Q. My friend’s child died suddenly last year. Some days she’s fine, and other days she is crying or angry. I understand the despair, but why does she seem to be okay and then fall apart again? Is this a normal pattern of grieving?
A. There is no order for the stages of mourning and no timetable that individuals follow when they have lost a child. In virtually all unexpected deaths, people experience sudden shock and numbness, a prolonged period of acute grieving, and gradual adaptation to the tragedy and the changes it has caused in their lives.
The progress is not orderly. One day your friend can be back to her old self. Then suddenly she can revert to acute mourning and even to self-blame. Your friend is most likely feeling a loss of control over her destiny. We expect our children to outlive us. When that does not happen, the natural order of life seems out of kilter. The feeling has been explained as landing on an alien planet where you do not speak the language and have no resources.
Just when those who are mourning begin to feel better, there can be triggers that return them to the stage of numbness, anger, or extreme despair. These emotions are to be expected and often surface under benign circumstances. You may be in the middle of lunch and suddenly your friend becomes agitated or angry.
You should accept that your friend’s feelings and behaviors may be erratic for longer than you anticipated. Some sources report that those who have lost a child have more difficulties several months after the event. Perhaps this is because family and friends are there less often, some former friends withdraw, and others will say “you need to get over this and move on.” Many do not realize that people “get over” grief at their own pace. Mourners need understanding and non-judgmental friends who realize that grief is indeed a rocky road.
An excellent book for both of you to read is “When the Bough Breaks” by Judith Bernstein. It offers much more insight into the dealing with the death of a child than I can possibly present in a column.
Q. My husband died last year, and my children and grandchildren live far away. They rarely saw us during the past fifteen years. When I visit, I feel like a burden. I don’t want to go there for the holidays, but I feel I should. Am I wrong to want to spend time with my friends rather than my family?
A. After the death of a loved one, we often want to be around those whom we know best and who can empathize with our grief. Your children have been absent for many years, and they probably did not really know their father during his last few years of life. Therefore, it is natural that you feel alone in the midst of your family.
You have a right to decide how to spend your time. If your friends have invited you for the holidays, and you feel they will offer you more emotional support, you should feel no guilt about declining the invitation from your family. Certainly you should continue to visit, but only at a time when you feel it is the right for you.
You may extend the invitation for your family or grandchildren to visit you before or after the holidays. Sometimes, a visit from one of the grandchildren can provide you with a better holiday gift than being surrounded by 20 family members. Remember, you have earned the right to say “no.” Too many people do not take advantage of that right.
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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology. She teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College and maintains a limited private practice in Pine Bluff. If you have questions, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. The questions will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.