Working With Bereaved Parents in Counseling

If you are a human service professional, it is inevitable that at some point a problem that clients will report is unresolved grief issues. The death of their child may likely be an issue one or more of your clients may face.  Working with a parent who is facing a child’s death can present unique challenges for a human service professional on two levels.

First, from a personal standpoint, a human service professional who is also a mother or father will find themselves confronted with a parent’s worse nightmare. If this is not acknowledged by the professional (through supervision), he/she will not be able to be objective when working with parents and families affected by this loss.

Second, from a professional standpoint, conventional interventions (such as stage theory and solution-focused therapy) designed to deal with grief and loss are often not effective because the death of a child defies what we see as the natural order of the universe.

I have been employed as an addictions counselor for over 26 years and have been involved in the human services field for well over 30 years. I am a Licensed Master Social Worker and a Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor.  I am also a parent who has experienced the death of a child. My daughter Jeannine died on March 1, 2003 at the age of 18 due to cancer.

After Jeannine’s death, I soon discovered that my previous education and experience in the human service field were not going to help me address my current situation.  Jeannine’s death forced me to re-examine my personal and professional values and modify them to fit my new reality. As a result of my struggle, I believe that I have become a more well rounded and service oriented individual, and a better therapist as well.

I want to share some suggestions with other professionals who may be reading this article.  You may find that some of these ideas will help you to become more successful in working with parents who have experienced the death of a child:

  • Focus on being a companion on the journey: It is important for human service professionals to bear witness to parents’ pain. In this context, stories of relationships with their children need to be listened to and honored. Storytelling is therapeutic because it helps parents eventually make sense out of their new worlds.  Also, as therapists we get to know their children through their (parents’) eyes.  When we focus on being a companion, we are also creating a safe environment for the bereaved parent to do their grief work.
  • Be prepared to listen to parents’ experiences with non-ordinary phenomena:  Parents will routinely question if their children are capable of communicating with them after their death, and will long to share those experiences. Regardless of your beliefs in this area, reserve judgment and listen.  I feel that Jeannine has communicated her presence to me in a variety of ways (i.e. butterflies, music), and other parents have shared similar stories with me.  As a therapist, it is helpful to ask bereaved parents what thoughts they were experiencing prior to receiving the sign. The signs that bereaved parents receive from their loved ones are usually a result of what is happening in the present.  Listening non-judgmentally to a parent’s experience with non-ordinary phenomena communicates that they are capable of being spiritual beings.
  • Recognize each bereaved parent’s right to grieve as he/she sees fit: Each parent’s expression of pain is unique, and determined in part by the relationships they had with their children when they were alive.  Some of the best memories that Jeannine and I shared were through music.  So it made sense that after her death, music and lyrics were how I uniquely confronted the pain of her death.  If professionals can help parents identify the activities that they shared with their children when they were alive, they can also help them find meaningful ways to mourn their deaths and celebrate their memories.
  • Emphasize the importance of ongoing support: One of the major concerns for individuals mourning the loss of their loved ones is having access to adequate support. Usually support groups composed of individuals who have experienced a similar type of loss (i.e. child, spouse) are the most effective.
  • Avoid using solution-focused approaches to dealing with a bereaved parent’s grief:  When a bereaved parent experiences the death of a child, his/her world is forever changed because of their physical absence.  Statements like “Things will get better.” “You will be ok”, though well meaning undermines the pain that the parent is experiencing and implies that there is a solution to that pain. There is no quick fix to the pain of losing a child.
  • Avoid the use of terms such as closure:  From my experience, there is no true closure when a child dies. Though I am at peace today with the circumstances of Jeannine’s death, I will always miss her physical presence in my life, to some degree. As therapists, we can serve bereaved parents well by helping them discover the tools that with help them as they adapt to a permanently changed world, as opposed to looking for “closure.”
  • It is important to remember that the grief journey for bereaved parents is circular and not linear: The raw pain of grief can surface at anytime during the lifelong grief journey of a bereaved parent. In this context, avoid using the stages of grief to inform parents “this is where you should be in your grief.” Sadly, a parent told me several years ago that she got this type of advice from a “bereavement” counselor. She did not go back for further counseling.
    • Remember that the sadness of loss is not the same as clinical depression: When we experience death of any kind, sadness is an expected part of the experience. With grief work and ongoing support, sadness will lessen and become more manageable over time. In addition, medicating grief may delay the work that is needed to effectively negotiate it. If you are working with mentally ill and/or chemically dependent parents who have experienced the death of a child (or any loved one), emphasize that they need to continue to manage their mental health symptoms and/or focus on abstinence from drugs & alcohol for their grief work to be effective.
    • Help bereaved parents understand that forgetting is not a requirement of a bereaved parent’s grief journey, but remembering and staying connected is.  From my experience and from listening to other parents experiences, embodying the positive characteristics of our children, redefining who they are, and finding meaning in the process are key to ongoing adjustment. More importantly, it allows bereaved parents to stay connected to their children while developing a spiritual relationship based totally on unconditional love.
    • Educate yourself on bereaved parent issues. Books that I would recommend for human service professionals are: 1) A Clinician’s Guide: Helping Bereaved Parents, by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun; 2) The Spiritual Lives of Bereaved Parents by Dennis Klass; 3) Visions of the Bereaved by Kay Witmer Woods; 4) Hello from Heaven by Bill and Judy Guggenheim. The first two books address the experience of bereaved parents, while the last two books discuss after death communication and ways that it manifests.

