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September 4, 2011

Can We Ever Find Peace Again?

Reflections from our Founder, Ken Druck Ph.D

Perhaps above all else, we seek peace after the devastating loss of a family member or loved one.

Peace, however, is elusive, even under the best of circumstances. In times of peace, we enjoy a sense of inner calm or “peace of mind.” Our hearts and minds are at ease and we are relatively free of pain and worry. Our world is intact and feels manageable. We take a deep breath, relax and reflect about the goodness of life. Everything seems okay—we may even feel euphoric and blessed by the moment.

When we lose a child our sense of peace is shattered. Our hearts and minds go into shock and we begin an unrelenting search for answers to unanswerable questions such as: “Why did this happen?” or “How could this have happened to my child?” and “What is going to happen to me now?” Our illusions of control and our innocence, in a sense, are gone. Contemplating life without our child is unthinkable, unbearable.

It is natural for anyone who has suffered the loss of a child to wonder, “Will I ever know another moment of peace?” It can seem impossible, but is it? Are we destined to live out the rest of our lives in a state of persisting unrest and torment? Will the death of our child and our deep yearnings to be with them pervade every waking moment?

“Peace is not what peace was,” one mom told me. “It’s been three years; I don’t ever expect to feel the way I used to, but I do have moments of peace.” Always comparing ourselves to the person we were before our loss, it seems, is a surefire way to set ourselves up for failure. Expecting to feel the way we used to feel will always result in disappointment, despair and feelings of defeat. For we are not the person we used to be—how could we be? Peace simply cannot be what peace once was. Should we resign ourselves, then, to a life of unrest? Can we do something to help ourselves find peace again? And is it even possible to discover a new and different kind of peace, as we become free from many of our old fears, become more honest with ourselves and others, and strive to reconnect with our children in a spiritual realm? As a bereaved parent who has experienced peace since the death of my daughter, I have discovered the following things to be helpful:

Peace comes in moments. Peace is not something we can count on or control, especially not in the first weeks, months and years of grief. The state of unrest is completely natural following our loss. But this does not mean we can’t ever experience, and even embrace, small moments of peace. I cherish those simple moments when they come and try to learn from them. As one bereaved mother told me, “I used to take peace of mind for granted. Now I realize that peace, like happiness, is fleeting. I enjoy every moment I get. I feel at peace savoring my first sip of coffee, the sunset, the approach of daylight.”

Peace is no longer “innocent.” We now understand that there is always going to be suffering. We see it all around us. The news of another family’s tragic loss is something we can relate to. But, in time, we may come to see that not all of life is suffering. The possibility, if not the reality, of peace and beauty are all around us at all times. Look for peace in the small sense—allow yourself to experience a new, and possibly simpler form of peace such as taking in the beauty of a rainbow or sunset. This sort of peace, the kind that comes from inside ourselves, can be very powerful.

We can cultivate inner peace. Walking the beach, meditating, listening to music, taking a hot bath, cuddling, lighting candles, drawing, journaling, dancing, yoga and exercising are all proven ways to relax. There’s nothing more important in dealing with grief than learning self-compassion. Finding peace from the inside out is something we can cultivate. It may not involve anything more than remembering to breathe and to cry out when we need to. Being proactive means doing those things that provide the inner calm, strength, stillness, emotional support, encouragement and energy to navigate through the storms of grief.

Know our “demons” and the inner voices of unrest. With the loss of our loved one, our hearts have been impacted beyond anything we may have ever experienced. We’re not simply going to “bounce back.” It takes time and great patience to learn how to deal with the many voices of unrest that accompany grief, including anger, confusion, deep sorrow, guilt, blame, hatred and yearning. By getting to know and learning to respond to these voices—and creating healthy outlets for these emotions—we can exercise some measure of control over them.

Redefine peace. Peace is not the absence of unrest. As we have discovered, peace can be temporary and fleeting. If we expect it to be lasting, we will be disappointed. Peace and unrest are two sides of the same coin. We can experience both peace and unrest at once. For example, a dad whose son underwent many months of painful bone marrow transplants told me he was torn apart when his son died, yet at peace knowing that he was no longer suffering.

The “new” peace may encompass the spiritual. My daughter, and our continuing relationship, now exists in a spiritual realm. Reconnecting with our kids often encompasses the “bigger picture” of existence, beyond death. I, personally, find peace and joy in the hope of one day being reunited with her. Searching for and creating the “spiritual vision” of your child that brings you a sense of peace can help.

Balance mindfulness and mindlessness. Sometimes we just need to unplug from our pain by escaping into mindless activities like watching TV, playing video games, shopping or spectator sports. This is fine if done in moderation, but we must also learn ways to be mindful and face, rather than escape or run away from, our grief.

Count your gifts and blessings. I felt cursed when my daughter died. I was so angry and full of sorrow that all I could see was the despair and folly of life. One day, a fellow bereaved parent told me that she forces herself to focus on the blessings of her life each morning when she awakens. Even though she allows herself to be sad and upset over her loss, she also takes time to think about the good that is still a part of her life. Focusing on the things like the special people in our lives, the gifts and treasures our child gave us, the unforgettable memories, and our good health helps ward off bitterness and cynicism and balance our perspective.

Allow laughter and lightheartedness. Laughter, even when it is dark humor, is the often thing that allows us to breathe when there is no air in the room. One mother told me she knew she was going to survive her daughter’s death when she found herself laughing out loud with her grief support group. To allow silliness, lightheartedness and the space for laughter is to allow a natural, healing process that leads to peacefulness.

Learn to forgive. Learning to forgive, and to let go of our anger and hatred, may end the wars we are waging against ourselves and others due to our child’s death. One of our Families Helping Families Bereavement Facilitators, Denise Hankins, posits, “Forgiveness creates the space for peace to inhabit.” Ask yourself, “What would have to happen to me to forgive myself or another person?”

Let nature show you the way. Peace is a naturally existing condition you can experience by simply getting away from the hustle and bustle, noise and stimuli of modern living. Walking, hiking, boating, getting away and simply doing nothing might allow your nervous system and brain to slow down and relax. Resting and resonating with nature lends itself to peace. Nature can also teach us a lot about spirit and the circle of life.

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