Mental Health Professionals On Confronting, Coping With Parental Grief

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In devastating news, Rickey Smiley, well known stand-up comedian and radio personality, recently announced the death of his oldest child, son Brandon, at the age of 32. Smiley posted an Instagram video on January 29 sharing the news. Smiley would go on to post a second video the following day where he made clear his pain. “Yesterday was the shock, but today reality is setting in,” he shared.

Within the last year, notable figures of all backgrounds have grieved the untimely passing of their children. In addition to Smiley, others include Oscar winner Regina King, hip-hop icon Master P, Basketball Wives star Brooke Bailey, Afrobeats performer Davido, and actress Priscilla Presley, to name a few. And we know far too many parents in everyday life have grieved due to everything from gun violence to drug overdoses and poisoning and suicide. Amid these heartbreaking losses and headlines, we reached out to experts who shared some insight on parental grief, and ways those dealing with it can cope.

Grief, by definition, is a deep sorrow caused by someone’s death. But according to clinical therapist and owner of The Mending Corner, Tichina Burnett, for parents grieving the loss of a child, there are seven stages of it.

“When we talk about the stages of grief, people think about anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. But with this grief, I have seen with my clients, the seven stages are shock/denial, pain/guilt, anger/bargaining, depression, the upward turn, reconstruction/working through, and acceptance/hope. Typically, especially with Black parents, they do not experience these stages linearly. They usually isolate through any one of the stages depending on the person. I have seen people stay in the shock/denial and the pain/guilt stage for a really long time,” she says.

While parents go through grief stages, understandably, a significant shift in behavior and mindset occurs. Gracie Bates-Davis, licensed clinical professional counselor and owner of Envision Counseling, says that a shift can also take place in the relationships of the parent.  

“What I see in a lot of families is that in the case of an adult child, they play a role in the family system and now that role is vacant. That causes a lot of conflict,” she says. “I have seen marital issues come up because both parents are experiencing the loss in different ways. I also have seen siblings of the child being pushed to the side by parents after the loss. It comes off as though the parent’s grief outweighs the siblings’ grief. From this, siblings tend to feel they do not have a place to grieve and that can cause friction.”

When family dynamics shift, it could be a result of what is happening to the parent’s health physically and mentally. Burnett addressed the ways our body is impacted when grief overwhelms it.

“When the human body is stressed out, specifically dealing with grief, it produces a hormone called cortisol. [It] can make you feel as if your body is moving in slow motion,” she shares. “As far as health, I have seen people develop anxiety, weight changes — both loss and gain — and development of cognitive deficits.”

According to studies, grief can also affect our health by increasing blood pressure and bringing about physical pain. Grief is something that we don’t often anticipate, but it’s something we will experience in one form or another. Without the proper education on how to deal with it, it can be challenging for parents and those in their circle to know how to cope effectively.

“People often do not know what to do with grief. They are confused by it,” says Davis. “In Western society, we are not taught how to grieve. We are taught to show up at someone’s house, bring cards or food, pray for the family, go to the service, and after that, everyone returns back to life.”

But that doesn’t help a parent struggling to process their pain. Davis and Burnett recommend three coping strategies that have proven to be effective and helpful.

Grieve on Purpose

One thing we struggle with in the U.S. is how to know when the right time is to grieve and when the right time is to try and carry on. In grieving on purpose, Davis says individuals are allowed to put intention behind their sorrow.

“This strategy is when you choose two to three times a week to grieve on purpose for 20-30 minutes. Either it’s structured where you have a grief journal and write about your grief or you can create a playlist. You can also light a candle and sit in silence or just let out a cry. Whatever that person needs in those intentional ‘grieving on purpose’ moments, do that so you are actually facing your grief head on.”

The Empty Chair Technique

When we think about ways to grieve, people tend to focus on “normal” practices to avoid judgment from others. But with this unconventional approach, Burnett says those grieving can feel connected to their loved one in a way that allows them to confront their feelings.

“In my therapy sessions, I recommend my clients try the empty chair technique. This technique brings up a lot of emotion. I will be sitting in a room with my client and I will ask my client to pull up a chair. The client is to look at this chair as if their loved one was sitting in it and talk to them.”

“She continues, “Society makes people feel crazy when they are speaking to things or people that are not physically present. But if it is not harming someone else and it helps provide them empathy, comfort, and healing, then that’s all they need to do.”

Traditions and Rituals

Though no longer physically present, parents can still honor their child’s life. Davis believes that creating traditions or rituals for the child can help parent’s long term.

“People should be able to create traditions or rituals around how you are going to honor or celebrate your loved one. I do not think that this tradition or ritual should happen on the anniversary of their death, but on their birthday or major holidays that best identify with that person.” While coping strategies are helpful practices to try throughout the grieving process, no one should grieve alone. It is important for people to attend therapy or grief counseling to feel support and a sense of community at some point in their journey.

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