Many years ago, much of our Western approach to the death of a child was ‘don’t talk about them, as it will only make matters worse. Keep a stiff upper lip and soldier on.’ In some ways that was understandable when society was faced with huge losses in wartime, and also when the death of a child was sadly far more common than it is now. But in recent years, as a result of significant research into bereavement and loss, it is now more widely recognised that being open to talk about and take steps to deal with the death of a close loved one is beneficial to our mental health.
When we’ve experienced a major life trauma, such as the death of our child, suppressing or completely ignoring our natural feelings is never really going to be a healthy option. This was recognised by authors Klass, Silverman and Nickman in their book ‘Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief’ (1996), where they questioned the belief that grieving required the bereaved person to detach themselves from the one who had died and ‘let go of the past’. Instead, their research showed that maintaining some form of contact with the deceased was necessary for healthy grieving, stating “the constant message … is that the resolution of grief involves continuing bonds that survivors maintain with the deceased and that these continuing bonds can be a healthy part of the survivor’s ongoing life.’ This seminal research has been fundamental in changing many professionals’ understanding of grieving.
For many bereaved parents, the idea of maintaining ongoing bonds with our child is something that feels very natural. We aren’t supposed to outlive our children, so our loss goes totally against the natural order of life and we intrinsically still regard them as part of our family. We had so many hopes and dreams for them, no matter how young or old they were when they died, and still desperately desire our child to be part of the person we are – we will always be their parent, even if they are no longer physically with us. Maintaining healthy continuing bonds with the person who has died can be comforting and help us cope with daily life. We may also find that others around us don’t always understand our need to keep the links with our child, perhaps voicing the opinion that we need to ‘move on’ or ‘let go’. You may find it helpful to talk that through with another bereaved parent, perhaps asking to be linked with one of our telephone befrienders. However, we do need to recognise that some behaviours, if left unchecked, can in time become obsessive and detrimental to our well-being – in such instances, professional help may be needed.
So, what do healthy bonds look like? Perhaps the most obvious one is keeping photos of our child around the house as a daily reminder of them and the impact they have had on our life. As I write this, I have a photo of my son (along with our surviving children) above my desk in front of me, so I see him as I look up. I also use facts about him as computer passwords, so rarely a day goes by when I haven’t involved him in my life in that way. On special days, particularly perhaps at Christmas or on birthdays, some people will light a candle to remember the times they shared that event with their son or daughter. Other will play their child’s favourite music from time to time and remember the happy hours spent together. Favourite places to visit, memorable family games, their favourite toys or clothes, special foods and particular things they used to say or do all form those bonds which link them to us now – into the ‘new normal’ life that we are working towards.
Living in a way that we know our son or daughter would be proud of is a great way of honouring them and moving forward in our lives without leaving them behind. As Graeme and Philippa say in the video ‘The Importance of Continuing Bonds’, “we carry Jim with us … there’s an imprint of Jim in our lives”.
Remember – you are the person you are today because of the impact that your son or daughter has had on you, so do try to look after yourself and live life well in a way that they would be proud of!
Please visit the Bereaved Parent Support website to find out more about our Telephone Befriending service and the other support we offer.