Grief seems to be a taboo emotion these days. We mourn. We move on. Or at least we claim to. “I’m over it.” Is a common cultural expression, and it’s one we usually receive at face value. When someone tells us “I’m over it.”, as a listener nothing more is expected of us.
Yet, grief lurks within our most intimate family relationships beneath the surface. When a child does not meet a parent’s expectations, there is grief. When a child locks themselves away in their room and refuses to communicate, there is grief. When a child refuses to come to the Shabbos table, or participate in a family activity, there is grief.
So it is normal and understandable and expectable that when a child has a diagnosis, whether a mental health condition, a developmental disorder, or a social and emotional communication disorder, there is grief and a grieving process over what is, what could have been, and the uncertainty of knowing what will be.
Nachas is the pleasure parents receive when a child meets a developmental milestone, such as learning to walk, learning to read, or learning to navigate a network of complex social and emotional interactions. When a child who acted out learns to settle down, when a child who relied on fighting as a means of self-expression learns another way of dealing with their feelings, parents experience nachas.
Grief is the opposite of nachas. Grief is the pain a parent feels over a missed milestone, the growing gap between ones’ own child, and the child’s peers and the emotional or social isolation these experiences create.
Just as parenting is the great unifying force that helps us to appreciate and respect our basic human similarity to those around us, parenting a special needs child emphasizes our isolation. Our child is different, our family is different, and as a result, we ourselves are different.
Parents of special needs children frequently confess in therapy that they resent being told that they have been chosen for a special tafkid, a unique brocha, and a responsibility that only they can handle. These are things that one may tell oneself, and parents may tell each other, but these statements are not comforting when they are echoed by friends and neighbours. They shutdown true communication. They ignore the presence of a hidden and unspoken grief.
Like any other human emotion both positive and negative, like love or anger, like pleasure or pain, like pride or remorse, like gratitude or regret, grief ebbs and flows. It comes in waves and it recedes. But it exists. For all of us, it is a part of parenting. Learning to say goodbye and let go has an element of grief. And learning that we are needed in ways we never dreamed possible also brings grief.
Make space for all emotions, both positive and negative. Don’t rush to comfort when comfort is not what is needed. Don’t rely on platitudes when platitudes don’t accommodate the individuality of each unique family situation.
Just be there. Just listen. Just accept. Even when it’s something that as a listener, we would rather not hear.
Tags: children, Grief, parenting