Grief 10 Years Later: Part 2

We can help counterbalance the pain and the sense of chaos for the griever by being with them and supporting them throughout their grief journey and well afterward as they navigate the complexities of 'growing up' well past childhood.
09/29/2015 10:12 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

The 10th year anniversary of my mother's death came and went as predicted. I cried a lot. I read the glorious cards she gave me on my 12th and 15th and 17th and 20th birthdays. The cards that stop abruptly at 25, the age I was when she died.

My mother died a day after my birthday linking these events for me. Regardless of the timing in my personal case, most grievers find birthdays hard without their loved ones. For bereaved children in particular who lost their parents at a young age, there is a chronic sense of being unmoored in the world.

How is it possible to keep growing older when your parent is not there to witness it? The universe becomes expansive with no parent to buffer, or at least, negotiate the bereaved child's entry into the external world. Each life transition from small to large - from getting a first period to starting high school to getting married or giving birth - happen without the parent there to mediate, support, contain, and explain what you need to know next. And you need to know a lot!

In this sense, grief is an ongoing life journey. The loss transcends the trauma of the death, transcends missing the particulars of the person who died -- their humor, for example, or their touch -- it transcends yearning for and missing that person and becomes also about losing a life guide.

While this is especially true for young children, it does not go away when you become an adult. I turned 36 this week and still feel the profound absence of my mother's guidance, wisdom, and life experience about how best to live my life.

Unfortunately, North American culture with its emphasis on individualism tends to view this natural need for ongoing parenting as potentially pathological. Adults are supposed to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining. Asking for this kind of nurturing or advice can be seen as dependent and needy. But this is not the case for most mammals, and historically was not the case in hunter-gatherer societies where allomothers were common. Allomothers include grandmothers, sisters, cousins, friends, mentors, and other adults who, quite simply, help care for children who are not their own well past infanthood. It takes the concept of needing "the village" to a whole new level of understanding.

Imagine what life for grievers would be like if allomothers - or to be inclusive - alloparenting was more acceptable in our society. Imagine what healing from grief would look like if we rallied around our bereaved children and adults and asked ourselves, what can we do to support this mourner during their life transitions. Imagine a world where you yourself knew that if you died, the people around you would step in and make sure that your child or loved one was cared for, not only around the funeral or in the first year after your death, but for years afterwards when everyone has moved on, but your child is still navigating their evolving world. I imagine it must be this way in some tight-knit communities where everyone knows everyone, but from years of doing grief research and from being a mourner myself, it is evident that the more common scenario is that the mourner is left to figure it on their own.

To be sure, no one can and should replace a parent. This is not possible or desirable. Despite our wishes, it is also not possible to ease the pain of grief for others. We can't pretend what happened didn't happen. But we can do something. We can help counterbalance the pain and the sense of chaos for the griever by being with them and supporting them throughout their grief journey and well afterward as they navigate the complexities of 'growing up' well past childhood.