Education > It's not just grief, It's Parenthood

By Kara L.C. Jones
KotaPress Editor

This article is for both bereaved parents and for the professionals who care for them.

It seems time that we all take responsibility for the ways in which we promote parenthood and the healing powers of having or adopting subsequent children after the death of a child.

There are a couple different situations I've recently encountered that have brought me here with this subject today. I'd like to use those situation to illustrate what I'm talking about:

1) If we minimize the PARENTHOOD of parents whose only child has died, then we do not prepare them for how overwhelming the birth of their next child is going to be. In bereavement circles there is a lot of talk about how grieving is hard work and how bereaved parents should give themselves plenty of time to grieve before trying to have another child. Yes, this is true. But I think if we shift the presentation of this idea just a little, then we might get to the heart of the parents a little more clearly.

Instead of talking about grief being hard work (which many parents early on will deny because they are still in shock), let's talk about how hard PARENTHOOD is. Just as if their child had lived and we would have all acknowledged how hard it is to parent a living child, let's also acknowledge how hard it is to parent a dead child. Grieving parents are often sleep deprived, too. Grieving parents often don't have the energy to deal with the basics of cleaning house, either. Grieving parents often can't get it all together to get out of the house for parties or excursions, either. While the parents of living children are sleep deprived, can't keep up with housework, and find leaving the house to be a trial for different reasons, parents of dead children often go through the same things.

If we framed these experiences as a "different kind of parenting" instead of minimizing the fact that these bereaved people are still parents, then maybe the idea of having another child would sink in a little more for them. I have found that many (indeed, I did this myself) bereaved parents just want to have another child as soon as possible. And sadly, in our culture, many professionals, family and friends will often encourage the parents to "try again" or will say things like, "You're young, you can have another" or "Why don't you adopt because there are so many children who need good homes." While some of that may be true, I don't think it helps the bereaved parents to really acknowledge and express how very difficult it is to be a "different kind of parent."

I've worked a little with a woman who just desperately wanted another child after her first was stillborn. She waited a couple of years. But she held fast to the idea the grief would pass with time and that to truly be a parent, she had to have a living child. So they had another. Now don't get me wrong, she loooooooooves her subsequent, living child. She cherishes every moment with this child. She is grateful to have this child. BUT she also discovered that she still grieves for her first. She still wants to put up two stockings at Christmas instead of just one. She still has work to do to build a legacy for her child who died. In other words, she has love, time, money, energy, parenting she needs to give to BOTH her children. She told me recently that she felt a little blindsided by the fact that the rest of the world thinks she must "feel better now" or "be over" her first child's death now because she is fortunate enough to have another.

If we were to support the idea that this woman is a parent to two children, one living & one dead, chances are that she would be getting more solid support for both kinds of parenting that she is doing. But instead, the people around her are telling her that there is something wrong with the fact that she is "still grieving" or they are implying that she is ungrateful by expressing her love for the dead child when she should only be parenting the living child.

I say that this woman is a parent to BOTH her children. She needs to carry on doing all the normal things parents do for living, infant children. AND she needs support and help to continue visiting her dead child's grave -- just like if she had two living children we'd all support her trying to make time with the older child so that the older one wouldn't feel insecure about the new arrival. AND she needs support and help to continue expressive arts therapy and going to group support -- just like if she had two living children we'd all support her trying to go back to her work as an artist and continuing to see a therapist for managing all that comes up when we are moms and marriage partners and working individuals. You get the point, I hope.

2) If we continue to promote subsequent PARENTHOOD as a way of recovering after the death of a child, we are ignoring a segment of bereaved parents who are just floundering out here for help.

This one comes from the work I've done with families where the death of the child resulted in secondary infertility for the mother so that they cannot have other children. Or for couples who simply choose to not try again to have other children.

I see a lot of writing from professionals and bereaved parents where there is this promotion of how the birthing experience of the subsequently born child is very healing or helps the parents to move forward in their grief, etc. Okay, if that is true for their experience, fine. But I think we need to put just as many stories in writing and promote as many other alternatives to "healing" or "moving forward in grief" as possible because many, many people will not have a subsequent birthing experience nor will they adopt or raise other subsequent children.

There needs to be a shift in paradigm here, too. Anywhere that you attempt to offer a subsequent experience as "healing," I think we need to make an effort to offer an alternative "healing" experience in the very next breath.

