No matter what the outcome of your child’s treatment, you have experienced a major loss: loss of a healthy child and loss of a “normal” life. It is important for you, your child, and your family to be aware of these losses.
One expert explains grief that occurs in the stages in the paragraphs below. You may have feelings related to one or more of these stages of grief at any time during the treatment of your child. It is normal to have these feelings and thoughts and it can be helpful to know when you are grieving.
Shock, Disbelief, Denial or Numbness
Feelings of shock, disbelief, denial, or numbness may come at the time your child is diagnosed. They may also recur at other times during treatment. These feelings come as thoughts such as: “This isn’t real.” “This hasn’t happened to us.” “The doctor is wrong.” These are normal responses but it can be a problem if you are unable to move past the disbelief and accept support from others.
Anger or Guilt
Feelings of anger toward your spouse, yourself, your child, your doctor, or God may come. You may feel angry toward friends whose children are healthy. Angry feelings are hard to deal with and hard to express openly. You may also have feelings of guilt that you did not seek medical help sooner. These feelings are natural. If you would like help in dealing with these emotions, ask to see your social worker.
You may find yourself thinking of ways to bargain with a higher power or God, such as, “I will never yell at my children again if You heal my child.” This is based on the belief that somehow the situation can be changed.
Sadness and depression
Sadness is one of the most common feelings of loss. It comes when the reality of the loss begins to take hold in your mind. Sadness is not always shown through tears, though it often is. It can also be a tightness in the chest, a hollowness in the stomach, a lack of energy or motivation, trouble sleeping, or other such feelings. Sadness may lead to prolonged feelings of hopelessness and despair sometimes referred to as depression. To some degree this is normal but if these feelings keep you from doing your daily activities, you may want to talk with your social worker.
Resolution or acceptance
Although we never “get over it” and completely finish the grieving process, there comes a time of acceptance of the situation as reality. This is when you consciously acknowledge that there has been a loss and you can take steps to adapt to the change. This can be a permanent feeling or it may only be a temporary acceptance.
General Guidelines for Dealing with Grief and Loss
Here are some general guidelines to help with grief and loss:
- Provide a stable and secure environment. Keep your daily routine as consistent as possible, such as, regular bedtimes and eating schedules. Continue to maintain household rules and boundaries. If needed, ask for help from family and friends.
- Provide one-on-one time with each of your children. If this is not possible, have another family member or close friend help you. Hold your children often; gentle hugs and soft talking can provide love, comfort and understanding.
- Children may have misconceptions about their experiences around grief and loss. Give honest, direct and age-appropriate information in a reassuring and supportive way. Always validate any feelings or concerns children may have.
- Children of all ages may regress when dealing with loss and insecurity. Children who regress, often use past behaviors, such as ‘baby talk’ or thumb sucking, to help them adjust to the new situation. This can be a healthy and normal response for coping with the experience if used for a short period of time.
- Play can provide an important element in coping with and resolving grief and loss for children. Play is a way to help children make sense of the experience. During times of loss, children’s emotions can change quickly. One moment a child may be upset, while the next the child may be playing happily. Play helps children cope with overwhelming amounts of grief. It can also be a healthy ‘escape’ from the effects of cancer treatment.
- Acknowledge all of the successes and accomplishments in your child’s life. Remember that family rules should be maintained, and chores should be modified to fit the child’s present health and ability. This provides security and consistency within the household.
- Occasionally share a cry and a hug with your child. This helps children to accept and share their feelings with people they love and trust. Sometimes words cannot explain feelings. Children learn that sharing such feelings is safe and natural. However, avoid using your child when seeking your own support. Look for trusted adults or professionals that can support you with your feelings.
- Help make the situation real and tangible for your children. Many activities can help your child understand what they are experiencing. For example, reading a book together about loss or grief, drawing pictures, writing letters or creating something that helps to make the situation more concrete. Ask your parent support coordinator, social worker or child life specialist for suggestions of helpful books and activities.