Parents Who Are Now Childless
When a parent faces the death of an only child, the only surviving child, or all children, bereavement is compounded by additional issues that ultimately must be resolved if healing is to occur.
Suddenly, you are childless. There is a new and total silence in your life. Your world feels abruptly empty; you imagine you are alone. These feelings may last for many months, even years, as you move through early bereavement. These thoughts and feelings are normal. When a child dies, the lack of surviving children is an additional heartbreaking issue that initially deepens your pain as you seek a way to share your love.
Although these early months and years may seem endless, you can slowly move toward a positive resolution of your grief. Although you may remain childless, you can seek and embrace healing. Your life will not be what you had planned before the death of your child or children, but living can still hold beauty, joy, peace, and meaning.
Are You Still a Parent?
Because you do not have surviving children, you may find your parental identity suddenly questioned because you no longer have living children to parent. Ultimately, however, you will realize that once you have been a parent, you are forever a parent. The memories of your child or children and the love you shared with them live on and are always a part of you. During early bereavement, memories can be extremely painful. Over the years, your memories, while bittersweet at times, will become sources of comfort and even joy.
The Journey Through Grief
The journey from early bereavement toward your “new normal” is hard work, especially when you feel that a part of you died with your child or children. The work of grief involves dealing with unfamiliar emotions and pain.
Do not postpone your grief or feel you have to “get over” the death of your child. Sorrow will accompany you on this journey, but do not fear or reject it, as it is natural and normal. For a long time, your emotions will resemble a wild roller-coaster ride.
You may find that tears respect neither time nor place. Remember that tears release emotional pain and help to prevent physical ailments caused or exacerbated by stress. On the other hand, although you will need time to genuinely enjoy yourself again, you need not feel guilty about experiencing the relief of feeling or expressing joy. You will find that laughter and tears are equally important in your grief journey.
There are no prescribed limits on the period of bereavement; healing can take a considerable amount of time. You may wish to share with others who have experienced the pain of a child’s death. Locate a chapter of The Compassionate Friends or a similar support group that you can attend regularly. Other bereaved parents have felt similar pain and emptiness; you can cry and grieve with them, knowing that they understand much of what you feel. You need not feel alone. With others, you can approach a new future to replace the one you have lost. Healing can take a considerable time and there are no prescribed limits.
How Many Children Do You Have?
Bereaved parents usually find it difficult to answer the question “How many children do you have?” Some wish to honor their children’s memories by acknowledging their lives and answering, “I had one child,” or “I had two children.” Others are more comfortable answering, “None.” You may find that your answer changes based on the circumstances. The key is to be prepared to say what you want to say at the moment.
As you mourn your loss, family members and friends might urge you to concentrate on what you have left. Since you may feel you have nothing left, you may resent these urgings. At these times, it is important to remember that your family and friends want to alleviate your suffering. They want to see you whole once more, not only because they love you, but also because your pain reflects their own fears of death, both for their loved ones and for themselves. Those who have not experienced the death of a child cannot imagine the emotional pain you feel. Explain that your feelings are both real and appropriate.
Do not be afraid to keep the memories of your child alive. You may find joy in commemorating your child’s life by sharing it with others. Mementos of the past can be made a part of today and the future. You may find it comforting to wear an article of clothing or a favorite piece of jewelry that your child once wore. You might take bits and pieces that were a part of your child’s life and make a collage or a quilt to hang in your home. Even a favorite toy on a shelf is a way to ensure that your child’s memory is a tangible presence in your daily life.
One of the most demanding challenges you will face is to refocus your life. The purpose and the thought of a lonely life, possibly without subsequent children and their families, can be frightening.
Gradually your life will begin to inch forward. How to reinvest is difficult to decide as you reevaluate your current life and resolve to move forward from your loss. But as you do, the grief intensity often lessens, and you may find yourself determined to live the remainder of your life in a way that will honor or commemorate the life of your child or children. Many parents strive to find and support ways to help prevent children from dying in the same manner. Others may work within the community to further areas of interest once shown by their children.
There are countless ways to reinvest in life and these may include using your parenting skills in new ways, such as becoming foster parents or volunteering in youth organizations. You may also decide, as the months and years pass, to use your knowledge and coping skills to help other bereaved families by investing your time in your local chapter of The Compassionate Friends, or by helping to establish a new chapter in an area not currently served.
There are other constructive ways to honor the memories of sons or daughters. Many parents establish memorial funds, create scholarships, donate books to libraries, plant trees, or help other more newly bereaved parents. For many, such acts of love help to keep the memories of their children alive and vibrant.
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