I think most people who have not dealt with direct loss of a child tend to believe that the overwhelming emotion tied to grief is sadness. Having been on this journey 28 months, I can confirm that I only wish that grief could be defined so simply. Grief is a powerful cocktail of emotions that - at times - become all consuming.
Grief drags me through a huge expanse of feelings - simultaneously. The complexity these emotions can take me from an "I'm ok" moment to a raw, debilitating place. I've also learned these emotions change rapidly, intensifying and then retreating again, only to reemerge when I least expect them. I think most parents who have lost a child feel the same.
I'd like to share a few layers of these emotions to provide some insight - and hopefully help another grieving parent (or a friend of a parent) deal with the deep complexity of this cauldron of emotions.
The Top 7 Emotions of a Parent's Grief:
I'm going to be very real and raw here. If you have a weak stomach, this is a good place to stop reading about Grief. Proceed with caution:
1. Guilt. This is my worst secondary emotion I carry with my grief. I have so many layers of guilt. It's never as simple as "how could I have been a better parent" or "how could I have done more that might have avoided my son's death." I have specific recall - as any parent does - of times I know I failed my child. Times I wasn't there because of a work commitment. Times I should have more purposefully intervened in a situation. I feel guilt that I didn't say "I love you" enough. And in my darkest moments, I re-live these specific events. If I'm not careful, they consume me and lead to feelings of complete Despair. Guilt + Grief is bad stuff.
2. Regret. Different that the guilt, I have real regrets. These are known choices I made at any moment when, looking back, there were other alternatives. I believe any parent who loses a child carries enough regret to fill an ocean with tears. My logic tells me none of us are perfect - but the difference is that I have no more opportunities with my son. They're all gone. This regret can trigger feelings of Hopelessness (a sense of why even try to recover).
3. Resentment. This third emotion is so awful to admit and express in writing, but it's there. I see my son's friends and classmates getting married, having children, moving on with their lives - and I feel resentment. I can't help that it's there. I wanted to see my son married too. His future is gone - and with him a big part of my potential future is gone. It's a feeling of Bitterness that life has been unfair to me. And while my head tells me this is not healthy and I shouldn't feel such things - my heart knows it's real. And feeling resentment is not something I can discuss with just anyone. Resentment + Guilt + Grief is total darkness. I'm terrified of it.
4. Loneliness. This fourth emotion hits me hardest on holidays. I watch a family member hugging their child or exchanging a gift - and an overwhelming loneliness descends on me. The loneliness triggers a profound Sadness - and I can be in a room full of friends and feel completely alone. On Father's Day - my heart longs for a call from my son that my logic knows won't be coming. A gift I'm learning to give other parents who have lost a child is to remember special days and simply acknowledge their feelings of loneliness. It's a powerful gift to know someone remembered. Loneliness is just part of life now.
5. Anxiety. This emotion shows up a week or so out from milestone markers. I feel anxiety about approaching holidays - hoping I cope well and the pain won't be so raw this time. A few weeks before the anniversary of my son's death I re-live the news and the horrible shock and pain of loss. This anxiety, if unchecked, can lead to Dread (and even Despair) with the oncoming anniversary marker of life's worst moment. It floods my thoughts. It infiltrates my dreams. It destroys restful sleep.
6. Anger. Now, more than 2 years since losing my son, I admit I still get angry - my sixth emotion of grief. Sometimes, I feel generalized anger at this horrible injustice - and even anger at God. Sometimes I feel specific anger - at the bank who gave me such a hard time when I tried to close my son's account. I feel specific anger at the insurance company's lack of sensitivity while I was dealing with such loss. The worst is that I sometimes feel anger that family members rarely bring up my son's name anymore. Do they not know how much I crave them to just give a damn and just say his name? I try to keep this emotion in check - but if I'm honest, it's there - complicating my grief.
7. Self-Pity. I hesitated as to whether I'd include this seventh emotion, but it's real. I don't feel self-pity often - but when I do, I realize I'm again standing at the edge of the abyss of self-destruction; and I have to claw my way back to a safe emotional place. When I internalize my own feelings too much - this dark emotion begins to build. It's probably the most destructive of the grief emotions. It draws in all the other six emotions - and self-pity can render me powerless. It's also one of the few emotions that the only antidote seems to be talking to another parent who has lost a child. When I hear their pain and story - I realize I'm not alone. They have experienced this too. They are surviving and so can I.
The truth is - the actual scope of possible emotional collisions feels almost endless. I've learned to simply acknowledge these feelings and work through the really destructive ones. It's easy to fall into the quicksand of grief, each emotion like a weight attached to my ankles pulling me below the surface - making me feel as if I'll drown.
Sometimes these feelings combine to make me feel as if I am losing my mind. And what I've slowly come to realize is that this complex mix of deep emotions is the very definition of grieving. And at times it feels as if I am fighting for my very survival.
Regardless of what is expected of us grievers from society, these emotions are inescapable. They are real. They are raw. And they don't go away. I cannot change or ignore these feelings of loss. All I can do is try to move through them. Some days I do a better job than others.
The grief experience is quite personal - a journey tied to a lifetime of highly personal memories, choices, regrets and guilt. The "could have done… and should have done.." truths that only a parent knows. And most of us carry those truths deep inside us.
I tell every parent I meet in this journey that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There are no emotions that are better or worse. They just simply "are." This is the sad and brutal truth of grief and loss. It's also what I think most counselors and religious leaders miss in trying to help a grieving parent. There's so much just below the surface - things too sacred to share.
My own truth is there's no recovery. Sure, there are moments of joy - but the grief will be back. I try to hold onto the positive memories. I wrap myself in the hope that they will be a healing balm for my heart. I try to allow the negative emotions to move through me - acknowledging them, but not allowing myself to linger at the edge of the abyss. And I don't expect to feel any differently a decade from now. I loved my son with all I had within me - and in losing him, I will live with a lifetime of grief. And the short time I had him makes all this OK. I'd do it all over again for the memories I have, and for the moments of joy that break through the surface.