It is also extremely important that we develop our own unique self-care program. Though I have found that facilitating grief work with bereaved parents and other bereaved individuals has been extremely fulfilling, it can also be emotionally draining as well.  I know that it becomes draining for me when I am attending to many powerful stories at once and/or my own issues with Jeannine’s death are impacting my ability to be a grief companion. When either or both of those conditions exist, that is my cue to back off and do something that will recharge my batteries. As my good friend and fellow bereaved parent, Mitch Carmody (www.heartlightstudios.net) has often said: “If our cups are not filled, we can not fill anybody else’s cup.”

David J. Roberts became a bereaved parent after his daughter Jeannine died of cancer at the age of 18.  You can read more of his work here:  www.bootsyandangel.com

Photo credit.

16 Comments:

  1. Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC said on March 13, 2012 at 5:59 pm ... #

    Excellent points, all, Dave. Thank you so much for sharing this important information with all of us ♥

  2. Dave Roberts said on March 14, 2012 at 11:05 am ... #

    Thank you Marty for your great feedback

  3. patrice austin said on May 21, 2012 at 6:37 pm ... #

    hi

  4. Becki Gilman said on May 22, 2012 at 1:24 am ... #

    Thank you Dave. Your words give me hope that I too can help others.

  5. Dave Roberts said on May 22, 2012 at 10:28 pm ... #

    @Becki. Thank you for your support and validation. I am glad my article was helpful to you.

  6. Dave Roberts said on May 22, 2012 at 10:29 pm ... #

    @Patrice. Hi to you as well. Thank you for taking the time to read my article.

  7. Ruth E. Field, MSW, LCSW said on September 20, 2012 at 1:29 pm ... #

    Hi Dave,

    Thank you for sharing your insights and validating my own. I wonder how many more of us there are out there: therapists who are also bereaved parents. May we continue to make a difference.

  8. Ernie Laughlin said on November 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm ... #

    Dave, God bless you and I am so sorry for your loss. I’m not a professional, in the sense of providing care for bereaved parents. I guess I’m closer to being a Professional Bereaved parent. Brenda and I have lost both of our children to drug overdoses: Mel at 31 on 9/20/2009 and Jenn at 28 on 7/16/2011. I’m not doing well at all. I’m not at all suicidal, although often I feel like I’m ready for Him to take me. But I love my wife and grandson and will never willingly leave them. I’m currently seeking counselling because I don’t think I can see my way through the forest for all the prickly underbrush. But I’m wondering: Can a counselor who has NOT lost a child really understand enough about this grief to help me?

    Thanks,

    Ernie Laughlin
    Versailles, KY

  9. Dave Roberts said on November 22, 2012 at 10:03 am ... #

    @ Ruth. I am sorry for the delayed response ,but I just saw your post now. Thank you for your kind words and validation. Please accept my condolences for the death of your child. I have often wondered myself how many therapists have experienced the unthinkable as we have. I know that you are the first therapist I have heard from that has experienced the death of a child . I agree, may we continue to make a difference.

