How to Survive After Your Child Dies: Advice for the Early Months

Kyle had drug problems, but I knew he was going to be OK — until he overdosed at age 26.
  1. Don’t look for what you could have done differently, though of course this will be your mind’s number one occupation now. Find and practice a trick to snap your mind back from endless self-blame (a rubber band on the wrist, a deep breath). When you catch yourself desperately searching, have something to say back to yourself, such as, “If I could have saved him, he would be alive. I could not have prevented this or I would have.” Even though your mind will respond with a hundred things you might have done differently, you would have saved your child if it were possible. Your child could not be saved, and that is why your child is dead. If you can stop searching for what else you should have done for more than five minutes at a time, consider yourself ahead.
  2. Make self-care your #1 job. Daily yoga (which you can do free in your own home with Youtube videos) will make you stretch your body once a day, which is better than nothing. Make better-than-nothing your new aspirational standard. Drink water. See a therapist. Get out in nature. Use a lightbox in winter. Take long walks. Meditate. Write to and about your child in a grief journal. Do these things even though you feel like a zombie with no will to live. Make a list of self-care practices, and when you’re at a loss for what to do with your despondent self, do the next thing on the list. Someday you’ll be glad you took care of what’s left of you.
  3. Ask for what you need. Friends and family will never be more willing than they are right now to help you. Don’t feel guilty asking. Ask for comfort food. Ask for alone time. Ask for company or child care or time off from work. I asked friends if I could stay alone in their vacation homes, something I would have been too embarrassed to do if I weren’t shredded by grief and searching for anything to help me feel better. Whether you ask or not, everyone will stop waiting on you in a few weeks or months, so you may as well get some needs met now. You may find you have a new voice to articulate what you need now that most things no longer matter. Use that voice for good. While people want to help, let them.
  4. Believe any signs that suggest your child is contacting you from the great beyond. No matter what faith you possessed or didn’t before, now is the time for a full suspension of disbelief. Lights flickering? That’s your child. Cardinal outside your window? Thank your child for visiting. Who knows if it’s real. God doesn’t seem to want us to know anything for sure or we’d all have full-blown visitations from lost loved ones every day. But let yourself take comfort in the intuitive feelings that sweep over you when you feel your child’s spirit with you. Refer back to better-than-nothing.
  5. Let yourself cry, out loud with messy tears, anywhere and everywhere. Tell strangers your child died; show them his picture. This will help others keep their own petty problems in perspective — or, sometimes, it will help you connect with someone else who’s been there. If nothing else, it may cause others to treat you with the kindness and compassion we all deserve.
  6. Forgive yourself for your brain fog, your shakiness, your forgetfulness, your vomiting, your panic attacks, your flashes of rage at innocent bystanders, your incompetence, your unwillingness to clean your house. I let myself use marijuana as medicine to calm me down when I was hysterical—and I needed actual medicine, too. (I now take two anti-depressants instead of one, and I am grateful this medicine exists.) Don’t worry about if you’ll always be this much of a mess. You won’t be, but you don’t need to schedule your full recovery now. You are shattered; it’s normal to need time and pain relief to help you mend.
  7. Write to your child’s friends, thanking them disproportionately for any role they played in your child’s happiness. Your child’s spirit lives in all who remember him, so you’ll want to keep in touch with these kids, even though watching them reach milestones your children will never reach will be painful. Ask them for your child’s pictures, get them to write down memories, share old videos with them, thank them for texting you when they dream about your child. Knowing others are remembering your child will always be a comfort.
  8. Bury your face in your child’s old shirts searching for his scent. Keep tucked away any clothes that still smell of him. (My daughter and I found a T-shirt that smelled of my son three years after his death, one of our small miracles.) Go through your child’s journals, emails, Facebook and Messenger apps and cut, paste and save every word he ever wrote. These are the last words he’ll ever write; someday you’ll feel strong enough to read through them and will be so glad you saved them. (I wrote a book of poetry and was able to include my son’s poems in it, an enormous blessing.) Make back-up copies. When you feel ready, make photo and word scrapbooks of your child’s life that let you focus on the happiest moments. Refer back to #1 as you do this.
  9. Read books and websites about grief and life after death. The pandemic has put many support groups online, so you can just lurk in them now until you’re ready to share. It helps to see how many others have suffered this and other terrible losses and survived. Avoid websites of hopeless misery where other mothers swear it never gets better. It does; I promise. (Besides, no one can tell you you’ll never feel better; only you get to decide if that is true.) You will always carry your grief, but you won’t always feel like you do right now.
  10. Eventually, start reading a bit about Post-Traumatic Growth. Your child’s death has changed you forever. Someday you’ll get to decide if that change makes you more bitter and shrunken or more compassionate and open-hearted… But don’t rush it; you may need to be bitter and shrunken for a while before you get to the growth that’s being forced upon you.
  11. Punch in the face anyone who tells you that “everything happens for a reason,” “you’ll be with them soon,” “God has a plan but we don’t get to know what it is,” or “your child is in a better place now.” If you don’t approve of violence, just tell those who say these things that they must be sad their child is still alive instead of in that better place. If you’re feeling really charitable, explain how hurtful it is to have people dismiss your pain this way. Perhaps this will be the start of you giving back to the grief community, by teaching people what to say to grieving parents: “I’m so sorry for your devastating, tragic loss. Your child was so special, and I have wonderful memories of him. I know nothing I say or do can ease your pain, but here’s a casserole I made just to help you get through the next days.”
  12. If your child left behind a child or a sibling, don’t contemplate them with terror in your heart. Remember each child is an individual; no one is cursed to repeat your child’s fate. Don’t waste anyone’s life worrying about them; that saves no one and only leaves you sick with regret. Remember how much of the last years of your child’s life you wasted, overcome as you were by terror and despair, and do your best to enjoy each precious moment with each precious loved one left alive in your life.
  13. Most challenging, and I can only say this to you because I’m a fellow grieving parent: Count your blessings. (No one whose children are all still alive gets to give you this advice; refer back to #11.) I know how impossible it can feel to practice gratitude after your child has died, but all the research shows that enumerating what is still good in your life, preferably by writing in a journal or making a daily list, helps improve mood and mental health outcomes. You’ve survived the worst loss you will ever endure; what better time to practice appreciating your warm house, your pets, your spouse, your friends, your child’s photos, your memories, the moon, the sunset, soft-serve ice cream, your favorite song. One day, recognizing your blessings will help you figure out how to be glad you’re still alive.

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