© Jane A. Simington, PHD
For more than thirty years, I have been a professional, helping people as they move through difficult life experiences. I am also a bereaved mother whose son was killed when he was 13 years of age. My therapeutic practice and my comments in this article, blend my personal and professional experiences of loss and grief. As a therapist, when I work with an individual or a couple who have lost a child to death, I help them prepare for the rocks in the waters they will have to navigate. I explore with them the solutions that they think will work for them and I give them suggestions of what worked for me and for the many other couples I have helped through crises.
Losing a child to death is an extremely difficult experience. It can challenge even the strongest among us, ripping us apart at the very core of our being. When we feel torn open, raw and vulnerable, it is easy to strike out at others, to blame, to criticize, to be angry at them if they appear to be grieving too much or too little, or even if they do not grieve in the same ways as we do.
When I work with grieving individuals, who are in an intimate relationship, I spend considerable time discussing the importance of paying attention to how their relationship is being affected by grief. I help them find strategies to keep their relationship alive, and as they heal from their grief I encourage the use of techniques that can make their relationship thrive. Here are a few points.
1) At the initial visit I ask every bereaved person what they want their relationship with their partner to look like in five years. I believe this is an important question, for a clearly defined goal increases the chances that the desired outcomes will be achieved.
2) I discuss a model of grief I have developed based on my own research and clinical experience, as well as on the research of others. This model is designed in a Figure of 8. In the top portion of the 8, I place the word Head. In the bottom portion of the Figure of 8, I place the work Gut. I describe the need to recognize that people grieve in their own ways and that these ways of grieving can change over time, especially when we find that the ways we have been using do not work, or are no longer working. Some people begin their grief journey in their head, as depicted by the Head portion on the Figure of 8 Journey through Grief model. They try to logically figure out the grief process. They may read every book that has been written on grief and attend every workshop on the topic. Others however, begin their grief journey in their guts, as depicted by the Gut portion on the Figure of 8 Journey through Grief model. Here they experience intensely all the gut wrenching emotions of grief.
The important point of this model is that regardless of where the grieving parent starts on their journey through grief, it will soon be recognized that they cannot resolve all their pain in that particular way and will move into the opposite portion on the Figure of 8. As they do so, the partner may be frustrated with the ineffectiveness of his or her efforts and also change positions on the Figure of 8.
Explaining this model to grieving parents can help them recognize that at any given time, each partner may be responding to grief in ways that are very different from each other. One partner may be attempting to work through his or her grief by gaining information and using reason, while the other person in this relationship may be exploding with emotion. The model makes it easier to envision how the back and forth movement from the Head to the Gut can wear on a relationship. Drawing the model and explaining the process can be valuable in helping partners understand how their individual movements back and forth around this Figure of 8 can result in confusion and relationship struggles. Recognizing that at any given time each may be experiencing grief in a very different way can help partners refrain from judging and scolding each other for not grieving correctly.
3) Support, love and intimacy are essential when the relationship is threatened by grief. This is a time when both partners need to care for themselves and for each other and care deeply for their relationship. It is important that they recognize that in five years, only the two of them will know how much they have hurt through each step of the process. There is a deep, strange kind of intimacy in knowing that each has been so badly hurt and that together they have survived and their relationship has thrived. I believe, that even in the very beginning, when grief is raw, it is necessary to help partners recognize that in five years it will be only the two of them who will be able to look back and know how much love it took to help each other through the pain and the chaos, and in doing so will love each other all the more for having done so.
Portions of this article were first published on the blog The Indestructible Relationship.