“In our sleep,
Pain which cannot forget
Falls drop by drop
Upon the heart, until
In our own despair
Against our Will
Through the awful grace of God”
Greek poet, Aeschylus
(as quoted by Robert F. Kennedy on the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated)
Undoubtedly, one of the most difficult and daunting challenges presented to a therapist is when they are confronted with a parent whose beloved child has been taken. Perhaps it is the ultimate test that pushes to the very limit, that therapist’s training, education, experience, wisdom and insight. That therapist may have been trained at the most elite institutions of higher learning, have decades of experience, and have read countless journals and treatises. But, even that does not fully prepare the therapist for the daunting challenge.
Recently, on social media, a friend posted an article in the Atlantic entitled, “Dear Therapist: I Blame Myself for My Son’s Death.” This article is attached here:
For a parent whose child has been taken, the title alone grips the heart. And yet, the article called to me. And so, I read. On more than one occasion. Then, I attempted to gain some insight into the author. She is a psychotherapist and is well-published. She received her education at among other institutions, Yale and Stanford. She believes there is no “hierarchy of pain.” A topic upon which I agree with her. She believes that therapists must look for the “music under the lyrics” where the therapist looks for underlying reasons as to why the patient is seeing them. Again, we are on the same page. She appears to be reputable, erudite, and compassionate.
She also appears to be attempting to address that one, unique topic with almost a form book, template-like response. A parent’s grief. When it comes to a parent’s grief, certainly remember your education, your experience, call upon all of your wisdom. And know that those elements, those issues will let you do just one foundational thing … and that is, have an open mind and open ears. For there is one fundamental reality when you are confronted with a parent’s grief. And that is … A parent’s grief is as unique as their fingerprints. And uncharted waters can be dangerous waters.
There are certainly some general truths upon which a therapist can rely. After my daughter was taken in October 2016, a friend gave me a card. A card which I cherish today. It read: “When one is faced with unspeakable tragedy, one of three things tends to happen:
1. It destroys them;
2. It defines them permanently in a negative way, or;
3. It fills them with incredible resolve and passion.
By way of example, Brian Loncar was a well-known attorney in North Texas. He specialized in personal injury work and he was financially successful. He appeared to have a blessed life especially after working through some of his own mental health issues. But, his world came crashing down when on November 26, 2016, his beloved daughter Grace, then 16 years old, took her own life. Less than one month after Morgan had been taken.
On the surface, Grace had it all. On Friday, December 2, 2016, the Celebration of Life for Grace was conducted to a packed church. On Sunday, December 4, 2016, just 2 days later, Brian was found dead in his car in his office parking lot. Although the cause of death was listed as “accidental cocaine overdose,” those who knew him best said he died of a broken heart.
As for the second category, we have all met that grieving parent who has been defined by their tragedy. Although 25 years may have passed, they still speak of their beloved child as if the event had happened the day before. It has crushed their spirit. That type of grieving parent causes us discomfort. They cannot grasp the reality that the world, life itself has moved on. And whereas it remains with them a personal tragedy, the world is just too big to notice after a passage of time. That is a reality that we, as grieving parents need to understand.
I believe that before a therapist can even start to scratch the surface of a parent’s grief, they must first try to determine which of the three categories most likely define their patient. Destruction? Definition? Inspiration?
Those qualities are so very difficult to determine. A skilled therapist must find a way to draw back the veneer of emotions which often exist and hide the substance within. That requires incredible will, insight, compassion. You must look that parent in the eyes. And listen. Listen with your ears. Listen with your heart. Listen with your soul. You are being tested to the absolute height of your abilities and gifts.
For, we grieving parents make so many others uncomfortable. In the eating disorder community, we represent the very worst failure of the industry and community. We are living the manifestation of your failure. And as such, we are generally ostracized. Ironically, we should be embraced. Because for those of us who have the courage, and resolve, and strength, we are your greatest sources of information.
We could provide you with information on what prescription drugs seemed to work and which did not; what types of counseling worked and which appeared to be meaningless; what treatment centers were most responsive; what discharge plans were most proactive; which insurance providers were most responsive; transitional mood swings. A veritable treasure trove of bountiful information. Instead? One recent incident illustrates the contrary reality.
There is one eating disorder organization which holds fundraising walks throughout the year. At their last walk in Las Vegas, which took place on November 10, 2019, one grieving mother, a long time eating disorder advocate, raised approximately $1,200 for this organization’s Las Vegas Walk. This mother is also passionate about making sure the eating disorder community remembers those who have been taken.
This mother asked for permission to carry during the Las Vegas Walk, a banner which had the faces of some of those who had died as a result of eating disorders and to read aloud their names. The names of those who have been taken. To Say Their Names. The organization did not allow this.
Now, I understand this organization’s decision. And whereas I strongly disagree with and do not like that decision, this organization has the absolute right to make that decision. If a person does not like the decision, they can invest their time and money elsewhere.
But, that is not the end of the story. In a recent email exchange with that grieving mother, which such exchange was made public, a former officer of that organization engaged in communications which could be construed at best as clueless, at worst as insulting and which resulted in triggering action of the trauma experienced by parents when their child has been taken by this disease. The material parts of this communication include the following from that former officer:
“It has nothing to do with excluding you from walks, but rather is about keeping everyone safe in an environment that promotes recovery. I can tell you for sure, at the height of my eating disorder, if I would have shown up to a walk and heard people talking about their loved ones who died, I would have freaked out and probably given up. I would have thought there was no reason for me to try to find recovery because it was impossible. THIS is why we worry. We need to keep safe the people in attendance who may be teetering on the edge.” [emphasis added]
That mother’s reply was expected, “How disrespectful is that ~ … [this organization], according to our conversations we have participated in here via email, has defined those of us who have lost our child and their memory as outcasts, as dangerous to others, and that we can offer zero in helping anyone. Due to the fact that we lost our child. And we must be silenced… not good.” [emphasis added]
I wish I could say that this type of exclusion of grieving parents in the eating disorder community is rare. Sadly, it is not. Not one of the eating disorder organizations today have dedicated any permanent place on their websites for remembering those children taken by eating disorders. No grants. No funds. No recognition. No commemoration. We are outcast even though we were forced to pay our dues with the dearest blood possible. We make people feel uncomfortable.
The voices of our beloved children have been silenced. Now, the community seeks to silence the parents’ voices.
That is the type of information, the measurement of the soul, that a therapist so needs in order to best help a grieving parent. No superficial platitudes. No catch phrases. No pity wrapped in false sympathy.
Therapists, a grieving parent presents to you the greatest professional challenge you will ever face. Why? Because you are not just listening to one voice … you are listening to two voices.
And one of those voices is echoing from beyond.