Ashton suggested that the husband talk to the wife, listen to her and don’t do the natural thing, which is to fix the situation; just listen and be attentive to what is really being said. A wife can help her husband by recognizing that his extra hours at work are part of his provider mode, and thanking him for allowing the child to have additional treatments or a nicer funeral.
Everything is different for a couple after a child has died, Ashton noted — even intimacy.
“For some, intimacy during a loss is extremely comforting, more so than ever before,” he said. “The other spouse may find it hard to even image being intimate in the midst of a loss.”
Ashton counseled that both both husband and wife be very patient with one another.
Time, patience needed to fully grieve
Patience is required of anyone experiencing the loss of a child, because there is no timetable for grief. Many have compared it to a fingerprint; everyone grieves differently.
Grieving often comes in unexpected ways, but it is necessary.
“Grief is an essential part of human life,” Pascoe said. "You can’t be human and not grieve.”
“Each individual is different,” Fleming added. “If we set up this standard of steps and stages and ‘You should be through that stage now,’ and now a year down the road this re-emerges, then have they failed? ... You walk through those different places at different times.”
Some people find the idea of the grief stages appealing because it does provide a sort of road map to follow. Havertz noted that often social workers are expected to have answers about the future and how someone might feel. Still, he feels it is wrong to tell people or suggest they will feel certain things. Now when someone comes to him for counseling, he does not pull out his chalkboard and list the stages of grief. Instead, he asks them to share memories.
“Memories are the thing we hold onto, whether they are good or bad. We can’t erase a memory,” Havertz wrote in his book. “We can embrace it, repress it or deal with it.”
Finding a 'new normal'
Those memories will stay with one the rest of their life. Bills recalled that on his visits with the elderly, many still express grief over a child they lost more than 50 years ago. Though the memories can also bring sadness, being able to feel joy again is part of what many call a "new normal."
“That is a powerful phrase, and it helps people to think that way because if you talk about getting over, getting past this, putting it behind you, it is very unhelpful,” said Ashton. “What is more helpful is talking about a new normal and how you can assimilate this experience into the rest of your life. Can you find something about this that can make the rest of your life meaningful in some way?”
“For most people, there is a coming to terms of living within a new normal and establishing that new normal for their lives,” Pascoe said. “They still grieve the loss, but it can become a different type of grief. You are not still living in that intense day-to-day pain of that, but you recognize your life (is) forever changed.”
Like Havertz, the Ashtons also put their feelings to paper in "But If Not," the series they co-wrote, which has helped them as they move toward a new normal. Ashton noted that there is no hurry in the grieving process and that one does not necessarily grieve less with time, but they do grieve less often.
“With time you find you are able to go to those moments and bring them forward when you want to,” he said. “This is almost a tender mercy of God, that they are able to remember less of the trauma or the pain and the hurtful parts of it and more of the pleasant memories over time.”
“I have counseled people, it is OK to feel joy again,” Fleming said. “The sense was, ‘If I feel joy I am letting go of how much I love this person, and so I can’t let go of that pain.’ Sometimes part of the grief is allowing yourself to step out of that pain without feeling guilty.”
Ashton said one important thing to recognize — both for parents who have lost a child and family members who are trying to cope — is that “feeling is healing.”
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