    Wishing you peace on this Thanksgiving Holiday

  10. Dave Roberts said on November 22, 2012 at 10:13 am ... #

    @Ernie. Again ,as with Ruth, I am sorry for the delayed response. First of all, thank you for acknowledging the death of my daughter Jeannine. please accept my condolences for the death of your children Mel and Jean. There were many times during early grief, that I wished for God to take me, because I wanted to be where Jeannine was. like you, I was not suicidal, I just missed her physical presence terribly.

    I do believe that there are competent therapists who can deal effectively with parents who have experienced the death of a child, without themselves haven’t experienced the death of a child. I know one in Ohio who is not a bereaved parent , but works very effectively with bereaved parents. I believe the key things to look for in a therapist is their prior experience in dealing with trauma and/ or catastrophic loss, their ability to be witness to your pain and stories about your children and one who does not believe that grief has a beginning and end( and in the process tries to find a solution to your grief).
    I hope you have success in finding a therapist that meets your needs.
    Wishing you peace this holiday season Ernie.

  11. Christine Domingue said on January 10, 2013 at 6:56 pm ... #

    I lost my son, Larry three years ago. Due to his addiction to pills. I just don’t know how to let go of the guilt. I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself for not being able to save him from his addiction. He was only 17 and my only child. My heart aches for him daily. I too am not suicidal and I do have a lot to be grateful for in my life because I have a lot of people who love and surround me. Yet I would walk away from it all to be with him again. I feel as though I let him down as his mother. It’s a tough load to carry.

  12. Dave Roberts said on April 7, 2013 at 7:35 am ... #

    @Christine. I am sorry that it took me this long to respond to your comment. First of all, please accept my condolences for the death of your son Larry. I know that for the first two plus years after my daughter’ Jeannine’s death, I was wracked with guilt and anger because I felt that I didn’t do enough to save her from her cancer. As her father, I thought my main job was to protect her, and I had failed miserably. After much work and soul searching, I realized that my role as her father encompassed many other things that I was successful at during her life on earth . That helped me let go of any guilt and anger that I experienced. I hope that at some point you will be able to discover the aspects of your relationship which were fulfilling and made a difference in Larry’s life.

    Wishing you peace.

  13. marquitta hicks said on May 8, 2013 at 8:49 am ... #

    On march 27,2013 i lost my 17 son he had a seizure in his sleep
    Iam facing pain that i don’t know what to do with iam sad iam hurt
    Iam a single mother of four well three now i don’t how to dill with this i see his friends on the corner i cry because my son not there
    A lady in the ER was having a seizure i started to cry an i had to tell the doctor why i was crying he said u have to get some help i need it bad

  14. Debbie said on July 8, 2013 at 4:18 pm ... #

    Its been almost 2yrs since I lost my son. I do not fear death anymore, I welcome it. I have a daughter and 2 of his daughters but nothing takkes his place. Its like he was the only child. Guilt is swallowing me whole. I miss him and want to be with him. Will I see him again? Debbie Dustys Forever Mom

  15. Sharon Bosch said on January 11, 2014 at 4:10 pm ... #

    Hi Dave, I hope you can give me some direction on where to go. I lost my son 13 years ago in a tragic ultra light crash he was 24 and his wife was 4 months pregnant and gave birth to a son who we adore. We have had a good relationship with her and her new husband or so I thought – they have also had 2 children in which I consider our grandchildren I babysat them for 9 years once a week and then after 9 years of helping them they decided that it was emotionally unhealthy for us to do that so to make a long story short now find I out that the dad has adopted our sons child and we had to accidentally find out by seeing his last name on a paper and nothing ever said – we still see all the kids but it just broke my heart to see this with no knowledge of it happening. Any advice on how to approach the issues and what type of therapist could help?
    Thank – you and sorry for your loss — to lose a child is no greater pain and it alters our furture so much.
    Sharon

  16. Eileen said on March 19, 2015 at 7:22 pm ... #

    Thank you so much! You really get it. My so died yr ago at age 24.

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