How We Mourn:
Themes, Phases, and a Myth
by Charlotte M. Mathes, LCSW, Ph.D.
Author of And a Sword Shall Pierce Your Heart
Grief fills the room up of my absent childWomen do not mourn their child losses randomly. Common themes and phases exist, often reflected in myths. One recurring theme is a woman's need to know how other women mourn.
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief.
--Shakespeare, King John
The Need to Know
Most mothers have never been close to someone who has suffered such a life changing event, and even when they have, they could not have then understood its magnitude. Consequently, women now feel an urgency to find out everything they can about other mothers' reactions. They search relentlessly for information that will help with their immediate pain. Hungry for facts and statistics, they look for books to guide them through grief and find solace in hearing another stricken mother speak of a reaction similar to their own. Because they fear their grief will not abate or that things will only get worse, they search for help that will give hope or enable them to fend off further disaster. They want some predictability restored to their lives. Though nothing takes away their pain, many mothers later point to a bit of useful information or wisdom that made a positive difference.
About two weeks after Martha's death at age thirteen, Eugenie started what seemed an unending search for books on child loss:
They all said about the same thing, but I devoured them. I just had to find out all the facts. I guess in the long run, they did help me, but at the time, I was just so obsessive in tracking down whatever I could.
From her reading, on the other hand, Mary seemed to find immediate relief:
I had so many things wrong with me from the start. I couldn't eat or sleep and I was always so irritable and flying off the handle at everybody. I learned that other people had the same things going on with them.
Kate rushed to find books that would take away a particular fear.
We had always had a good marriage, but when my husband heard that people get divorced after a child dies, we ran out to get books about that. We found out that we had to keep talking to each other.
The kind of books women choose to read vary as they move deeper through grief. About a year after her son's death, Ruth was able to change her attitude. The works of one author, Harold Kushner, really helped her.
I read When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and after that I didn't ask so much about 'Why me?' So I went and got his other book.
Unexpected / Unprepared
When a child dies, we lose our commonsense faith in life's predictability. The unanticipated early death cuts through what we have formerly assumed is a natural order of things, shaking the very foundation of our living. All we believed comes into question, and we feel as if we have no standpoint.
There is a saying to the effect that we only understand our lives after we have suffered disappointment: "Life is what happens to you after you make your plans." Once we had ideas about what coming years would bring to our family. After the death of our child, however, we find ourselves thrust into a period where, while there is no foretelling the future, we suddenly have no plans, and our dreams have been shattered.
How different this is from the sadness we feel when an older person dies. If she has lived a full life and dies naturally, we may miss her, reminisce about all she meant to us, and perhaps wish that we had taken more time to appreciate her. We also come to acknowledge that life brings a series of losses, and we may even understand that they are somehow necessary, or at least part of everyone's experience. But the death of our child attacks our understanding of life's rhythm and purpose, leaving us wandering in unmapped territory.
After John Kennedy Junior's plane crash, Lauren Basset's parents and Carolyn Basset Kennedy released the following statement: "Nothing in life prepares you for the death of a child." Though it had been twelve years since my son's death, I wept when I read those words, for they brought me back to when I was unprepared for my struggles with his illness, for his death, and for the challenging grief work required to once more be fully alive.
Today's women mature knowing much about how to deal with expected milestones: sexual experience, marriage, professional life, working motherhood, and even divorce, remarriage, and menopause. That which we don't already know, we feel reasonably confident of learning from abundant resources which are easily available to us. Consequently, we don't anticipate a life-changing event that puts the core of our being in doubt. Even those who have experienced much tragedy in their lives are unprepared for a child's death. Without self-pity, Ruth first summarizes her many losses before coming to her stark conclusion.
My life has been full of pain. As a child, I experienced coming from 'the wrong side of the tracks.' My father and mother left me when I was thirteen and I had to find other caregivers. My little sister died when I was eight; my father died when I was twenty-two. My oldest son had cancer of the bone at age eighteen. My first and only grandson was born with Down's syndrome. He had open heart surgery and was in critical condition for two weeks. My husband had open heart surgery and died two years after Tom committed suicide.
None of this has been as devastating as my son Tom's death.
The Intensity of Our Reactions
As they seek guidance, grieving mothers come to know other women's dramatic changes in body, behavior, and inner life. We learn how common are sleepless nights and changes in appetite as well as other such physical symptoms as allergies, migraines, stomach pains, shortness of breath, and irregular heart beat. The physical stress of child loss also makes women fear long-term health effects. Sesley says:
I was always so stressed out and sick, catching the flu, being exhausted, and my back wouldn't stop aching. I became convinced that I wasn't going to live very long. And it was true, if I hadn't started to feel better, I wouldn't have lived long. But the third year I got stronger and stopped being sick.
The body mirrors our strong emotions, and we will later see how to care for our bodies.
What most worries us about our feelings, however, is not the central fact of sadness but the many psychological reactions and symptoms surrounding it. Women become frightened when they are unable to concentrate, remember details, control tearful outbursts, mitigate anger, and engage fully in routine responsibilities. They are also plagued with haunting thoughts and images. In all such states, they sometimes wonder if they are going crazy. Others feel they are falling into a dark hole of depression from which there is no escape. Mothers naturally try to gain some control over these experiences by asking, "Is it normal that I feel this way?" The answer is "Yes," witness these other experiences mothers have had in the extreme trauma of child loss.
After our baby Sophia died, we finally got home from the hospital. Because I was in so much physical pain, I had a hard time getting up the steps to our apartment. All her things were everywhere, and we didn't know what to do. When I wasn't looking, Ben started to throw things away, but I pulled the pacifier out of the garbage. Ben poured the breast milk we'd bottled and refrigerated down the drain. We got in bed and just lay there crying, and then at some point I said, 'I have to call people and let them know.' I had a list. This seemed perversely organized but what else was I going to do with myself?
One day when I was alone I took the gun and shoved the barrel in my mouth down into my throat, but not to kill myself. I was just trying to see how it felt.
On the anniversary of my daughter's death, I called the doctor and reminded her that it was a year since my girl had died. 'You Goddamn killed my baby! Why didn't you intubate?' I yelled.
I know when the photo album is in my head again. The images flash by -- all that happened to Marcia. The tubes hooked up all over and labored breathing and all the swelling in her face. The courage she had, and how she wanted to take care of us -- us, mind you!
In the end we had to make the difficult decision to withdraw the life-support systems. This traumatic decision plays again and again in my mind.
It's been three years and I still haven't wall-papered the kitchen. The walls are just there with the old paper torn off. I can't finish it because Anna was going to choose the paper. To select it myself would be, I don't know what it would be, I just don't want to do it.
None of these women were so dangerously over the edge that their grief should be considered pathological. They are merely describing some of the turmoil inherent in maternal mourning. Moreover, their willingness to withstand confusion rather than retreat into numbness or denial is a healthy response to grief.
Excerpted from And a Sword Shall Pierce Your Heart: Moving from Despair to Meaning After the Death of a Child by Charlotte M. Mathes, LCSW, Ph.D. Copyright © 2006 Charlotte Mathes. Published by Chiron Publications; September 2005;$19.95US/$23.50CAN; 978-1888602340.
Charlotte M. Mathes, LCSW, Ph.D., is a certified Jungian analyst, a graduate of the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. She received her doctoral degree in psychoanalysis from the Union Graduate School in Cincinnati and is a clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors as well as a board certified supervisor for clinical social workers. Dr. Mathes has been in private practice in New Orleans for twenty years. She lectures and leads seminars in Jungian psychology, family therapy, and bereavement.
For more information, please visit www.charlottemathes.com.