Jane Park, our Bereaved Parent Support Coordinator, explores how her family has been able to find happiness again while also carrying their loss.

Families are amazing – complex, fun, frustrating, challenging, rewarding, but amazing nevertheless. And completely unique.

However, when someone in the family dies, a whole new raft of emotions emerges. The family can become isolated, angry, sad, disjointed and – for a time perhaps – almost unrecognisable.

In our work with bereaved parents, we sometimes use a visual aid of a family represented by a number of interlocking paper circles, each representing someone in the family. When one family member dies, one circle is ripped out. This in turn damages all the other circles, but in different ways.

How, then, can your family ever be amazing again? After our son, Ben, died in an accident in the French Alps, I wrote in a diary that I couldn’t imagine ever being happy again – and I couldn’t imagine my other children ever being happy either. But I am happy now. And life is good. And our family is amazing again.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the same, and the damage from that torn-out circle still remains. There is a permanent hole in the family, and sometimes the pain of those early days is still raw, but day-to-day, life is good again.

So, what happened and how have we been able to find happiness, while carrying our loss with us? Maybe my personal take on one of the models of grief can help to explain – I think of it as two parallel train tracks. The first track represents the feelings, emotions and behaviours of grief. In the early days and weeks, we spent almost all our time on this track. Most of the family did the same – except our daughter who was only eight when her brother died. She jumped between this and the other track where life was more normal, doing things she’d done beforehand, like playing with friends, going to school, and yes, having fun. (Officially, this is called the dual-process model: one track represents loss-orientated activities and the other, restoration-orientated ones.)

At times, we jumped over to the other track too – we found ourselves occasionally laughing at a comedy programme, or having coffee with a friend. However, very often, with these came guilt – guilt that we had somehow forgotten Ben and shouldn’t be happy.

A big shift came emotionally when we learned to take these times as a bit of a breather, a break in the pain, to be accepted and even welcomed without guilt. We learned to enjoy those ‘jumps’ onto the other track, but still spent most of our time in our loss. As time went on, gradually, almost imperceptibly, the balance shifted. We had more time on the restoration track, learning to find pleasure again in simple things, and choosing to do those things which energised rather than drained us. Sometimes those decisions meant not spending time with certain people, because for now, it just wasn’t helpful. We learnt that we wouldn’t all be on the same track at the same time and that was OK. I could be struggling, while Dave, my husband, wasn’t but it didn’t mean he loved or missed Ben any less.

I suspect this pattern is similar for other losses too, although the hole in the family will be a different shape for everyone. How we cope is different, but maybe the train track picture can help us realise the loss won’t go away, and we will visit it from time to time for the rest of our lives.

However, at the same time, life can be good again, we can find hope and enjoy life with our family, because families, even after loss, are pretty amazing!

If you, or someone you know, has experienced the loss of a child or been widowed at a young age, you might want to join us at one of our support events. You will be with others who understand your situation first hand and are ready to listen and offer you reassurance and hope for the journey ahead.

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At Care for the Family we support couples, parents and those who have been bereaved. If you would be able to make a one off donation to support our work, we would be very grateful. Thank you.

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