Image by Matthew Henry
For five years, until 2014, I worked as a counsellor for parents of children who were patients at a children’s hospital. Part of my role was to give support to parents of children who had died. I remember being interviewed for the job, and asked what model of bereavement counselling I found helpful. I had come from a long stretch of working as a counsellor in a GP practice, where I had seen clients who were bereaved, but rarely saw parents who had lost a child. Maybe they were accessing different services. Maybe it was because, thankfully, fewer children are dying.
The model I described had stood me in good stead in my GP work. I spoke about grieving as a journey, which might eventually lead to a place where the anguish of the loss felt less raw and where the griever had a sense of the person they had lost was now integrated into their heart and memories. I described how the griever would pass through a number of stages, with a range of accompanying emotions. And I included an understanding that this model was not a rigid one; that for some the journey might take a different course which might not take them to the desired place of acceptance and resolution.
I was given the job, and then began to learn about how it was for a parent whose child dies.
Through individual and couple counselling and facilitating a group I had conversations with parents who had lost a child at the beginning of life and those whose child died later in childhood, parents whose child had been born with a life limiting condition and others whose child had died unexpectedly, parents who had lost their only child and those who had other children. My repertoire of models of grief expanded as I listened to their stories. I took on board the dual process model, which helped me understand better how for couples there may be different but often complementary ways of managing grief, and I was moved by the model of parental grief given by Richard Wilson, a paediatrician, which describes a Waterfall of Bereavement leading to a Whirlpool of Grief, of emotions being disorganised and unpredictable until calmer waters a reached. There is a very helpful summary of these and other models in Celia Hindmarch’s book, ‘On the Death of a Child’.
Sometimes I shared these theories with parents; they found them helpful in trying to wrap words round what were bewildering experiences. They were comforted to know that their feelings were described and shared by others.
In a way the theory of continuing bonds sat in the shadows for me; I was witnessing and responding to it but not recognising how much it underpinned all we were talking about. This theory had its origins in the 1990’s and was a direct challenge to the view that the breaking of bonds between the griever and the person who has died was a right and desired adjustment. In 1996 Klass, Silverman and Nickman wrote about how in all loss an ongoing relationship with the person who has died is natural and normal. And for parents who lose a child, the experience of a continued relationship is almost always the only way the death can be borne.
'I began to recognise that all we had spoken about over all those years had really been about answering a very straightforward question'
When I retired from my job I was surprised and concerned to find that I could not forget about the families I had been working with. Moving to Dorset I found myself going over the conversations we had shared as I walked by the sea and worked in the garden. This had not happened before when I had ended working with clients; certainly not to the extent it was now preoccupying me.
I began to write all I could remember about our conversations, and over time threads started to emerge. I began to recognise that all we had spoken about over all those years had really been about answering a very straightforward question; which was ‘How do I go on living a life that has any meaning now that my child has died?’
And the conclusions that parents reached were all to do with ways of continuing to have a relationship with their child; ideas of letting go, or of resolution, just did not fit. Parents had a considerable investment in continuing to grieve because it kept alive a strong and meaningful relationship with their child. Any lessening of that was intolerable.
But how the continued bond was experienced and expressed was individual, and for a counsellor attentive listening and resisting making any judgements very important. I learned that some parents found it helpful to keep their child’s room undisturbed for a year or more, whilst others needed to pack everything away as soon as they could. Some found great comfort in talking about their child, to friends, to a counsellor, online to strangers, others needed to write about their child whilst others valued the quietness of their own thoughts. Some parents built helpful acts of remembrance into their family life and others found the rituals their faith offered sustained them. Some parents believed their child was now an angel or a star, others simply used a sticker on a greetings card to remind friends and family that their child was still present.
But the parents I knew shared a strong desire to make the small life that had been lost remembered and matter; to make sure their child was held in mind sometimes just by the close family, sometimes by a wider community. And parents brought their child who had died into their present; the decisions they made, the way they now saw themselves and the world, and their priorities. For many the loss inspired a creative energy leading to setting up or becoming involved in charities which worked to alleviate the reason their child had died.
My writing became a book; Bereaved Parents and their Continuing Bonds; Love after Death, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. It tells the parents’ stories and through it I weave my own thoughts about the lived experience of continuing bonds, together with suggestions about when there might be challenges to these bonds and how it was for me to work with families in the hospital. The book has become my continuing bond with these remarkable families who generously shared with me the stories of their children and how they continue to be part of their present and future.
Catherine's Book Is Out Today - Purchasing available at Amazon
or directly from Jessica Kingsley Publishing
Klass,D. Silverman,P., Nickman,S., editors. (1996) Continuing Bonds: new understandings of grief. London: Taylor & Francis; 1996
Hindmarch, C. (2009) On the Death of a Child (3rd edition). Oxford: Radcliffe Publishing