Losing a child is one of the most devastating experiences a parent could ever face, one that Mary (Cookie) Cox knows all too well. Having lost her own child a few years ago, she understands the extent of a mother’s grief. True compassion is something that Cookie displays every day in her work as a patient care technician in the antepartum unit at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.
Postpartum mothers often arrive in the antepartum unit after losing a baby before or after birth. Cookie takes those mothers under her wing and comforts them during the grieving process.
“I saw the hurt other mothers were feeling at the loss of their tiny infants,” Cookie said. “My heart went out to them, so I began to pray with them and let them know they were not alone.”
In memory of her son Marcus, Cookie started wearing a special bracelet in 2008. Since she started working in the antepartum unit in 2010, she has made it a practice to likewise give each mother a bracelet that is decorated with angels. Cookie says a prayer over each very special bracelet, and then wears it herself until a grieving mother comes to the antepartum unit. Then, she passes the bracelet from her own wrist to each mother, along with another prayer.
“As I place the bracelet on the mothers arm, I sing ‘Jesus Loves The Little Children‘ to them,” Cookie said. “This is very rewarding to me, because it is a way to keep my son’s memory alive.”
Her positive attitude, smile and encouraging words, along with each bracelet, demonstrate her compassion and empathy for each grieving mother.
Understanding and coping with the grieving process during the loss of a child is a difficult situation for anyone to face. Ann Marie Warren, MD, a clinical psychologist at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas’ Level 1 Trauma Center, offers her advice in regards to grieving during the loss of a child.
Understanding the Grieving Process
There is probably no greater grief one can experience than when their child dies. However, grieving is a very individual process, and each parent needs to know there is no “normal” way to grieve.
Often we hear about the “stages of grief”, but again, these don’t apply to every parent who loses a child. Individual factors, such as underlying coping mechanisms, degree of social support, and inherent resilience, all contribute to how a parent may respond after such a devastating event.
Regardless of how one grieves, the grieving process after the loss of a child is often prolonged, stretching sometimes years after the death. Typically, parental grief is more intense and long lasting, compared to grief after the loss of a spouse, an adult parent, or sibling.
How You Can Help Yourself Grieve
When a parent loses a child, there are some things they can begin to do initially, including seeking support from family, friends, and faith, and/or seek intervention from a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.
For some parents, journaling about the loss can be an effective way to help release their emotions. Early on, it’s also important to try and take care of yourself physically (sleeping, maintaining nutrition), and engage in healthy forms of coping such as exercise, relaxation or meditation and prayer. Also, making life changing decisions early on after a loss, such as changing a job or moving, should be held off if at all possible.
Special consideration must be given for parents who have surviving children. Communicating with your children about how they are reacting to the loss of their sibling, as well as reassuring them that they are still equally loved as the child who has died, is an important part of this process.
Who to Turn to for Support
Several self help resources are available including National Share (specifically focused on infant grief), The Compassionate Friends, and Bereaved Parent Support, which can provide online support, information on how to cope, as well as ways to connect with other parents, whether online or in person.
Talking to others who have been through similar experiences can help parents who have lost a child know they are not alone. Family and friends can also help in this process. Providing emotional support can be as simple as being a good listener and not judging or trying to find a fix for the emotional distress the parents are feeling.
Faith based support, such as talking with a pastor or spiritual advisor, can bring significant support to help parents with feelings they may be having about their faith after such an event (i.e. why did God let this happen)? However, there are occasions when grief becomes so intense, a parent may need to seek support from a psychologist or psychiatrist who can manage more complex symptoms such as suicidal ideation, inability to perform normal activities (working, managing activities of daily living), debilitating anxiety, or clinical depression.
Understand the Emotional and Physical Aspects of Grief
A variety of emotions can be experienced in the grieving process, including disbelief, depression, guilt, anxiety, frustration, and anger. Additionally, grief may cause trouble with memory, concentration, or thinking clearly.
Grief can also impact one physically, as the stress and sadness surrounding a grief response can cause sleep problems, headaches, aches and pains, reduction in healthy behaviors (such as exercise or healthy eating), lack of attention to chronic underlying health problems and/or routine medical checkups, and significant fatigue and exhaustion.
Seeking Resolution After Mourning
Resolution is less about “getting over” the loss; rather, resolution is about incorporating the experience into a “new normal,” a process which can take time. However, over time, many parents who lose a child will feel a diminished intensity of the negative emotions associated with the death and find an ability to focus more on the positive memories of the child they have lost.
If you or a loved one is struggling with the pain of losing a child, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional, such as your primary physician, for additional resources.