“It gets worse before it gets better.” Those were the words the pastor offered to a newly bereaved couple whose daughter had died unexpectedly.
And you should know that he is right.
Bereaved parents are stunned when four months, six month, nine months down the road they find their grief remains overwhelmingly raw.
The shock has worn off.
Their hearts have been flayed open and the wound is still bleeding.
It doesn’t help that those outside the loss community expect healing to be happening when the magnitude of the loss is still seeping into the soul.
The depth of loss has not been fully realized when the funeral is over. No, in the weeks and months and years ahead bereaved parents are confronted with the realization that they didn’t just lose their child but that they lost the hope, dreams and expectations they held for that child as well. They lost their child’s future, but they also lost their own future expectations (marriages and grand babies, to name a few) and they grieve for both what their child will never experience and what they themselves will miss out on.
Frequently bereaved parents squelch their grief as they try to remain strong for their surviving children. They can’t fall apart because they are so desperately needed by those too young to understand or to express their grief in healthy ways. That’s one reason why the average length of time it takes for parents to work through the grief process averages five years or more – the longest bereavement period of any loss known to man.
My daughter’s grief counselor told her that many teens don’t grieve over lost siblings for four or five years. They experience delayed grief which I think results from trying to be strong for their parents. The entire home is in upheaval. The sense of security that was taken for granted has been exposed for the fallacy that it is. Gone is the naïveté that we can protect those we love from harm. It’s a frightening experience.
It’s truly terrifying.
And parents and siblings are often left dealing with problems that arise in the wake of the death. Financial pressure, legal issues, spiritual, emotional and health problems assault the family. Marriages and family relationships quake in the aftermath.
While the outside world expects healing to begin, bereaved families are often sorting through compounding problems. They are reeling from the fallout and haven’t really begun the healing process.
Bereaved parents and the outside world need to know and understand that grieving the loss of a son or daughter – regardless of their age – is the most devastating and destructive loss experience. Both the bereaved and those who care for them need to anticipate and make accommodations for a long and drawn out grieving process, because it definitely gets exponentially worse before it gets better.
For those who care about the bereaved, grieve with those who grieve. Let go of the expected length of bereavement. Don’t reduce grief to a simple bid for sympathy or pity. And be ever aware that for the grief-stricken feeling bad feels bad, but feeling better feels bad too. It’s a psychological hurdle grieving families frequently face. There is a battle raging within the hearts and minds of loss parents. What they know to be true doesn’t “feel” true and they struggle to reconcile the conflicting messages received from the heart and mind. The solution is not as simple as mind over matter.
People often ask me what to say or do for someone who is grieving. So many times I’ve heard others advise just be present and listen. Both those things are helpful but not necessarily healing. In my experience validating feelings is the single most healing thing you can provide the bereaved.
Grief, for a bereaved parent can be likened to a pressure sore, more commonly known as a bedsore. Pressure sores develop when an individual stays in one position for too long. Unlike other wounds, a pressure sore grows deeper instead of spreading wider as other wounds do. They can be deceptively dangerous because they rapidly eat through layers of flesh below the affected skin to the tendons and the bones beneath if not treated promptly. Treatment involves the painful scraping away of the dead tissue to reach the healthy tissue below. Ointments is applied, the wound is packed and covered and daily cleaning is required to prevent the wound from getting deeper.
Likewise, grief gets worse and deeper when exposed to the pressure of society to project a positive outlook or to work through their grief in the timeframe others deem appropriate. Shaming and silencing the bereaved for failing to heal, wallowing in grief, or throwing a pity party deepens the wound by invalidating the worth of the loved one lost. Venting the negative feelings helps to clear away the infection but refusing to validate those feelings is tantamount to leaving the wound exposed to the dirt and debris floating in the air. The wound gets worse and healing takes longer as the grief-stricken seek the understanding of others.
Validation is the antibiotic ointment applied to promote healing. The presence of “safe friends” (those who don’t criticize or try to fix the broken) is the packing and covering which provides a barrier between the open wound and the influences of the outside world. Frequent validation and affirmation keep the emotional wound clean providing an environment that encourages healing. The bad must be flushed out before the good can replace it. Unfinished grief occurs when we slap a bandaid on without cleaning and disinfecting the wound. The wound may no longer be visible to the outside world but is quietly festering beneath the bandaid that it covers.
For the bereaved, be gentle and patient with yourself. You’ve been deeply wounded and deep wounds heal slowly. As the old song says, “The road is long with many a winding curve.” Grief isn’t supposed to feel good.
It gets worse before it gets better; but it can and does get better.