Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Grief: an unlikely friend

This post is dedicated to Erika at The Flight of our Hummingbird.

When my son with disabilities was younger, I often felt a failure because I still grieved for him. Why did I feel sad, mad, guilty and anxious – when I adored my son and he brought me such delight?

Here are some of the reasons.

I couldn’t give him a clean slate in life. When I shared the joyous news of his arrival, I had to mention his suspected genetic condition, and worry about how people would react. I felt guilty that I had done something to cause his condition. I couldn’t fathom why this had happened to my son, to me, to my husband. I was terrorized when Ben choked on solids – leading to frantic 911 calls and ambulances – yet was told (incorrectly) they were isolated incidents. From age one to four he had severe, recurrent ear infections that couldn’t be treated with eight sets of tubes or antibiotics, and caused excruciating pain. He lost words, never to speak them again. The list of diagnoses he collected over the years felt like cruel blows: failure to thrive, uncoordinated swallow, dwarfism, submucous cleft palate, inability to speak, hearing loss that wasn’t properly diagnosed till age five – despite repeated hearing tests! – fine-motor problems that meant he would never write, early-onset arthritis and pain, bony growths that would have to be removed surgically and mental retardation. Whenever we were adjusting to one diagnosis, another was walloped on.

Physical and speech therapy were gruelling and didn’t result in the gains we had hoped. Ben was not the poster child for early intervention. If success was measured by his ability to reach rehab goals, I had never been so unsuccessful in my life.

Surgeries that were explained as simple, routine, didn’t go as planned (an epidural that didn’t ‘work,’ a testicle lost to infection, plastic surgery to reconstruct his ears that so failed that the resident who saw us post-surgery asked: ‘So you’re here about having his ears fixed?’).

Heartless professionals, like the surgeon who walked into a room full of residents being charmed by a babbling Ben and demanded angrily: “What is WRONG with his head?” Or the perky pediatric dentist who asked me in a pitiful voice, as I held my precious 18-month old son, in whom I was so proud: “Will he E-V-E-R walk?” “Is he short for his age?” “Is he mentally retarded? Oh, I guess you wouldn’t know that yet anyway!”

By the time Ben was a preschooler I felt I should be “over” my painful feelings and was petrified that I might never come to a place of acceptance. I sensed friends who hadn’t experienced disability in their children were tired of hearing me express my angst. Physicians said things like: “You need to face reality” – as if I could choose acceptance the way one chooses a shirt to wear that day.

I recently read an article by psychologist Ken Moses that helped me understand that the painful feelings I experienced served a purpose, and I now see them as a natural and healthy part of parenting a child with disabilities.

Dr. Moses explains how different aspects of grief – denial, anxiety, fear, guilt, depression and anger – allow us to cope in the early days, mobilize resources and support, and over the long-term to self-reflect, grapple with and redefine our values, priorities and beliefs, and change and grow as people.

I wanted to interview Dr. Moses, but couldn't locate him. In addition to being a psychologist, when his article was published in 1987 he had a child with disabilities and worked with groups of mothers of children with special needs.

Here are some relevant points I pulled.

In working with mothers he notes: “It became evident that these people were manifesting a grieving process…The impairment, not the child, irreversibly spoils a parents’ fundamental, heartfelt yearning. Disability shatters the dreams, fantasies, illusions and projections into the future that parents generate as part of their struggle to accomplish basic life missions. Recovering from such a loss depends on one’s ability to separate from the lost dream, and to generate new, more attainable dreams…Each feeling state, no matter how negative, serves a specific and helpful function.”

Dr. Moses says grief emotions provide the context for self-examination that can lead to positive change. There’s no recipe for the order in which we experience them, he says, and no “right” way to grieve.

He argues that “the concept of acceptance” as an end-product for parents “is totally unfounded. In almost 20 years of working with bereaved people, as well as dealing with my own losses, I have never seen anyone achieve acceptance of loss, only acknowledgement. Belief in the concept of acceptance leads parents into feeling like failures for not being able to attain it.”

Here are some of the positive uses Dr. Moses sites for the different emotional states of grieving:

Denial: “Denial buys the time needed to blunt the initial impact of the shattered dream, to discover the inner strengths needed to confront what has really happened, and to find the people and resources needed to deal with a crisis for which one could not be prepared.”

