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Parental grief: we must learn to collectively support the suffering of parents


On February 8, two young children lost their lives in a tragedy at a Laval daycare center.

Out of concern for benevolent families, we want to answer three questions that come up repeatedly in the media:

– Is parental bereavement different from another type of bereavement?

– How can parents go through the stages of this bereavement?

– How can parents who experience such a tragedy get out of it and continue their lives as before?

With expertise in bereavement, we will examine these questions to better understand the experience of parents, but also to shed light on parental bereavement with a view to learning collectively to deal with and support their suffering.

Is parental bereavement different from another type of bereavement?

The short answer is yes, parental grief is different. Quite simply, the bond of attachment between a parent and his child is unique, and is forged from the conception of the latter. The birth of a child transforms the parent’s life in different ways in all spheres of daily life. We can therefore easily understand how absence becomes heavy with meaning when a death occurs.

Thus, beyond the parent’s sense of responsibility and the mourning of his parental role, the parent is confronted with the mourning of the future and of the life imagined with this child. When his death occurs, it is this future that will never take place that can take up all the space.

Moreover, with the circulation of information by the media, the whole community witnesses it simultaneously, not knowing how to react both to themselves and to the bereaved parents.

Hearing the suffering of the parents requires welcoming their discourse of this deconstructed future and of the projects and dreams that will not come true. It is about inquiring about these missing events in the family history, through questions centered on the parent. Offer an attentive ear to the sharing of memories and know that this simple gesture of listening, without giving an answer, is precious. To be truly present for the parent is to recognize that his pain is necessary and that it can reappear, even several years after the tragedy.

Moreover, this mourning, which very often extends over time, is now recognized by theWorld Health Organization as a reality that is part of the experience of the bereaved; a significant gain for developing our sensitivity to the real experiences of parents.

How can parents go through the stages of this grief?

Research has shown that the grieving process is experienced very differently for each parent.. Grieving is unique to each individual. Thus, a couple experiences the same grief, but not in the same way. Each person’s emotions and reactions may vary. Sometimes we may need to talk, ventilate, see friends or isolate ourselves. Other people may need to play sports, get active, or get back to work quickly.

In short, there is not “one” good way to react, “the” good manners being those which are appropriate to the character of each one. The challenge, for the parents (and loved ones), is to accept their different ways of reacting, to respect each other, and above all, to dare to talk to each other. Although often difficult; it is a necessary conversation.

A myth to undo is one that depicts grief as stages 1-5 (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Studies have confirmed that grief is more like waves in a perpetual back-and-forth movement (ups and downs), between getting involved in life (eating, sleeping, caring for other children, making plans, etc.) and experiencing mourning (crying, being angry, replaying events in your head, asking questions, etc.). The first days, or even weeks, the wave troughs are frequent and long. They appear endless. Eventually, highs surface, distressing emotions subside, for a few minutes, a few hours, several days or weeks.

The bond of attachment between a parent and his child is unique, and is forged from the conception of the latter.

Note that we no longer speak of “accepting” the death of a child, since this word does not depict the reality of the work of mourning.. The challenge for parents is to learn to live with this absence, so that their pain subsides and becomes more tolerable. In this mourning, we must also know that one of the many challenges is that sometimes, in a single day, what the parents believed the day before can be quite the opposite the next day. And that’s completely normal.

In the first days, weeks and months of their mourning, many parents wonder how they will be able to get through this terrible ordeal and regain a taste for life. Some parents will want to rediscover the taste of happiness, in order to honor the memory of their child. Others will feel guilty and wonder if they have the right to this happiness. Some will doubt, wondering “if I’m doing well, if I’m going on with my life and I’m happy, does that mean that I didn’t love my child enough? Still others will say to themselves “my child would have liked me to be happy”. This complexity demonstrates that reflections are omnipresent. The entourage must then pay attention to their own words. Telling a parent that we don’t know how they are coping with this grief can add to the already heavy burden.

How can parents who experience such a tragedy get out of it and continue their lives as before?

Parents survive the death of their child, but carry on with their lives differently. There is a Before and one After This drama. It is not a question of forgetting, of moving on, of “mourning”, using here an action verb.

Mourning is often described by parents as work, work on oneself, from which personal discoveries will result, on their bond with the child, on life and on their relationship to others and to their existence. Grieving is experienced, one second, one minute at a time. Accept his rhythm, breathe, be patient, be indulgent in his reactions, welcome tears and love towards the child; are realistic behaviors that want to be concrete and invite to be remembered by those around you.

Studies show that grief is influenced by the social context. Thus, parents isolate themselves, not knowing how to ask for support, in front of an entourage who does not know how to react. But… how to react? The grief of each parent being unique, there is no one right way to support them!

We are all, as a society, responsible for being present. Go beyond feelings of helplessness, discomfort and our own vulnerabilities, to listen. Thus, it is appropriate to say sentences like these: “I feel helpless before your pain”; ” I am the ” ; ” I am wholeheartedly with you ” ; “if you find something that can help you, tell me”; “I’m shocked, I’m saddened, I don’t like to see you living through this tragedy”.

Hearing the suffering also means not putting pressure on the parents to move on in the weeks, months or years following the tragedy. Parents will know how to decide the route and the way they will experience things. They will go on with their lives at the pace that only they can determine.

“Give time to time” and simply be there, without judgement, and support them to identify with them the needs they will have and the ways to meet them.

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