Parental Grief: Lessons and Reflections from Those Who’ve Been There
Awhile back, Dr. Brad Reedy hosted a webinar on Parental Grief. During that webinar, he invited webinar attendees to share some of their stories, thoughts, or lessons about their experiences as parents, and the grief and guilt that inevitably come with raising children while also learning about how to become fully their own Selves.
There was such an overwhelming amount of posts, we could not share all of them during the webinar. Yet some of them were so powerful, we could not fathom not letting others read and relate to them. We had the thought to compile them into a blog post. They are anonymous, yet no less valuable. We hope you find them as moving and authentic as we did.
For me, I felt and have observed in other parents a sense of time urgency to get things "fixed." What I found was it took six months of my child being out of home (wilderness and then a Residential Treatment Center) to even begin the healing process. It is ongoing and iterative for me, over a year into it now. The move away from fear and control to healing and relationship building is the biggest and most meaningful work I’ve ever done in my life.
My grief has been ever present for more than 10 years. I would not have survived without Alanon, parent support groups at various treatment programs, having a therapist, and the constant work that I do to accept what I cannot control. I continue to grieve--in safe places—and to work on self-compassion, compassion for my children, and ex-spouse. There are still tears and anger, and talking to others who understand and are willing to listen helps.
Recently I have been experiencing a lot of grief. My son has been struggling for four years since graduating from high school. While all his peers have been going to college, he has been in and out of treatment. While I'm grateful that he has made some progress and he is still willing to show up, I have had a hard time seeing his friends now posting about celebrating their college graduations. I'm glad this is the last "milestone" that he will miss. I know he's on his own path on his own timeline, but it’s still hard. And I am grieving for him too, because it must be so hard for him too. I have been working with an Evoke coach and it has been so helpful.
There are so many triggers, that if I think about my daughter's troubles and our relationship too much, I get brain fog, am unproductive, and sad. When that happens, I find it best to wallow in it, and feel the grief, rather than try to go on. When I don't have the luxury of wallowing, I try to compartmentalize. The hard part is that there is not an action plan for me. Sitting with the grief is hard. My brain keeps trying to fix it, when it's not mine to fix.
It took me many years to recognize how much my parenting was impacted by the experiences we had. We sent our child to several programs. Over time, as our child reached the age of 18, I started to realize that what we had was an illusion of safety by having her in a program, not actual safety. I have worked a lot to understand the source of my anxiety and how I sometimes try to fix my fears by controlling my child and trying to make her be okay. I can still get triggered by something as simple as my child complaining about a paper she has to write. I can go straight to thoughts that she might fail at school and that will send her back down the rabbit hole. I've learned to pause, give myself compassion for my understandable reaction, and then take care of myself by talking about it in my next therapy session, rather than jumping in and trying to fix my child's problem. My second thought after the first is now, “Maybe this is what is supposed to happen.”
I never thought the journey of navigating our teen son’s addiction was traumatic until I had to face the pain and resentment along with slowly learning my own accountability in our disconnection and why he felt our home was so toxic and dysfunctional. It was really hard to let go of my expectations and the resentment of the things I felt like I was losing, for example, seeing my son graduate and walk across the stage, going on college tours, and sending him off college. After his second time in treatment, I started to think about what I could do to create a change; to earn his trust that when he comes home things would really be different. I found that change in therapy, webinars, podcast, books, and support groups. I worked really hard on my own trauma and learned tools to manage my emotions, anxiety and reactivity so that I no longer put that on my son. It is a constant effort to keep this change going, but my son deserves it.
Yes, I needed to grieve my parenting mistakes, the life that I wanted for my son, and the fact that mental health issues have somewhat derailed those earlier hopes. But even in reflecting recently when a psychiatrist talked about “lost time” my son and I both agreed how much each of us has learned about ourselves from this derailment.
I knew I wasn't the perfect parent, but thought I was a good parent. In hindsight, it didn't much matter what I thought. Over the past few months, what saved me was awareness that I need to work at being a healthier me as much as my child does, that I have a long way to go to be an effective communicator, that quality/experienced therapists are as important to me as parental peers traveling a similar journey, that 12-step programs work wonders--and that being addicted to these webinars, Brad's books, and other tools of support and education is okay.
Parent mentors have helped us along the way. In parent meetings we are starting to notice we can help parents who recently joined Evoke.
I have eight siblings and all their children "seem" so well adjusted. I understand my own family-of-origin trauma and how it manifested in the lives of my children. Did my siblings escape the childhood trauma that I experienced? Am I the weakest link that absorbed my family trauma and my siblings were spared?
I give myself the grace I give others. I didn't know what I didn't know and did the best I could with where I was at and the tools I had. My daughter is doing incredibly well now, but I still grieve over the loss of her being gone for over a year, the trauma she endured that led up to her leaving, and how I contributed and missed the signs. That said, I remind myself that I am exactly where I am supposed to be and to paraphrase Dr. Reedy, this has been the best gift wrapped in the ugliest wrapping paper. I only wish I had started this journey much sooner.