is for those who died!
Maybe it's just me. Maybe it is the messed up world in which we live. But I feel like I've been basically writing the same article over and over again for the last five years. I'm not doing this for me. I'm doing it because there are still friends, family members, and professionals out there who are telling bereaved parents that they need to find "closure" after the deaths of their children. Maybe it's me not being able to just let it be, leave it alone, just decide that people need to fend for themselves. But I really think it's more likely that it is this messed up world of denial and fear of mortality and death in which we live that keeps me saying these things over and over again!
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote her book "On Death & Dying" in 1969 and set the foundation for hospice as we know it today. In her work, she "mapped out" the 5 stages of grief. You know those stages, right? The ones that end with "closure". Okay, are you really paying attention here? Because I want you to listen to me closely. SHE WROTE THE FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF FOR THE PERSON WHO WAS DYING!!! "Closure" was the last stage because after that, the person would be dead!
Okay. But for lack of any material at all on death and dying at the time, professionals everywhere began to map these 5 stages onto the people who were left behind dealing with mourning and bereavement. And somewhere along the line, the world started telling bereaved people that "closure" to their grief meant "getting over it" or "no more talking about that" or "going back to normal like they were before the death". But that expectation is so unreasonable! So unrealistic! So impossible to attain for most! And if you tell me that you've met people who have had this kind of closure, I will challenge you. I would bet money that if you really pay attention, you'd see, not closure, but a living denial on some level and a constant battle with guilt at the instant of any feelings at all that might relate to the dead person. This is NOT healthy. This is not closure. This is repression.
Now there is a healthy and realistic kind of closure that needs to happen for us after our chidren die. We do need to bury or cremate the physical body. We need to not be doing things like carrying around baby dolls pretending they are our children. We need to not do things like obsessing over stealing someone else's child who is the same age our child might have been. These are all physical realities that we definitely need to face. Yes, we can have closure with these kinds of physical things. That is true.
But to expect a parent to stop talking about their child or to stop having some sense of themselves as a parent is unrealistic. To expect a parent to go back to being the person they were before the child died is downright absurd. I give this example all the time, but I'll do it again here: If your mother or father dies, are you expected to stop having some sense of yourself as someone's child? Are you expected to go back to being the person you were before your mother or father died? Do you stop being someone's son or daughter? NO!!!! So why would it be any different for a parent whose child has died.
I'm not saying that there isn't major change. I'm not saying that we don't have to do a lot of work to figure out what our parenthood looks like now. I'm not saying that there is only grief forever and ever. I am saying that the ability to grieve for the dead child is constantly there -- just as the ability to love someone is constantly there. Our parenthood is no longer so much physical as it is a relationship and journey of a less tangible, maybe more spiritual nature. After your child dies, the person you become is completely different-- all the way down to the cellular level --than the person you were before the date of death. Though you may look the same and drink the same coffee and maybe live in the same house, I know you are different even if others don't or won't accept that. And you know what? That is okay, too!! Those who don't accept the "new" you can just go on about their business and you can go on about living the rest of your life. The "new" you deserves people around you who can respect your experiences and how those experiences have shaped you.
So after we get through the "physical" closure, our "getting back to normal" or "moving on" is not about closure at all. It is about movement. It is dynamic. It is about RE-GROWING roots. And our children -- the memory of their lives and deaths -- are a part of that. And that is okay. It is to be expected. We are not passively sitting around dripping in grief. NO! We are actively creating legacies in the names of our children. Some do this by reaching out to others through volunteer work. Some do this by changing careers all together and going into a "helping" profession like nursing or midwifery or becoming a therapist who is properly trained in Thanatology for helping other bereaved people. Some do teddy bear drives. Some light candles. Some practice random acts of kindness on their own or through the Kindness Project. We do not deny our parenthood. We talk about our children, we share photos of them, tell their story to those who will listen. We let our subsequently born children know that they have a big brother or sister -- if for no other reason than to give them full access to their *entire* family medical history -- but often we share knowledge of the older sibling out of love and showing respect for those who have gone before us. We write books. We do art. We participate in online forums for exchange and emotional support.
This is the re-creation of a life after the death of a child.
Do we still have hard days? Absolutely. Do we still feel grief? Yep. Do we still feel rage? Yes. Do we still miss our kids? You bet. But we have the capacity to do and feel all these things right along side the other things of life like having artful days, feeling okay, laughing again, loving our other children or our neices and nephews or our grandchildren. But it all exists at the same time.
The idea that we would even want to have "closure" on these things is ridiculous. Why would we want to close off a whole part of our development? ...something so huge that it affected every particle of life? No way!! We'll do the "physical closure" just fine. But the "other closure" -- the "shut up and never talk about that again" closure -- No way!! You can keep that. You can go lock up in that closet of closure and repression and do whatever you need to do. But we have faced death and mortality -- and you know? We live every moment as FULL as possible because we aren't in denial about the fact that any moment might be the last.
So just remember: If you are a bereaved parent and you are being pressured to "have closure on this," then you have my permission to tell those who are pressuring you that Kubler-Ross coined the term "closure" in reference to the person who was dying. And then you tell them that you'll definitely also have "closure on this" when you are dead, too. Till then, they can go fly a kite and stay out of your way!!