This week a dear family friend passed away. He was a husband, father, grandpa, friend, as well as a loved university professor, His wife, a mom and a grandma, and a devoted reader of my blog asked me to write about grief. It’s about the many kinds of grief we experience as parents, and just as human beings. So in their family’s honour, here it is.
Years ago when I was a facilitator of a mom’s post-partum depression group, one of the articles I gave all the mom’s to read was titled “Madonnas in Mourning”. It was a powerful article about the conflicts new mothers feel about the arrival of their baby. While there are great feelings of joy and elation, there are other darker, more uncomfortable feelings – fear, anxiety, self-doubt, overwhelm etc.
These feelings are common and given the opportunity, most moms will acknowledge them. They expect to experience some of “The Baby Blues”.
But the author talked about other feelings which aren’t acknowledged that often.
The feelings of grief and loss.
At first, when moms in the postpartum depression group read that, they wondered, “Grief and loss over the arrival of this new little life? Isn’t this just a ‘big gain’ and not a big loss?”
Yes, until you look at it more deeply.
When a baby arrives in your life for the first time, your life changes forever. You “lose” many things:
- Your identity – you are now a parent. You may have a work identity, a play identity, a skill identity, but all those identities are now overlaid with your new parent identity. And that identity is forever.
- Your freedom – you can’t just run out the door whenever you want to travel, or go hang out with friends or go dancing or backcountry skiing. There’s a whole new layer of commitment attached to every decision you make.
- Your friends without children – They may find you absolutely boring with your talk of sleep and how many poops, and guess who smiled today. You well may lose them as core friends.
- Your central interests – the freedom you had to pursue what you love will take a back seat to caring for your child.
- Your free and easy romantic relationship with your partner – now there’s the constant awareness that there’s “someone else” in the relationship, plus you’re tired, “touched-out”, with ears always open for the cry or call.
- Your financial status – now there’s another mouth to feed. You have to watch your spending that much more carefully.
- Your confidence – parenting is a constantly changing, constantly challenging experience. You are continually caught off guard by babies and children and often very unsure about how to respond. This can really undermine confidence in yourself.
- Your time to yourself – especially when your babies are little. Time to and by yourself is a rare luxury.
The list goes on – and you can probably add a few “before I became a parent I…” statements for yourself.
These losses don’t negate all the positives that having a baby offers – for many having children is the greatest joy of their lives.
But, like all big changes and shifts in our lives, becoming a parent brings with it the loss of what was. We can’t go back.
Much as we sometimes want things to stay the same, life happens and things change.
Sometimes those changes are “happy” ones but even happy changes entail the loss of what was there before.
Sometimes those changes are excruciatingly painful and the losses are obvious and easier to acknowledge.
As we go through life, we have many “necessary losses” (a wonderful term coined by psychologist Judith Viorst) that result from life changes.
Take a look at some common life events and see if you can identify where loss plays a role.
- Moving to a new town or city
- Moving to a new house
- Getting into a relationship
- Getting married
- Losing a job
- Getting a new job
- Getting a puppy
- Having a second child
- Your car getting too old to fix
- Learning your child has special needs
- Friends moving away
- New neighbours next door
- Losing a pregnancy
- Your child graduating high school
- Your parent or partner developing Alzheimers or dementia
- Divorce or relationship breakup
- Reaching your weight loss goal
- Having a difficult birth
- Being turned down for a job
- Getting a big promotion
- Completing your education
- Having difficulty breastfeeding
- Your child starting school or daycare
- Losing your pet
- You or someone you love developing a serious or chronic illness
- Your best friend getting married
- The death of anyone you love
All of these are common life events that you, your children or others that you know and care about are bound to experience in life. All involve a need to shift, change and hopefully grow. All involve some type of loss.
And with loss comes grief – one of the most painful emotions that humans experience.
What is grief? There are many definitions but this is the one I find most useful:
“Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind.”
Depending on the nature of the loss, grief can bring feelings ranging from sadness and discomfort to intense unbearable sorrow and despair. Grief – especially if it is not acknowledged, expressed and accepted by those around us, can be very debilitating. If left unspoken, it can turn to long-term depression and/or anger.
We have a tendency in this culture to be very uncomfortable with negative feelings, especially grief, our own or others, and we want ourselves and the people around us to “get over it”.
The reality is that we can’t. We can try to bury it, deny it, “stiff upper lip” it and pretend it’s gone.
Grief surfaces when we least expect it. Things like someone else’s experience that’s similar to one of our losses, or a movie or song, can bring back memories and the old feelings can come flooding in.
Any life passage, like our child graduating high school, can bring back intense feelings of loss for our deceased parent who isn’t there to share the joy or our child’s parent who left the family and isn’t there to support our child.
If we accept our grief, name it and work through it, it becomes part of who we are and helps us to grow and learn. We can acknowledge it when it surfaces and tenderly recognize it.
Just as I always talk about how important it is to help your children identify and express their feelings (including loss and grief – think new baby, a broken toy, loss of a grandparent) and help them to deal with them, it is just as important to recognize your feelings – including loss and grief – accept them, express them, and learn to work through them as well.
I want to close with a beautiful quote from a woman who lost her mom at 14 and was overwhelmed with grief when her baby was born 18 years later.
“And if there’s one thing I’ve finally learned in the last six years, one of the many immeasurable ways motherhood has changed me, it’s that there is no answer to grief. It is not something we need to indulge or push away. It’s O.K. for our biggest losses to live alongside our happiest moments, to feel them without resisting or stoking, and maybe when we are our best selves, to aspire to let our grief deepen our gratitude. During pregnancy, I spent way too long burying thoughts of my mom. And after Ellie was born, in my post-partum haze, all I could do was marinate in my loss. Now, I realize that I can live in this amazing in-between. I can feel both loss and fulfillment simultaneously.” (full article here)
My heart goes out to you if you are experiencing loss and grief of any kind in your life (which is probably most of us). Remember to acknowledge it, express it, and truly accept it. It is a beautiful, painful, part of being human. If we’ve never loved and grieved, we’ve never really lived.
Here’s a good collection of articles on grief and loss: blog.griefrecoverymethod.com