If you’ve ever lost a child you probably appreciate the fact that a piece of that child’s emotional scars haven’t faded, only faded into the waking hours, requiring not only the heart to heal, but a physical toll on the body. That’s exactly what the phrase “physical pain” suggests — pain that is a distinct form of grief.
When a child is born, a tear is the distinctive sensation caused by the placenta running backward and forward into the uterus. Through the first few years of life, the sound of that blood running backward is music to mom’s ears, and the pain is temporary and similar to that of childbirth.
But while the body can heal after childbirth, that isn’t always the case for grieving parents. For mothers, the lack of breastmilk and having to nurse for so long — sometimes more than a year — can be physically debilitating. The loss of a child comes with its own emotional wounds that can feel especially visceral when blood is running through their veins. As a result, hospitals are often peppered with mom-and-baby rooms, where space is made for everything but a purer form of grief — space for in-depth emotional therapy.
Leaving a space such as this gives a sense of order to a grieving mother’s emotional landscape, despite the obvious limitations of counseling that cannot match the enormity of loss. Rather than directly forcing a grieving mother to confront the heartache of childbirth, these open spaces at hospitals allow them to experience their grief without showing a mirror to the world.
It’s important to note that these type of spaces only represent a tiny slice of the grief available to mothers who have lost a child. The parents of deceased children have so many other painful experiences ahead of them. Trauma can occur anywhere and the wounds of loss can emerge in myriad ways — that’s why it is so crucial for parents to receive the right types of care and receive support in ways that can help them heal.
Leaving a void that can never be filled is painful for parents who have lost a child. But putting an end to grief and dealing with its aftermath requires us to overcome a common misconception: that grief heals, but support does not. It is only when a parent is supported that the losses of a child can actually be healed. In that way, a space like a baby’s room can be both cathartic and effective for grieving mothers.
If you’ve lost a child, be assured that mother and father will give you an answer to one question: Is that me?
Dear Amy: I’m a good person. I’m determined to make the world a better place. I’m a good mother, but my husband lost his son a while ago. As a result, I recently became divorced. There is the residual grief from that death, and I believe it’s the principal reason why I am not sleeping well. I have trouble waking. I can’t eat. I usually go to bed at 10 p.m. Not sleeping means I’m unable to use coffee in the morning, which results in serious morning headaches. My GP doesn’t think this is functional and I have to have an MRI to confirm the diagnosis. I was told that there is no additional “cognitive, social, or physical damage,” and that it’s normal after grief. I’m spending more money on my healthcare than I need to, and I’m thinking that I should just get through this and be thankful for the changes. Should I just get through this and not let it become an issue? Am I selfish for trying to maintain sanity? Should I just give up on my dream of being able to work? Should I give up on my dream of continuing my education? I hate being so unhappy. I don’t even want to have a happy ending, but I can’t stop thinking about the past. Help!
Dear Depressed: You have the right to experience the ending of a family — and your feelings about your own life should not be handled by others. Every family and every child is different, and mine included a grieving father. You are in an incredibly vulnerable position. Although I think you are being very well cared for by your therapist, she must make sure that this illness is fully recognized and treated properly. You need a good therapist who will use physical symptom management (something we don’t usually do well with), a whole-body approach and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, not just another usual family problem to be kicked around.
And, even when you finally feel