By Carl Yorke
If you are reading this because your child died, I'm very sorry. If you are anything like me, you ask yourself regularly, "What now?"
When my son, Wilem, died in 1994, my world turned upside down. Simple, daily routines became baffling and overwhelming. All the color went out of life.
I had trouble sleeping. I had trouble eating. I had trouble leaving the house.
I cried all the time at sad things, at happy things, at nothing.
People tried to help, but they didn't know how. They didn't know what to say, and some of the things they did say made me feel worse.
I started feeling different, isolated, and hopeless. I didn't want to live and I didn't want to die. I just wanted the pain to stop.
But it didn't stop, not for a long time. Day after day, I asked, "Now what?"
Over time, I found some answers to this question. Here are some things I did to get through life one day at a time, until I could live again:
1. Stay sober. This might be the most important thing I did. The death of a child leaves you particularly vulnerable to becoming dependent on alcohol, prescription drugs, and other mind-altering substances. This makes things worse, not better.
Grieving means feeling the grief. If you numb yourself, you only postpone the feelings. Also, drinking can lead to isolation. I needed other people to help me heal, and other people, like my surviving child, needed me.
If you are having trouble getting sober or staying sober, get help.
2. Tell yourself you're not crazy; you're just out of your mind. Burying your child doesn't make sense. Our children are supposed to outlive us. Trying to make sense can make you feel crazy, and perhaps some people actually do go crazy.
It's awfully hard to comprehend what has happened to our children and our lives. When our minds can't supply an answer that makes sense, we don't stop searching. So we have to "go out of our minds" to find an answer.
I went outside of my mind in search of better minds. I investigated spiritual matters, grieving processes, and I went to a therapist. All of these helped. I also talked to a lot of other bereaved parents.
I don't feel like I'm out of my mind anymore.
3. Remind yourself that you don't have to go to social events, or if you do, you can always leave early, and you don't owe anyone an explanation. This is particularly good information during the holidays, and around family events like birthdays and anniversaries. I had a hard time being in groups of people, especially when a good time was supposed to be had by all. Often, when I declined an invitation, or tried to leave a gathering early, people wanted an explanation, as if the death of my child wasn't a self-evident excuse. Some of your friends and family may want you at a gathering because they think it's good for you to get out. That's for you to decide, not them.
4. Find a support group, or don't. Everyone grieves in his or her own way. There is no correct way to grieve, but there are things that help. Support groups can be uncomfortable, even painful, before they help you feel better, and it's up to you to decide how far you can go.
If you are a group person, find a support group. I went to The Compassionate Friends where I met other people whose children had died. I got real information about the grieving process, and a place to talk about how I felt where no one judged me or tried to change the way I felt. There are a number of other support groups for bereaved parents, as well.
If you don't see yourself as a group person, you don't have to put yourself through it. However, I do recommend that you find someone to talk to. Holding on to the pain can affect your health and make things worse.
5. Pain isn't always your enemy, and pleasure isn't always your friend. Sometimes, there is no choice but to hurt. And any search for pleasure just postpones the pain.
I came across a Turkish saying I like: Share the pain, it halves the pain. Share the joy, it doubles the joy.
6. Write. Get a notebook and start a journal. Write every day. Don't read what you write, just keep writing. Write to everyone who sent you a condolence card and thank them. Go into online chat rooms and write to other people who are grieving. Write poems, especially if you are not a poet. I'm not a poet, but here's a poem I wrote:
A big load
for such a little boy
you carried us all to your grave.
Strange place to come on your birthday.
I bring a balloon and flowers
I polish your marker
try to wipe off the years
the sun flashes dull on the aging bronze
--no vacancy, no vacancy.
My heart is so full
my world so empty
in the hollow space between.
7. Do something mundane in your child's name, and don't tell anybody. We are all familiar with public displays such as planting trees and creating foundations in the names of our children. These are important acknowledgments of their lives.
You can't plant a tree every day. But you do think of your child every day. You don't have to make a public statement to honor your child. Most of your grief is private and mundane.
Sometimes it's hard to get out of bed and go to work. But you can do it in your child's name. It's easy to get angry when someone tries to squeeze into your lane in traffic. I'll often let someone in while saying out loud, "Willie, that one's for you." Live your life in your child's name. But don't tell anyone.
These seven suggestions came to me over time, and they worked for me over time. They are a compilation of experience shared freely with me by other people, who, in their grief, found compassion. And in their compassion they found it useful, sometimes necessary, to pass on what they had learned. I hope these tips help you, and if they do, that you find someone to whom you can pass them on.
Author of The Candidate's Handbook for Winning State and Local Elections, Carl Yorke has had diverse experience as a writer from technical writing in Silicon Valley to story development in Hollywood. He is co-owner of Palo Alto art gallery, ART21. He has worked on a series of articles about dealing with the death of a child.
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We Need Not Walk Alone, the national magazine of The Compassionate Friends.