Again, I think that if we were to promote "a different kind of parenting" -- parenthood to the dead child -- as a way of moving through grief or living with grief, or whatever, *then* I think we offer something for everyone. Those who cannot have "subsequent" experiences are not jipped out of their parenthood. They would be given options for using their love, time, money, energy that was to go to that child who died, rather than telling them how healing it is to take all that and give it to another child! Afterall, they may have other, older, surviving siblings who are getting those things in their share -- but that doesn't mean that a parent doesn't have an excess of those things that were to go to the child who died.

So, couldn't we offer "a different kind of parenting" as a way of dealing with grief *and* offering support to the parenthood of *all* parents?

Practical Applications of this "Different Kind of Parenting" Paradigm:

-Just like a family with one living child is going to double the work load by having another, well, so too, will a bereaved family double the work when they then have their second child. Just as parents would split their time and love and energy and parenthood between two living children -- so are bereaved parents doing that when having a subsequent child! So it makes sense that they should have solitary and play time with the living child, but they will also need some of the same solitary and/or creative time to devote to the child who is dead. Maybe when they are working on the baby book for the living child, they will also need time to add to the memorial book for the dead child.

-Just like when a family with two living children has to make sure that individual birthdays are special for each child while also helping the "not your birthday" child still feel loved -- so, too, does a bereaved family sometimes want to celebrate birthdays for the living and dead children. Maybe when they are gearing up to have the first birthday party for the living child, they will also want to light candles to remember the first birthday they didn't get to have with the dead child. Or maybe when they light candles on a cake on the anniversary of the birth/death date of the dead child, they will let the living child blow out the candles and make a wish and share the cake with them. Maybe they will, on the birth/death day of the dead child, make a point of shopping for toys that will be donated to kids in need. So maybe they let the living child pick out toys to be donated.

-In a family where there will be no "subsequent" experiences, again, I think we have to give acknowledgement to the validity of their continued parenthood -- though it will obviously manifest differently than those with living children. If they have no older, living sibling either, then it is important to help them find ways to give voice to their parenthood -- otherwise it becomes closeted and silent which is often a very difficult way to live. So we can make donations in the name of their child. Or help them to volunteer and offer services in the name of their child. Introduce them to the Kindness Project at the MISS Foundation as a way of creating legacy for their child and as a way to give voice to their parenthood. We might offer them support as they attend memorial events like Children's Memorial Day or "Walks To Remember". Or we might offer to help them find special ways to spend the difficult days like the child's birth/death day, holidays, etc. Giving voice to parenthood that would otherwise be silenced is very important.

-If they have older, surviving siblings, then encourage them to include all the children in celebrations of ALL the birthdays. If they wish to buy presents on the dead child's birthday, then again, have the whole family shop for presents that might have been given had the child survived. And then, as a family, donate the items to families in need. Or buy one memorial item as a family; something that would be added to a grave site or set next to an urn or other memorial site that might be in the house.

-In traditions like Day of the Dead and Passover, seats are set at the tables for ghosts or for those who have passed away. If that is something that would validate the continued parenthood, then the family might set an extra place at holiday meals to honor the child who has died -- or even make it a more broadly scoped memorial and set one place to honor all family members who have passed away, including grandparents, great-grans, cousins, etc. At the end of the meal, you could do several things with the plate of food: 1) leave it outside over night (usually in the morning the plate will be clean!) or 2) offer the food to a family pet who doesn't usually get the treat of table food (this can make havoc on the animal digestive system though, so be careful with this choice) or 3) feed it to the hungry ghost who lives in the garbage disposal (old wives tale, you know?).

-In families with more than one living child, ideally there is some time in every day for each parent to spend with each child. I simply think that if we offered this same option to bereaved families that we'd be looking at a much more progressive paradigm for living life after the death of a child. Maybe the time that was to be spent with the dead child is now spent volunteering; or maybe it is spent writing a memoir; or maybe it is spent doing expressive arts work; or maybe it is spent in group discussions with other bereaved parents. I don't necessarily think it so much matters what the parents decided to do with the time. I just think it matters that they have a choice to take that time when it is needed.

There just has to be an acknowledgement of the parenthood they have to ALL their children.

Personally, my son was stillborn. And I believe that my parenthood did *not* end when my child died -- instead, I believe it *began* there when he was *born* -- just like the parenthood started for families whose newborn children went on living.

And, so, I think it is time that we as professionals, as a society, as family members and friends, started to take responsibility for giving credit to the parenthood that IS -- not just the parenthood that was or might yet be.

About the Author

Kara is the Grief Coach & heARTist who founded

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