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Star Children: This is how parents grieve together

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Losing a child is the saddest thing that can happen to a parent and in the beginning it leaves one thing above all else: powerless. Having to overcome such a crisis as a couple can be overwhelming. How do parents manage to give space to their grief and deal with feelings of guilt? The book “Just to Visit” by Marga Bielesch is dedicated to exactly this topic. The couples therapist runs a therapeutic practice for language, attachment and relationships in Weimar. One of her main focuses as a couples therapist is how parents can regain courage after the loss of their child. Because of the loss of her third child, she knows what support parents want – as she explains in the interview.

There are so many terms in this context – we talk about butterfly children or star children, about star child parents or orphaned parents – are there any differences?

“Good question. I don’t think there is much difference in the definition. All of these terms describe the fact that the child died either during pregnancy, at birth or shortly afterwards. It’s more a question of which term you feel comfortable. I personally describe myself as an orphaned mother.”

You said goodbye to your daughter Lila shortly after she was born in the hospice. Can you describe your first feelings after this loss?

“We found out during the pregnancy that our daughter was sick. But we didn’t know that she couldn’t be operated on and would die. This news was a terrible shock for us. I felt incredibly overwhelmed, helpless and powerless. I I like to compare this feeling of great, incomprehensible sadness with a dark hole into which one falls and in which there initially seems to be no bottom and no support.”

Does this feeling of sadness change after the initial shock?

“The duration of the shock varies greatly. You can feel infinitely helpless for weeks or months. At the same time, processing begins, often completely unconsciously. Big, heavy emotions are also involved, deep sadness, pain, and sometimes feelings of guilt Anger. The parents also find the great helplessness very stressful. Your child doesn’t suddenly come back to life, death is something final. There’s nothing you can do to change that. You have to understand that first.”

How important is the funeral to the grieving process?

“Consciously saying goodbye at the funeral is an important part of coping with grief and can be very healing. That’s why you should look for a funeral home that is familiar with children’s funerals and gives you the opportunity to design the farewell yourself. We have the coffin, for example painted together for Lila – at home at the living room table and not in the funeral home. At first it was a strange feeling to see this little coffin in the living room. But in the end it was a very healing and beautiful moment for all of us. The ceremony itself was also very colorful and happy. There were balloons and beautiful music. I found this creative opportunity to be liberating, especially at a time when you have to accept your fate.”

The grave creates a place of remembrance. How important is this to grief?

“Basically, it’s nice to have exactly this place of mourning. But everyone has to decide for themselves whether they want to go to the grave regularly. There are also people who have created completely different places of remembrance where they can pay tribute to their star child “You can feel close to me – for example a picture in the living room or maybe a tattoo on your skin. There is no right or wrong.”

Podcast tip: Death and grief have also been topics in our podcast. Here’s the episode:

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What does an active grieving process look like?

“If you allow the pain, you move out of shock and into an active grieving process. This means, above all, facing your feelings. This is an exhausting and stressful process for which you have to take time – for yourself and also as a couple. For example, after Lila’s death, I took a four-month break from my practice. That helped me a lot to feel my own grief and to accompany that of my children. Of course, you can also get support from outside Women in particular often seek contact with people with a similar fate. They are often involved in grief groups for orphaned parents or exchange ideas in postnatal courses for star child mothers. Fortunately, there are now many such offers. Because these conversations are very important to process the difficult loss. This of course also applies to the relationship. Shared times of mourning, in conversation or just in silence, are essential. Creating grief rituals can also help with processing. What these look like is very individual. Some parents write letters to their child every day, keep a diary or get a tattoo as a reminder. This creates memories for the child that are very important for the grieving process.”

In the long term, what will happen to the deep, black hole you talked about?

“Great love. Of course I could do without the sad experience of having to say goodbye to my daughter so early. At the same time, I carry an incredibly great love for Lila in my heart. And I am very grateful for the time we spent together. That doesn’t mean that there are also sad moments, but above all I think of her lovingly every day.”

Do men and women grieve differently?

“The feelings are the same, but the way they deal with them is very different. Women are much more likely to allow big feelings like sadness and consciously take time for them. They have no problem being vulnerable and talking openly about their feelings. They They also seek help and support more naturally. Men have bigger problems with this. They often haven’t learned to talk about their feelings or be vulnerable. This is a big problem with an outdated image of society that labels emotions and vulnerability as unmanly. Even after such a loss, they are expected to function quickly again. This means that men are often overwhelmed and lonely with their grief. They find the feeling of powerlessness and not being able to change anything in their fate to be very stressful. They throw themselves into work or exercise excessively. There they believe they have everything under control. Suppressed helplessness can also express itself in anger. The different ways of dealing with this can certainly lead to conflicts in the partnership. Women often do not understand this type of grief; from the outside they often appear colder and less empathetic. Mutual understanding is all the more important.”

Are there bereavement services only for orphaned fathers?

“When researching for my book, I came across very few offers for fathers. There is one, for example, at Sternenkind Munich. Maybe because there is hardly any demand for the reasons mentioned above. That urgently needs to change. Grieving men have to learn to talk more openly about their feelings and at the same time there needs to be more offers for them – i.e. grief groups for men or grief counselors for men. I very much hope that our image of men will change significantly in the next few decades and that it will become more normal for men to talk about their feelings “In the same way, I would like to see it become more normal in society to talk about orphaned parents.”

When does being alone with your feelings become dangerous?

“In principle, it is possible to deal with strong feelings such as grief alone and to develop good strategies for yourself, for example writing a diary. It becomes critical when the grief is not dealt with and the feelings are pushed aside. In the worst case scenario, they develop This can lead to depression, a great lack of motivation or addictions. This makes it all the more important to talk about your feelings and give them space – be it in conversation with your partner or in grief groups.”

What happens if this shared mourning fails?

“If parents only grieve individually and not together, there is a great risk that they will sooner or later become estranged from each other. This feeling of being alone is transferred to other life situations in which there is suddenly a lack of closeness. And that is exactly what can lead to separation . So my appeal again: Mutual grief doesn’t need many words. It’s more about sharing your own feelings and confiding your own vulnerability to your partner. That’s exactly what creates closeness in these moments and strengthens the relationship in the long term. That’s why it can “It makes sense to seek out a grief counselor together. They can find words during this difficult time and provide the impetus for shared conversations that might not otherwise take place.”

Conclusion: Grieve together instead of alone

The active mourning process for your star child begins with allowing your pain and sadness. Facing and talking about your feelings can help you cope with grief. These moments of grieving together provide closeness and support.

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