Sunday, June 18, 2017

How Do You Survive a Broken Heart When You Lose a Child?


For those of us who have lost a child through death, the pain is like none other. Yet, there are many parents who have lost a child in another way.  Their grief and pain are no different and there is rarely any closure.

Losing a child through estrangement, there are no flowers or comfort given.  There is no service to help bring closure.  People do not rally around you and bring you meals to help you get through those days when getting out of bed and facing reality is more than you can bear. The parents are often good and loving parents who are tossed aside emotionally by their child for real or perceived shortcomings.  The child does not negotiate but merely leaves; often without an explanation.  The parents are left grieving this loss by themselves - a loss beyond any comprehension as to what happened.

Wikipedia definition:  "Family estrangement is the physical or emotional distancing between at least two family members in an arrangement which is usually considered unsatisfactory by at least one involved party. Family estrangements can be attributed to any of several factors within the family, such as attachment disorders, differing values, and beliefs, disappointment, major life events or change, or poor communication.  In these cases, the family estrangement may create an inter-generational rift that persists for decades and replicates itself in subsequent generations."

Love and Grief

After five years, we are still in shock wondering why this happened to us. I will never forget that day.  My son opened the door to our store, stuck his head in and said "Have a nice life. I'll never see you again." My husband and I laughed as we thought it was our son's idea of a joke.  He was 31 years old and the father of our two little grandsons.

That was the last time we saw him face to face.  He lives in the same town as we do and our store is located on the main street downtown so we see him walking past occasionally.  He doesn't look in the window.  If he spots one of us, his pace quickens.  Each time, the knife into my heart goes deeper and reopens that wound that may never heal.  

Three days before that eventful day, my daughter had thrown us an incredible wedding anniversary gala. It was more beautiful than our wedding.  At the party, our son thanked us for being great parents and grandparents to his little boys.  He told us how much he loved us and thanked us for loving and accepting his wife so graciously into our family. It was one of the happiest days of my life.  

Until three days later.  My heart broke.  Losing a child is a journey of grief that no one wants to travel.  Your heart never totally heals and you live for the memories hoping they will never fade.  The first year after our son left, my daughter, my husband and I suffered greatly with a grief I had never known before. Both of us had suffered great loss in our lives but this was different.  There were many words to describe it and none of them were pretty - rejection, fear, pain, heartbreak, remorse, loneliness, guilt and many more.
Broken Heart

According to the Mayo Clinic and the American Heart Association, there are many factors that contribute to a condition known as Broken Heart Syndrome.  They believe the condition is brought on by an adrenaline rush that happens shortly after a severely stressful situation. The left ventricle of the heart takes on a cone-like shape which resembles the shape of a pot the Japanese use to capture octopus called “tako-tsubo” which means “fishing pot for trapping an octopus. “Tako-tsubo Cardiomyopathy” is now Broken Heart Syndrome's medical name.

Wikipedia defines it as a sudden temporary weakening of the myocardium (the muscle of the heart). This weakening can be triggered by emotional stress such as the loss of a loved one. Stress cardiomyopathy is a well-recognized cause of acute heart failure.

Two of the most common causes of Broken Heart Syndrome are the loss of a spouse or a child. Scientists have shown that after such an incident, heart attack risks increased to 21 times higher than normal within the first day and were almost six times higher than normal within the first week. Anything short of bringing the loved one back does little to console them.

Questions are never answered.  Had we loved our son too much?  Not enough?  I knew he wasn't happy in some areas of his life but we supported him in whatever he did.  I was the only 'babysitter' for his children and had visions of many happy years with them. Then they were ripped from my heart at six months and two and a half years old. I did not have the chance to watch them grow up, to bake cookies for them, to read and play with them, to hug them on holidays.  

Endless grief

In the years that followed, it seemed my grief deepened and my husband's anger did as well.  He looked at my son as ungrateful for everything we did for him. We set him up in business.  We hired his wife to work in our store.  We gave and gave and then gave some more.  We probably gave too much. But he was our adopted son who we knew had rejection issues so we poured extra love and attention on him. 

Rebecca Faye Smith Galli speaks from first-hand experience regarding the subject of grief both in her new book and on her website.  Her words gripped me when I read them:  "In my experience, there are no 'stages of grief.' There are cycles of grief. Just when you think you’ve moved from shock to anger to acceptance or any of the stages in between, another anniversary or a shared experience or even a special sound or smell triggers a memory and the whole process starts all over again. So be patient with yourself. Grief is a strange companion."   

Then it hit me.  Grief is my companion.  No matter how happy I am or what I accomplish, I sense the abyss - the emptiness, the loneliness, the......hole.
Pain forever

We may never know what happened and we have stopped trying to figure it out -- almost. We hear stories from others that he left his wife a year after he left us.  He was a kind and generous young man, a great daddy and husband.  I actually breathed easier when I found out he had started a new life. Recently we heard that he has remarried, has a new family and a brand new baby.  People tell us he is very happy and that satisfies me -- knowing that your child is happy is the greatest gift a mother could have.  But it leaves us out in the cold.

We (my daughter, husband and I) have each gone through the grief process differently but have come to the same conclusion.  If he is happy, that has to be enough.  But until I put my arms around my son's neck once again, I know it never will be.
Estranged child

Most people suffer some form of rejection during our lifetimes.  We may be rejected for a job we wanted or an acceptance to a university we were hoping to attend. Sometimes we are rejected by someone we love and too often, many of us are rejected in a marriage that ends in divorce. As writers, we learn to accept rejection letters as part of the process.  Rejection hurts in whatever form it comes, but when it is your child; there are no words to describe the pain.

On Never Ever Give Up Hope I have interviewed many parents who have found themselves in this situation.  Some of these parents have suffered this loss as well as losing a child through death.  Each and every one of them agrees -- the loss of a child through estrangement was more difficult to deal with - to understand - and to move forward.

The first time I heard that I felt guilty for agreeing with it.  The thought of losing a child to death is more than I think I could bear.  Yet, when I think about it I understand what others have meant.  In death, it is over.  There is closure.  You go through the trauma and work through the grief.  You know you will never see your child again.

Blaming Yourself Brings No Closure

In estrangement, as the years go by, you continue to hope.  You continue to wonder what you could have done differently.  You wonder why your child hates you and even worse, why he rejects your love. You have no answers; just lots of questions.  Is my child safe?  Is he happy?  What did I do wrong? Where did I fail him?  Why didn't I see it coming?  There is never closure.

Mother's Day.  Birthdays.  Father's Day.  Rejected parents have few places to turn. They often feel isolated and embarrassed.  They feel shame and yet know they are helpless to rectify the situation. They realize people talk about them behind their backs - blaming the parents.  No good parent would ever have their child turn against them -- they had to do something to cause it to happen.

One of the biggest hurdles that is rarely overcome is that when an adult child abandons parents or as in my case, the entire family, the "what-ifs" and "how-coulds" never stop. You want to move forward but that might mean giving up hope of his/her return.  So you hang on and growth is often stifled.

As one dear friend told me, "It's like living the grieving process but never ever seeing it end."

In my memoir, Battered Hope, I share my story of how I survived rape, marital abuse, divorce, major financial losses, jail, cancer, attempted suicide and more.  But the deepest pain of all was this loss of family.  Nothing can replace it.  I do not understand it.  I continue to believe it will be healed. My son will come home.  He chose to walk away and he can choose to walk back home.   I will never give up hope. 

Family walking away

Photos courtesy of dreamstime, pinterest

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