Working with a parent whose child has died can present unique challenges for a therapist on two levels:
1) A therapist who is also a mother or father finds themselves confronted with a parent’s worst nightmare. Unless acknowledged in clinical supervision, he/she may have difficulty being objective when working with surviving parents and family members.
2) The discovery that short-term or solution focused therapies falls short in addressing the ongoing challenges faced by parents after the death of their children.
I am a Licensed Master Social Worker, a retired addiction professional and a parent who has experienced the death of a child. My daughter Jeannine died on March 1, 2003, at the age of 18, due to a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
The re-examination of my personal priorities and values following Jeannine’s death, extended to the therapeutic approaches that I used with chemically dependent individuals. Prior to Jeannine’s death, I typically employed the stage theory of grief with substance users who experienced loss due to death. Stage theory was all that I knew.
My own experience after catastrophic loss taught me that grief didn’t progress in a series of linear, predictable stages. If grief wasn’t linear for me, then I couldn’t expect it to be for my clients.
Based on what I have discovered about myself today, I want to share 8 suggestions for therapists working with bereaved parents. I also believe that what follows applies to all individuals who have experienced loss due to death:
- Focus on being a companion on the journey: It is important for therapists to bear witness to a parent’s path after the death of their child. Stories of relationships with their children need to be honoured. Through storytelling, therapists get to know the deceased child through the eyes of the parent.
- Be prepared to witness parents’ experiences with after-death communication: Many parents that I have companioned, routinely share instances where they have sensed the presence of their children. Since Jeannine’s death, I have received many signs of her presence. It is important for therapists to ask parents what thoughts they experienced prior to receiving the communication. The signs that parents receive from their children are usually a result of what transpires in the present. Some therapists may be sceptical of the existence of after death communication. Regardless of beliefs, it is important to reserve judgment and listen. I was one of those sceptics ……until my daughter died. Two very good books on this topic are: Hello From Heaven by Bill and Judy Guggenheim and Visions of the Bereaved by Kay Witmer Woods.
- Recognise each parent’s right to grieve as he/she sees fit: Each parent’s expression of pain is unique. Empower parents to grieve in a way that is meaningful for them and effectively facilitates mourning after their children die. Any healthy expression of grief should be honoured
- Emphasise the importance of ongoing support: Usually support groups composed of individuals who have experienced a similar type of loss (i.e. child, spouse) are the most effective. In my experience, effective therapy plus meaningful peer support is a powerful combination to help bereaved parents work through their grief.
- Being aware of language: Avoid the use of the terms “closure “and “moving on” in therapy. Bereaved parents learn to navigate grief by maintaining ongoing bonds with their loved ones. It is through remembering and honouring the existence of their children, for as long as they live, that facilitates meaningful lives after loss.
- Recognise that the sadness of loss is not the same as clinical depression: With grief work and ongoing support, sadness lessens and become more manageable over time. Many grieving individuals with whom I have worked, didn’t have a history of mental health challenges. Medicating grief for these individuals may delay the work that is needed to effectively negotiate it. However, if a therapist is working with bereaved parents with pre-existing emotional health or substance use issues, continued management of mental health symptoms and/or maintenance of sobriety for grief work to be effective, needs to be emphasised.
- Helping bereaved parents recognise that they are much more: For purposes of clarity, I have used the term bereaved parents throughout this piece. It is crucial that therapists help parents discover that their identities extend beyond being bereaved. With the help of others and my desire to see the experience of loss differently, I began acknowledging my other skills as a parent to my two surviving children and as a teacher, friend and husband. Don’t allow parents to buy into the illusion that being bereaved is the totality of their identity.
- Emphasise self-care: Though I have discovered that bereavement support is extremely fulfilling, continually attending to the energy of parents who have experienced the death of a child, can be extremely draining. It is crucial for therapists to routinely empower parents to do what nourishes their souls, in the aftermath of the death of their children. As a therapist empowers bereaved parents to fulfil their needs, he/she must be mindful of doing the same with respect to his/her needs.