When our child dies, there are no adequate words to express the complex and awful range of emotions we battle with. Anyone who has experienced such a loss will agree, it is overwhelming and incredibly difficult. Very few people, if any, around us really know what to do or say to help.
Bereavement is not a uniform experience though; different situations of loss can each give rise to their own particular difficulties for those who grieve. In this article we want to think briefly about ‘socially difficult’ losses.
These may be deaths that result from causes that might in some way be considered embarrassing or shameful to admit to. Our own son Jim died in 2007 from a heroin overdose, and it is still not easy to tell that to people who didn’t know him. That’s not because we are ashamed of him… we’re not… but because we want to protect him from being thought badly of by others. Or, even worse, risking that somebody might feel that his death didn’t matter so much as, in some way, they judge him and feel he that ‘he brought it on himself’.
These more ‘difficult to admit to’ causes of death: suicide, alcohol-related, Aids-related or murder, as well as drugs, can be particularly challenging for bereaved parents and families to cope with. There are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly, the family members often blame themselves for not doing more to prevent it. Self-blaming thoughts like “I should have known”, “perhaps I wasn’t a good enough parent” or “I should have stopped him going out that night” often trouble us. Guilt and self-recrimination are, sadly, part of many bereavements, but in these circumstances the guilt can be almost intolerable. Added to this is a suspicion that some people might be tempted to blame you for the death. “What went on in that home, I wonder”? The result might be that you feel a terrible sense of shame which makes you want to hide away and cut yourself off from others.
Secondly, these kinds of deaths are particularly isolating and difficult to find support for. The story of how people will cross the street rather than talk to a bereaved person is common, but in these circumstances friends and neighbours often find it even harder to know what to say and would much rather say nothing.
This can result in what has been called ‘disenfranchised grief’. That is to say, grief that is somehow unrecognised and hushed up in wider society. Other kinds of loss such as miscarriage may also feel ‘disenfranchised’. The result for the bereaved person may be that they don’t know how to talk about their loss, they don’t know who will listen and they end up feeling horribly alone with their pain.
You may also feel acutely lonely because you don’t know anyone who has suffered a similar experience and you feel as if you are the only person in the world going through it. Sadly, deep loneliness is common to many bereaved parents, as experiencing the loss of a child is a relatively uncommon experience in the 21st century in the UK, but these socially difficult causes of death mentioned above can lead to increased loneliness.
It may be that you did not have any warning or a chance to say goodbye to your child as, not infrequently, such deaths happen very suddenly and unexpectedly. This can lead to a sense of unreality and ‘unfinished business’, which can make the experience of loss even harder.
Finally, these unexpected and painful deaths will often bring police involvement, coroner’s courts and media attention. Each of these may be experienced as extremely stressful, while you are already going through the mill of loss and sorrow.
All the factors mentioned above: guilt, shame, isolation, disenfranchised grief, loneliness, inadequate support, no chance to say goodbye and the stress of police, court and media involvement, are sadly not uncommon for parents bereaved in a socially difficult way.
So often the first step to learning to live with the unbearable is discovering that there are people who understand you and have also, in one way or another, travelled the same difficult way. If any of this rings true for you, please be assured there is support available for you. There are other parents at Care for the Family’s Bereaved Parent Support who have been through similar experiences and can stand with you through our telephone befriending service, while you work through some of these most painful emotions. You can also join us for one or more of our support events where you are likely to meet other people who are treading the same ground.
You can watch this short video to hear Graeme and Philippa telling their story and talking about grieving in the public eye.