Poetry Therapy Column, June/July 2004
(sometimes disguised as an arts or other alternative therapy column!)
By Kara L.C. Jones

Shifting Perspective...

So this exercise might not be one that would work for everyone. It is geared more toward bereaved parents (and their family, friends, caregivers), but it may not even fit for every bereaved parent. Basically what I'm going to ask you to do with this exercise, is to make a small shift in perspective. And then to just see how the shift affects/effects your everyday functioning.

When a child dies, parents contend with grief and all that it brings with it. Parents themselves, as well as the people around them, often have a hard time understanding how "grief" continues to affect them over long periods of time. I would like to propose that while we fully acknowledge the emotion of grief, that we also shift our perspectives of the "process" from "grief journey" to "parenting journey."

Now bereaved parenting is different than the parenting we would do for living children. I'm not talking about pretending or creating obsession to make the dead child more "alive" or to get stuck on replacing the dead child with living children. I'm simply saying that just as there are many different parenting styles out there used with living children -- there is also a different kind of parenting we can do for our dead children. And the long term effects of "grief" actually play out through this style of "a different kind of parenting".

So here are things to consider:

-When someone says bereaved parents need to "say goodbye" or "find closure" or "move on", I am suggesting that as long as they have fully realized that their child is dead and they themselves are still alive, then they have said goodbye to the physical-ness of the experience. But they do not need to say goodbye to their role as a parent to return to "healthy" functioning. I think "closure" in this situation is more akin to "empty nest syndrome" where parents have to adjust their parenting from a style that was 24/7 on-the-job, to a parent whose child is not physically present.

-When parents bring infants home, they are really on 24/7 patrol tending to the needs of this little being. When parents bury or cremate a child after miscarriage, stillbirth, or SIDS, they still have the energy of that 24/7 patrol flowing through their veins. And many of them channel that energy into doing good works in memory of their child, or creating memory books, or doing Kindness Projects. While this does expel and express some of the feelings of grief, I'm proposing that it is also the energy of parenting still coming through.

-When children survive, their needs change over time. Parenting changes accordingly. I am suggesting that in a similar way the parenting of bereaved parents changes over time, too. The things they do in memory of the child may change, they may manifest a new kind of "work" for themselves, they may discover that the path in front of them has, not only "grief" on it, but also laughter returns, a small bit of peace, a connection to other bereaved parents. Just as a parent to a living child might rediscover a joy in being an artist once the child goes off to preschool several days a week for a few hours at a time -- so, too, might a bereaved parent rediscover some part of themselves three or five years later.

Okay, so what do I mean by all this? I'm suggesting that we look at our perspectives and shift them just a little. We can do this ourselves if we are bereaved parents. But also, if you are family, friend, or caregiver to a bereaved parent, you can use the following exercise to shift your perspective. Or try doing this exercise with the bereaved parent and just learn from the experience. Don't judge or be critical. Just let your perspective shift a little.


1) Be consciously aware of places where you write or say "grief journey" and switch to saying "parenting journey".

2) Make a list of five things you do to as a parent to your dead child. This might include things like, making donations in the child's name; doing awareness work; creating memory boxes, books, or blankets; making time on birth/death days and other anniversary days to remember your child or to be alone or to visit the grave or to light a candle. If you have living children, make a list right next to this one of five things you do as a parent to your living children.

3) Practice writing a response to the prompt you might get from someone saying, "Are you still dealing with this?" Think about the emotion of grief and its expression through mourning activities. Think about how you may still feel grief sometimes, but you have also been able to feel other emotions now, too. Think about how you might be expressing grief sometimes when you "deal with this", but other times you might be expressing love. Consider that "this" might be the life of a parent (a different kind of parent), and not just a life of grief & mourning.

4) Practice writing a response to someone who says something to you like, "Can't we have one Christmas without talking about this?" Think about "this" as parenting, not grief. Can we have one Christmas where we leave out one of the living children? That would be abusive. So why would it be okay to leave out the memory of those we've lost? Do we not light candles on this day for a man who died many thousands of years ago? Hmmm??

5) Think about response for days like Mothers or Fathers Days. How can you ask for support and expression on those days -- how can you counter the people who will say, "We don't want to deal with this today." Would it be acceptable to ignore one of the mothers or fathers there who have living children? If not, then why would we ignore the mothers and fathers whose children have died? Though we may feel great amounts of grief on these days, can we not also have our parenthood acknowledged and celebrated? If we give flowers to all the other parents, why can we not wear a flower, too?

6) When we parent living children, many will advocate that we spend some quality time each and every day with the child. Though our dead children are not physically here, wouldn't it be equally a good idea to spend some quality time each day with our "different kind of parenthood"? I'm not suggesting that we would do the same things in our quality time with living children as we would for dead children. I'm suggesting that just as we have an outlet for our parenting to living children each and every day -- why would we not consciously create some outlet for our parenting energy that is still with us for the dead child who is not physically here. Maybe we spend time helping another person in need. Maybe we volunteer somewhere. Maybe we visit the grave site. Maybe we light a candle on the kitchen table. Point being, that instead of trying to talk bereaved parents out of doing "grief things for too long" because it is "unhealthy" or "obsessive" -- maybe we should be helping bereaved parents to give a full expression of parenthood each and every day.

You get the idea... This isn't exactly about writing poetry, but it is about writing and exploring our own ideas of grief and parenthood. It's about sharing those writings with others in our lives so that they might gain insights to our experiences and to the full expression of who we are now. I'm suggesting that we use writing to bring about small shifts in perspective in a very conscious way. Try it. If it doesn't work for you, okay. But if it does, we could change the face of "parenthood" all over the world, one parent at a time. And by fully integrating all facets of parenthood for both living and dead children, we'll be creating more fully integrated families -- stronger families! How can that be wrong?



A Comprehensive Archive

A few readers have written to say it's difficult to locate previous issues of this column, so below is a comprehensive archive. Please note that each link here will pop open a new window containing the Poetry Therapy column named:

Discovering Poetry Therapy

Pt I: Defining Poetry Therapy *and* Pt II: Coping with the Holidays

The Notion of "Healing"

National Poetry Awareness Month - 2003

At the MISS Conference: poetry and kids

So you want to be certified?

Let go, Let go

Outside, Inside

Can't you get over it?

Layers & Living - 9/11


Be Still

Reviewing "Poetic Medicine"

Day of the Dead

Letting Expression Come

Forgotten Familiar

Empty Chairs, Tiny Stockings


Word Play Leads to Music

Reaction Writing

Giving Voice During Grief - winter holiday oriented

About the Author
Kara is an artist of many disciplines. Trained as a poet and bookmaker, she has also been known to act, bellydance, and do henna body arts. She teaches and performs through faires, festivals, local art centers, artists in the schools programs, KotaPress and independently. To find out more, see:


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