Travis Wenning, Greensburg, Ind., died from cancer at the age of 6. Lucas Flint, O’Fallon, Ill., succumbed to cancer at age 2. How can families cope with such tragedies and put their lives back together?
Julie Bingham is a mental health professional who deals with these types of life-changing events. Bingham, Indianapolis, is a licensed mental counselor and executive director of the Indiana Center for Families and Children, a subsidiary of Mental Health America of Indiana.
Here are Bingham’s responses to eight questions young families who suffer loss might ask. They’re part of an exclusive interview with Bingham.
How can the family begin to deal with the grief? Each person grieves differently. Grief can look different for each individual and may present differently between adults, adolescents and children. Allow the grieving process to occur. Comfort each other, have open communication and discuss feelings. Allow each family member to grieve in their own way and recognize that each person grieves at their own pace.
There are five stages in the grief process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Denial usually occurs right after the loss and [people] often think “this can’t be happening.” This is the body’s first line of defense.
Anger is dealing with the real pain of the loss. These feelings may include frustration, guilt, loneliness, pain and rage. These are natural feelings and often can be placed on others or on the person that was lost.
Bargaining involves dwelling on what you could have done to prevent the loss. These are the “what ifs,” including bargaining with a higher power to bring the person back or take away the pain.
Depression is the most challenging. Sadness sets in, such as crying, sleeplessness, decreased appetite, regret, guilt and loneliness. Those experiencing grief will most likely have these feelings. That doesn’t mean a person has depression. However, if the symptoms persist, consult a mental health clinician.
Acceptance is the reality of your loss and it cannot be changed. Things will be different, and you’re now able to move forward with life.
How can parents help their other children cope and move forward? The best way is allowing them to grieve. Provide healthy, open communication to express their feelings and thoughts and provide comfort, which may be difficult for a parent who is also requiring comfort. Recognize that children may demonstrate their grief in different ways — look for behaviors such as acting out or withdrawing.
Behavioral problems at school or home or across settings can be a sign that there are more serious problems. Validating feelings and allowing open expression of thoughts and feelings are very important. Additionally, it’s important to let living children not feel alone.
How do Mom and Dad prevent division in their own relationship? Spouses are particularly vulnerable to feelings of blame and anger. Allow each other to grieve and to understand and recognize that the grieving process may look different for each other.
There [must] be open communication between Mom and Dad, and open discussion of feelings. Provide support and actively listen to one another. There may be feelings of rejection, anger or inability to comfort each other.
Each partner may experience too much or receive too little. This can be avoided if each accepts each other as they are with no expectations — just the knowledge they’re both deeply hurt. Maintain healthy boundaries, communicate, acknowledge each person is experiencing hurt and pain, and allow each other to grieve, and provide comfort to one another.
Do things ever return to normal, or is it a new normal? Bereaved parents lose a part of themselves. Resolution of parental and family grief is difficult, but not impossible. Be realistic and optimistic and have the hope of surviving, but recognize that you and the family have changed. [Parents] will not forget the child or the death. Emptiness will most likely remain. However, the pain will decrease as parents and family adjust and live with the trauma or tragedy. Over time, the family will gain strength with coping. Confront and assess the feelings, pain, guilt and reality of the death. It’s OK to have these feelings and it’s OK to grieve.
One struggle for families is accepting pleasure or moving on with happiness. It’s OK to have enjoyment, and it’s important to have tools to have joy in their life. It’s OK to laugh. Focusing on positive events is another way to move forward. Remain active in the community and find joyful or supportive activities. Exercise and fitness can help with a release from the grief. Find a meaningful activity or effort to help others, such as a foundation or giving back to help manage feelings and help other parents/families that are grieving.
How does a couple know if they need outside counseling and help? It’s often difficult for families to recognize if they need counseling. When symptoms are extended or impact functioning, it’s beneficial to talk with a mental health professional to learn coping skills, support and ways to work through the grieving process.
What services are available for parents, siblings, grandparents? These include individual therapy, family therapy, couples/marital therapy, grief and loss therapy, and trauma therapy. Art therapy can also be beneficial, as well as it can provide a different way to express feelings. Support groups specially designed to assist parents and families with the loss of a child or sibling are also beneficial.
Is it good to reach out to other families who have lost loved ones? Yes. Support groups are very common and supportive. Many counseling agencies or churches offer resources. There are also online support groups as well as national chapter groups that can assist the family.
How is dealing with the loss of a young child different from dealing with the loss of a parent or grandparent? The loss of a child is often identified as the ultimate tragedy. Parents undergo all the normal reactions to grief and are often susceptible to additional problems caused by their loss. During the early days of grief, parents and family members experience excruciating pain and terrifying thoughts. They may feel numb, extreme sadness, shock, distress, anger, indecisiveness and become passive or withdrawn. Coping with the loss of a child requires the hardest work that one will ever do.
Guilt appears to be one of the most common responses. Powerlessness is also attributed to the parents’ grief and pain. Anger and frustration are also common.
Here are specific resources: The Compassionate Friends is a national chapter for bereaving parents. Visit compassionatefriends.com or call 877-969-0010.
Grief.com is an online support group that provides videos and resources for dealing with grief and the loss of a child.
COPE Foundation is an online support group for parents to connect with other parents grieving a loss. Visit copefoundation.org.