Anxiety: “To deal with having an impaired child, parents go through dramatic changes that affect their attitudes, priorities, values and beliefs, as well as altering day-to-day routines. Such changes require a great deal of energy. Anxiety mobilizes the energy needed to make these changes...Anxiety is the inner source of the need to act.

Fear: Fear is a warning that alarms the person to the seriousness of the internal changes that are demanded…The parents experience the terror of knowing that they will be required to change on a fundamental level, against their will, with full understanding that the process of internal change is very difficult. Significant losses produce a profound sense of abandonment and vulnerability…Fear is the medium that encourages the struggle to reattach, to love again in the face of loss.”

Guilt: “Generally, parents of impaired children express guilt in one of three ways. One way is by telling a story that explains how they are responsible for their child’s handicap. The current emphasis on the prevention of birth defects has brought many parents to feel that they caused their child’s impairment. The issue is not the logic, but the feeling of guilt. Another way that guilt is manifested is in the conviction that the child’s impairment is punishment for a past inappropriate thought, feeling or action. Lastly, guilt can be expressed through the parent’s belief that good things happen to good people…Because parents have an impaired child, they must be bad people...How can such painful explanations of tragedy be useful?...Simply by being explanations. Guilt “explains” the unexplainable. When people confront a loss, the beliefs they held regarding cause and effect, right and wrong, and their impact upon life are deeply shaken. Basically the guilt-ridden person is saying that they are accepting responsibility for everything. It feels better to do that than to believe that they have no influence on anything! Guilt, in this sense, helps one to redefine the issue of cause and responsibility in the light of loss.”

Depression: “Depression is part of normal, necessary and growth-ful grieving. As we mature, we develop and modify our definitions of the following words: competence, capability, value and potency. They are words of profound personal significance. They are the criteria that people use to decide if they are okay or not. When parents are confronted with an impaired child, whatever definitions they held for competency, capability, value and potency usually no longer apply. How does a mother feel competent when she has a retarded daughter? She can’t use the measures of her peers, like having a daughter graduate from college…What is the worth of a father who cannot 'fix' what is broken in his impaired son? A parent feels unable to act effectively (helpless), unable to imagine that things will ever get better (hopeless) and unable to believe that their lives are touched by good luck (hapless). Depression is the medium that helps parents come to new definitions of what it takes to be competent, capable, valuable and strong people, even though their child has impairments they cannot cure.”

Anger: “Parents feel anger at the harm done to their child and the shattering of their dreams…One’s internal sense of justice is severely challenged. As events occur that violate one’s sense of justice, the outrage must be expressed. Those expressions help to redefine one’s concepts of fairness and justice…and develop new beliefs...that make the world a tolerable place to live, even though terrible losses can occur.”

Dr. Moses says that expressing grief emotions deeply and fully with other parents and professionals enables parents to develop new values, priorities and beliefs that promote growth and resilience.


What an excellent post, Louise. Thanks for putting it up and thanks for sharing those personal details.

This is a terrific post, and I so appreciate it on just about every level. Even fifteen years after my daughter's diagnosis, it is immensely helpful to me. Thank you.

This post is also useful for professionals. Thank you.


Yes, this was an amazing post. I've read about Dr. Moses work before (in fact, wondering if it was you who told me about it). My grief bubbles up from time to time; it will always be there, though I have moved beyond it in many ways, for which I am grateful. I am also grateful for your blog, having my own blog, and the other blogs which have given me reassurance, comfort, reality checks and an outlet to express grief.

So, thank you. I hope you guys have wonderful holidays.

My daughter is almost eighteen. It took more years than I can remember to stop grieving for the daughter I lost and to accept the daughter I have. Not because I don't love her, but because I do. I takes time, a long time, but it does happen. It stops hurting so much and then one day you realize, this is your child and it's okay. We need to do this with all of our children, see them for who they are, truly see them, but disabled children force us to do this at a much earlier age. Excellent post.

This is beautiful and I swear I already commented on it but maybe just in my mind. I thought you might be interested in my daughter's recent posting "Grieving the Diagnosis" she wrote on her blog. A different take but oh so true. ( Thank you for this and I will share it with my grad students.

Cinda -- thank you for your message. I am going to stop by your daughter's blog. Best wishes!

Thank you for this article. It feels good to know that I am not alone and that the feelings I went through and go through are normal.

My sister is 13 now. It took me years to accept I had a sister with extra needs.

I even did genetic testing when she was 2 months old. Only because I thought CP was genetic only to find it wasnt.