How does one come to terms with the thought ‘Did my child suffer?’ How am I meant to live a quiet, present life when this question has the power to push me back into raw grief?

If I let it, the thought of my child’s last hours alive can send me into a tailspin. Images will fill my mind until I gag. In the first years after his death, I was haunted by these thoughts. I would push them down inside of me, so far down in fact, that no one would know they were there. But I could feel them, gnawing away like a rodent in the dark, making me ill, driving me crazy. Was he in pain as he died? Was he terrified? What was he forced to endure?

Since my son’s death, I have spoken to many loss parents about my fears and they have kindly shared their own experiences. For many of us, the thought that our child may have been scared or may have been in pain is intolerable to us. So what are we meant to do with this thought? How are we meant to manage it? Reduce its grip on our heart?

In the early days of grief, violent images would swirl inside my head, around and around. My mind would ‘go there’ — his last moments — a place where despair and panic were always to be found. It left me wishing I was the one that was dead. The problem is that the answer to ‘Did my child suffer’ never changes: most probably he suffered; maybe; perhaps; I don’t know.

So this is how I deal with this unanswerable question:

1. THE PAST IS NOT THE PRESENT: My child’s suffering is in the past. This is a vitally important point, and although obvious, it’s amazing how my brain seems to forget that what ‘happened’ four years ago is not ‘happening now’. I have come to understand that in allowing my thoughts to ‘go there’ and revisit the night he died, I inadvertently re-expose myself to the trauma of what happened. This is unhealthy because it increases levels of anxiety and depression.

I have to work on this ‘past vs. present’ concept every day. I have to remind myself that by bringing the moment of my child’s death into the present in its rabid, frightening form, I am hurting myself, and by extension, those around me. There is zero benefit it causing myself distress about an event that is no longer happening. In ‘re-living’ my child’s fear and pain I am in effect ‘killing’ him over and over again in my head. This leads back to anguish and panic, and away from healing. If what I want to do is learn to live with the reality of my child’s death, then I must learn to truly understand that what happened to him is over and that it’s not happening to him anymore.

2. PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION: To some, this is a confusing concept, yet self-compassion is nothing more than being kind to yourself in the same way as you would be to others. In order to practice self-compassion one needs to be aware of one’s own suffering. That’s the first part: self-awareness. Make no mistake, giving our suffering space and staying with it, is really hard. Yet in doing this, we acknowledge how difficult it is to be present with our own pain.

Then comes the second part: giving yourself permission to comfort yourself so as to alleviate the suffering. So, in practical terms, when terrible thoughts of my child’s last moments slice into my present, I stop and ask myself: ‘Why am I willingly subjecting myself to suffering?’ This simple question helps me to see that what I’m doing is unkind to me. I have found it to be extremely helpful in arresting a train of thought that leads only to pain and despair.

3. HELP OTHERS: The feeling of impotence that I experience at not having been able to alleviate my son’s suffering, I have chosen to transform into action. I now channel this feeling of helplessness into helping others. In turning impotence into action, I not only help others, but I also help myself.

4. ACCEPTANCE: I will never know. Accepting this is a fundamental step in turning the question into a reality. In the same way that I will never know how the universe began, I will never know what it was that my child felt, thought, or suffered in his final moments.

Practical steps that help me:

5. STAY GROUNDED: Easier said than done, admittedly, but there are exercises that help when the thought that your child may have suffered suddenly forces itself into your present. Practice mindful breathing by focusing your attention on each ‘out’ breath for a few minutes. Meditation and yoga are also helpful in managing intrusive thoughts and can be practiced at any time during the day. Being with animals is also beneficial and calms us, as does stroking a pet.

6. EXERCISE: Get out into Nature or find a physical outlet for your intense emotions, such as dance, cardio, or even kick-boxing. Focus on your body as you exercise so your mind disconnects from dark and panicked thoughts and so can ‘rest.’. The stronger you are physically, the better placed you will be to manage your grief and live with unanswerable questions.

7. REFRAIN FROM USING DRUGS AND ALCOHOL: Our imaginations are our enemy when it comes to coping with the probability that our child suffered. Depressants and stimulants only make matters worse. Instead, try to eat healthy food, get to bed at a reasonable time every night, drink plenty of water. Eating a balanced diet will help with anxiety, depression and mood swings.

8. ASK FOR SUPPORT: Seek a qualified therapist who can help you address the trauma aspects of your grief in a safe space. It’s important that the therapist be a trauma-informed counsellor. If finances do not allow for counselling, there are a number of excellent mental health apps that can be downloaded for free.

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