavement as women, and yet, for reasons of social expectation, they are expected to pull themselves together and move on. Over the years, I have seen many men suffer PTSI from circumstances connected to parental bereavement in all its forms. Their PTSI is worsened because others don’t expect men to be as impacted by such loss. They are, and it can be devastating.

When a child has survived all the hazards of conception, implantation, gestation and birth and is born with a disability of some kind, parental bereavement can be made worse by suppressing any such grief for the child’s good.

‘What cannot be said will be wept,’ said Sappho.

Silent parental bereavement, or concealed parental bereavement, can be more psychologically damaging than grief that can be expressed and allowed to take its

Across all societies throughout history, between 3% and 5% of the population are homosexual. Being same-sex attracted makes having children much more difficult. Many gay people enter formal or informal surrogacy, fostering or adoption arrangements to raise children.

Imagine living in a society that does not allow gay people to raise children. Imagine being childless because other people have decided to create laws that make you childless. Imagine that on top of the prejudice and discrimination you experience. Many gay people suffer parental bereavement for their children, who will never be.

‘What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is a shame for being human,’ says Brené Brown

Kubler-Ross bereavement stage

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

While most of us would recognise all the stages, from personal experience, in my experience, that list is far from complete.

Thinking of your bereavements, perhaps upon hearing the news or being present at the event, you, too, experienced an overwhelming sense of shock or numbness, an inability to process what was going on.

Imagine being with a physician who tells you your child has terminal cancer or didn’t make it. How much would you process or understand after hearing those words?

‘Parents who have just lost a child cannot believe any words of hope,’ says Elaine Storkey

In the middle of the grief process listed, there seems to be something missing: the guilt, the rumination, the processing of what-ifs. What if the diet I gave my child caused their cancer? What if I had spotted the symptoms earlier? What if I didn’t give them enough exercise?

Reasonable and well-balanced people look to themselves when something goes wrong. They question themselves. It is normal and expected and seems an inevitable part of the grief process.

‘No one sleeps well after a child’s death, especially those burdened with guilt and the if only,’ said Elizabeth B. Brown.

In my own experience, guilt comes after the bargaining stage, and may be the stage that most leads to or adds to depression.

In your own experiences of grief, was acceptance the last stage? For most people I have helped, their answer is no. Accepting a loss does not complete the process; the loss, the new normal, has to be integrated into the person’s life.

Even that does not seem to be the end of the process. There is a stage after integrating the loss and living with it: making empowering adjustments.

‘We never truly get over a loss, but we can move forward and evolve from it,’ said Elizabeth Berrien

9 Stages of grief

  • Shock/numbness
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Acceptance
  • Integration
  • Empowering adjustment

Over the years, I have found that people who understand that bereavement is a journey we all have taken in our way, recover best from their loss.

‘There is no right way to grieve; there is only your way to grieve, and that is different for everyone,’ said Nathalie Himmelrich

Although we all have to find our way through grief, there are common stages on that journey.

‘Most people and many professionals think of grief and loss as aberrations, detours from normal, happy life. There is nothing wrong with grief. It’s a natural extension of love. It’s a healthy and sane response to loss,’ sid Megan Devine

Knowing that grief is normal or follows common stages for most people does not take away the pain immediately; it can reassure us that we are on a path to eventually feel better and help us make sense of our reactions to loss.

Some quotes that may help with parental bereavement

  • ‘We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the world, the company of those who have known suffering,’ said Helen Keller
  • ‘It’s possible to go on, no matter how impossible it seems, and that in time, the grief lessens. It may not go away completely, but after a while, it’s not so overwhelming,’ said Nicholas Sparks
  • ‘Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go,’ said Jamie Anderson
  • ‘Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them,’ said Leo Tolstoy
  • Grief is the price we pay for love,’ said Queen Elizabeth II

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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