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August 18, 2011

The Ultimate Loss

A Mother's Grief

A mother's grief is physically intense and devastating to the mother's self-identity and yet, like all grief, contains the seeds for personal growth and greater meaner in life.
A mother's bond with her child begins before childbirth. She is filled with joy and awe at the miracle of life. Whether or not she ever holds the child to her bosom or nuzzles its head with her nose or puts her finger in its grasp, she begins the strongest physical bonding in human experience. When this bond -- mother to child -- is broken by the death of her child, the process of mothering, with all its instinctual force, is abruptly colliding with a harsh new reality.
Mother's grief, just like mother's love and care, is highly physical. Although all bereaved persons express feeling physical pain, the pain of grieving mothers seems to be more intense and long-lasting. Adrienne Rich observed that to 'mother' a child implies a constant presence, lasting at least nine months, more often, years. Motherhood is experienced through an intense physical and psychic rite of passage -- pregnancy, childbirth, and/or adoption -- and taking responsibility for the young child. Bereaved mothers have an instinctive resistance to being separated, a powerful need to nurture and protect that doesn't stop when they learn that their child is dead. A mother is unable suddenly to abandon her mothering, regardless of the child's age at death; she can not simply stop caring for her child. As one mother said, 'I have the need to continue taking care of him. In fact, cutting the grass around his grave feels to me like I'm manicuring his nail, just as I used to do when he was a little boy.
A mother's initial attachment to her child is overwhelmingly physical, but even after the child is grown and the physical connection diminishes, it remains the definitive bond between mother and child. My connection to my 17-year old son was forcefully demonstrated to me the day he died eleven years ago. I was in a restaurant having lunch when I felt an inexplicable rush of nausea that sent me outside for air, where I vomited continuously for more than 20 minutes. That fateful night, I was told by police it was the exact moment my son fell to his death in Yosemite. Since then, other mothers have told me that they, too, knew the exact moment of their child's death.
'All human life on the planet is born of women.' This statement reflects the physical/biological aspects of motherhood which as so personally visible and dramatic. It is no surprise that mothers whose children die feel such severe physical pain, physical longing, and physical emptiness and have more physical symptoms than fathers during their grief. While counseling grieving mothers, I've heard them describe feeling wounded, injured, mutilated, 'violently torn apart', 'kicked in the teeth', 'as if every part of my body was broken', 'chest pains so strong it felt like a heart attack', 'blown apart and shattered...like a bursting grenade in my guts'.
Mothers are so bound to their children that a child's death often feels to the mother as if a portion of her body has disappeared.
The mother's grief stems in part from her strong identification with her child. Psychologists have found that girls emerge from childhood with a stronger basis for experiencing another's need or feelings as their own; and are more focused on relationships than men. Carol Gilligan pointed out that women come to know themselves as they are known through their relationships with others. Thus mothers often define themselves through their relationship with their children.
The more completely the mother's sense of identity is bound to her dead child, the more devastating the loss and the ensuing experience of grief. Grieving mothers have been found to experience deeper despair than fathers and are more likely to acknowledge that their dead child 'was their life'. Hence a child's death can bring on an identity crisis for a mothers that shakes her very sense of self and self-worth. Once manifestation of this loss of self-worth is a lack of confidence that the mother experiences. She spent all those days, months, and years caring and nurturing and loving her child; and yet, ultimately, she failed to protect her child. As one mother said, 'The death of a child makes an actual psychic wound deeper than any other death. Sustaining such an assault of her physical and psychological self is the most difficult thing a mother is forced to do.'
It is perhaps a miracle that a bereaved mother is able to survive the death of her child. In the beginning, when the fact of the child's death is still new, most bereaved mothers feel they will not survive; they can't imagine life continuing without holding, kissing, touching, or seeing their child again. But somehow, despite the aching, the longing, misery and despair, mothers -- although permanently changed in many ways -- do survive the loss of their child. It is a testament to the power of mother love that a bereaved mother can change in positive ways, integrating aspects of her child into her own life, internalizing her relationship to her child and using it to find strength and wisdom, or finding the courage to live joyfully and fully again.
When I counsel a grieving mother, my goal is to help her experience her feelings and to follow her personal grief process, however unbearable and bizarre it may appear. I remind her that the death of a child is as involving, absorbing, and miraculous as its birth. As a bereaved mother myself, I know there is little comfort in words when the pain is a response to, and a reflection of, her deep love for her child, and this make the unbearable bearable.
One of the distinctive features in the grieving mother's experience is that at the same time she continues to miss the physical presence of her child, she may feel very closely connected to her child, as if the child has once again become a part of her. Some mothers talk to their child. Some use the child as a teacher or guide. I encourage bereaved mothers to experience this new relationship to their child without fear that they are crazy or morbid. Grieving mothers need to know and be assured that the relationship with the child will never die, that their child will always be part of their life, but that the form of the relationship will change. Indeed those mothers who seem to heal most completely are those for whom the child has become an integral part of their inner lives or for whom aspects of their child are lived out in their own lives.
The following are reminders about dealing with your grief process:
  • Pay attention to your emotional and physical needs. Cry when you cry, laugh when you laugh, have no expectations of yourself. Accept with compassion what is happening. Be as compassionate with yourself as you are with others.
  • Confusion is part of grief. You might feel as though your brain has been damaged. Forgive yourself when you are not as reliable or responsible as you once were.
  • Trust your feelings and listen to your heart. Often as a mother you attend to other voices before your own. Now is the time to learn to listen inwardly to what is right for you. Give yourself permission to be inconsistent and unpredictable without judging and criticizing yourself.
  • There's no right or wrong when it comes to your grieving. It is uniquely yours.
As debilitating as mother's grief is, it is a natural process that contains the seeds for potential growth. Many bereaved mothers are frightened of their despair and want to stifle their suffering. Likewise, a common attitude of friends and family toward a grieving mother is that her grief is a bad thing to be lessened in whatever way possible, that 'she needs to be cheered up or made better'. But negating her grief robs a grieving mother of an opportunity to become her most integrated and powerful self. Rather than trying to stop the pain of grief, persons close to the grieving mother should offer compassion and acceptance of the mother and her despair. So, too, the mother herself is challenged to patiently and compassionately feel and accept her pain.
Mothers focusing on their grief rather than denying it, observing and following its patterns, capture the potential for growth that is inherent in the grieving process. Through focusing on and following this process, the devastating effect of losing a child can be transformed into an experience of great meaning for the mothers. Mothers do survive the death a of child, whether through hard work or a commitment to grow or just through the passage of time. And through that survival comes a deeper sense of compassion for others. As one mother said, 'I have a bigger room for people's sorrow than I did before. I now know this awful thing is so much worse than anything else.'
And for myself, I have found that the intensity and character of my grief continues to change over time, but the depth of love for my son remains forever constant.
~Nisha Zenoff, PHD, MFCC; TCF, Palo Alto, CA

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