Opening up the wound – when the grieving parent withdraws

This time of year can be fraught with emotion and grief for those who have lost loved ones, particularly if that is a child. For those whose birthdays are also this side of Christmas, it can seem like a double grief. Memories of Christmas past, thoughts of Christmas present, and worries for Christmas future. It is hard to find any joy in the season at all.

What I want to write about here is for those of you supporting and loving a bereaved parent at Christmas. You will have seen them though their bleakest times, the aftermath of loss, the pain and heartache as their lives, and very selves, shift and change to accommodate their new grief. It may have already been many years…

While you know that this time of year will be hard, when you see your loved one crumble in grief after a long time since their child died, it can seem somewhat odd. They were – are – OK. They’ve adjusted. Their life is changed but they seem to have recovered.

Now it’s Christmas. Or now it’s their child’s birthday. Or now it’s the anniversary of the day their child died. Maybe it’s all those events at once. And they have become withdrawn, pale, grief-stricken. It’s been so long since you’ve seen them like this. It worries you. You don’t know how to be. You don’t know what to say.

But, I ask you not to fear this pain too much. It’s necessary you see. Grieving mothers and fathers need to open up the scar to let the pain out, a bit like blood-letting of the old days.

On the special days we need to release the pain, the love, the sorrow for that one child, whether they died last month or years ago. We often don’t expect it ourselves, it just happens. It’s our way of connecting with them again. It’s our way of being a ‘parent’ to them again. It’s our way of showing them that even though we have laughed and danced and acted relatively normally, we still miss them to our core.

There’s no real way to reach someone on days like this, and don’t worry that you can’t, they don’t need you to. But, they need your presence. They need that silent love that needs no words. They need the strength of another to carry them through the days until the wound slowly closes over again.

No books, no quotes, no signs of hope are needed right now. Whatever that person needs, they will take. Even if it’s just lying on the sofa staring into space, or sleeping, or watching daytime TV while everyone is out being sociable and ‘family’. And give it to them, with grace and love and no expectations of ‘snapping out of it’ or ‘cheering up’. The parent’s love-pain will soon travel from the wound in the pit of their stomach back up to the heart, and they will return to the present. But, right now, they just need to be with them again.

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Should I take antidepressants for my grief?

Dear grieving mum,

I’m sorry you’ve found my blog by searching with the keywords ‘antidepressants’ ‘grief’ ‘death of my child’…

I’m truly sorry.

Behind each of my posts, I see parents read my blog searching for the answer to this question because they are looking for some respite from the strain of coping with grief while having to get on with life. Their last hope is that a pill will get them through it.

Back in 2015, I wrote this post about starting antidepressants, something I had tried so hard to avoid. I didn’t see how any pill could help my grief, but I knew the anxiety was consuming me and I needed help.

While I have certainly experienced the benefit of taking medication for anxiety and depression, I’m in two minds about the use of antidepressants for grief (and trauma). They haven’t changed what has happened, or made me feel ‘better’ about it, they haven’t stopped the flashbacks, they didn’t replace talking about it with a trained professional, but they did help me get through the days, they did mute the constant anxious chatter in my mind enough for me to think about other things for a change.

Having had two more children since Abi died, I have dramatically mixed emotions – my heart is torn in two constantly, as I wouldn’t have had my two little ones if Abi was still alive. It’s hard to know that they wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be experiencing love and joy all over again if she hadn’t died, but then her death has ‘given’ something wonderful to help us live on without her…

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I’ve continued on antidepressants on and off since first taking them. I was on them most of my last pregnancy and came off for a few months around the birth. I went back on them again about a month after I had my baby (so if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding and worried about taking antidepressants – don’t, my baby is perfectly healthy and very bonny, my own fears about this were unnecessary).

Nine months after giving birth, I am weaning myself off very slowly, my hormones feel more balanced so I feel it worth a try. I now see them as something to help me more with the emotional demands of pregnancy and coping with a newborn rather than my grief. So maybe you’re reading this from a similar perspective, having had a rainbow baby or considering trying again. I think it’s sensible to consider the impact on your physical – and therefore mental – health when you have so much to process and your mind and body will be flooded with hormones.

While the tablets were helpful at giving my mind a break, there is something ‘depressing’ and negative about being on antidepressants! Just knowing I’m on them reminds me that I am grieving, that I can’t cope, that I need help… but being on them has helped get me through some very bleak times and enabled me to get dinner on the table and now work again.

If you can combine pills with some talking therapy (with someone who understands post-natal depression and trauma, not just a chatty counsellor) then it will be much more beneficial. I see the pills as a way to help me open up. While I’ve not done it myself, I have heard that EMDR therapy is good (and supported, in theory, by the NHS).  This is usually performed by a private psychotherapist.

It’s natural to carry a lot of unresolved grief emotion around with you as you distract yourself with new babies, new jobs, new lives… I’ve been there, when I had my son a few weeks after Abi’s first anniversary, I knew the pregnancy was a distraction from the grief, but I needn’t have worried, it came back to get me! I saw a good maternal psychotherapist (privately, as all the GP could offer was a telephone number with a 12-month waiting list), but it was worth the expense.

The therapy gave me the safe space to say out loud all those things I needed to say, to someone who wouldn’t judge me or try to ‘make it better’, who wanted to hear me say the unspeakable. Things like wishing Abi was here rather than my new son, talking about the layers of guilt I felt for loving him and not know what to do with my love for her, for battling with resentment and anger – things no mother ever should have to think about saying. Still, they needed to be said.

Pills won’t ‘cure’ your grief, but they will help you get through therapy to get to a point where you feel more like yourself more of the time than not.

Does this resonate at all? I hope you have an understanding GP. I think if you are asking the question ‘Should I take antidepressants?’ then you already know the answer. Anxiety and depression cannot be shrugged off in a walk around the block or a night out with friends – this is deep and hourly. For your sake and for your family’s, put yourself first and they will only see the benefit, and you will be able to live – and grieve – again.

As you feel a bit better in yourself you will be able to feel more like looking after your physical self too. If you’re not already – take some good vitamins and minerals, keep active, force yourself to try something new. I find that since my loss I’m sensitive to minor deficiencies which only make my anxiety and worries worse, so I take my vits every day, look at ways to get some time to myself and try to keep fit without being obsessive – all things that help develop mental strength.

Your grief is so new, so complex, so personal. It’s okay to be sad and it’s okay to get on with things… It’s about finding a place for all that while giving your children (and your identity as mummy to all your children) the space to ‘be’. Read my blog and see how my mood and grief has changed over the years – sometimes I am bleak and vulnerable, other times I feel more positive and hopeful…  being on meds has certainly helped me get to today without going crazy.

I hope this has been of some help.

Take care.

Kelly x

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