The Choice to Grieve: Coping with Loss – By Arleah Shechtman, M.S.W and Author
On April 13, 1978, I came home and found my fifteen-year-old daughter, Sharon, dead of a drug overdose. I know those stark words are hard to read. They are hard to write, too – nearly 35 years after her death, this arrangement of pixels on a computer screen have the power to take me back to that terrible day.
You’ve probably imagined what it would be like to lose a child. Chances are, the thought came to you unbidden, and you quickly banished it because some things are just too awful to contemplate. You suspect it’s the worst thing that could happen to a person. You suspect you would never, ever, get over it. You suspect that anything resembling a normal life would end when your child took her last breath.
I can tell you that your suspicions are right: you never do get over it. But they are also wrong. There is life after a child’s death. True, it’s not the same life you had before – you cross an invisible force field and there is no way back – but you can build a new one that’s fulfilling, sometimes joyful, and yes, worth living.
There’s a catch, though: you have to make the choice to grieve.
Yes, grieving is a choice. It is possible to choose not to experience the grief when it presents itself: to stuff it down, to numb it with drugs or alcohol, to divert and delay it with frantic activity. But this choice comes with a high price tag.
Suppressed grief can manifest in physical symptoms, like upper respiratory illnesses: Exerting that much control over your emotions, thoughts, and body is very stressful and will impact your health. And of course, should you choose to self-medicate to the point of dependency the consequences will be dire.
It’s also possible to “shut down” and get stuck in one of the phases of grief. While you may appear okay on the surface, you have actually struck a terrible bargain with your grief. In exchange for not feeling the pain and loss you’ve agreed not to grow, not to move on with life, not to risk loving (and losing) again.
Only because I chose to grieve almost 35 years ago – to scream, to cry, to express my rage, to immerse myself in the intense waves of grief whenever they washed over me – I was able to begin to heal. Over time I found that I could enjoy my life again. In fact, I found new depths of appreciation for life, joy in small delights, and a richness in relationships I hadn’t known was possible.
The biggest surprise had after Sharon’s death was to learn that grieving opened me up to all that is beautiful and wonderful about this world. My appreciation for others and their struggles is greater, and I stop to smell the roses more often – something I call “living from the gut.” This is the “payoff” for choosing grief: After experiencing the lowest of lows, your soul and your psyche can also experience greater highs. That’s because the psyche stretches in all directions, much like a balloon.
Grieving is a choice you have to make again and again over the course of a lifetime. I cannot give you a lesson plan for grieving. It is a messy, nonlinear process that differs for each person. All I can do is share my own experiences and hope that others find them helpful as they struggle forward.
So here’s my message to anyone struggling with the loss of a child: choose to grieve. Accept the darkness, yes, but also accept the “silver lining” of grief. Know that the new life you’re building would not possible without the love you felt – you feel – for your child. It is her final gift to you.
Arleah Shechtman, M.S.W., A.C.S.W., is the author of My Beloved Child: My journey since the death of my daughter. She is a recognized expert on the impact of the death of a child, on marriages, on families, and on individual survivors. For over thirty years, she has helped parents, siblings, grandparents, and extended family, grieve the loss of children, and guided them on their journeys of recovery. In addition, she has consulted with healthcare professionals whose practices involve working with clients who have lost children through illnesses, accidents, suicide, and acts of crime. Arleah began her own journey of recovery thirty-four years ago, after the death of her fifteen-year-old daughter. She has transformed her own tragedy into a personal and professional mission to create places and resources where those struggling with the death of a child can find solace, support, and understanding of their irreparable loss.