Healing after child loss is hard. Even the use of the word confuses most loss parents. When well-intentioned friends suggested that healing was something I should allow myself to do I felt rejected and scared — I believed that the depth of my grief was not being acknowledged and that my son’s life didn’t matter. I couldn’t contemplate healing because it was akin to betraying my son, a form of forgetting. And anyhow, it just didn’t seem possible to ever heal from such devastating loss even if I had wanted to.
For the first few years after the death of my son, I was in the depths of despair. My heartbreak was so great that I was barely surviving. Getting through the days was all I could manage and that in itself took everything out of me. Complex, excruciating deep grief was a constant, and I genuinely thought it would remain this way forever. I was exhausted and broken. In Journey Into the Underworld I wrote:
“The realization that death was forever, that it went on and on and on, and that she would have to learn to live without her son for the rest of her life, ensured that any light that could have penetrated the chasm was devoured by the unending sorrow.”
But I was wrong. Healing can happen. It doesn’t have anything to do with forgetting or not honouring my son. It’s about allowing my own love for Alex to comfort me and to teach me compassion for myself. Even in death, Alex is still my teacher and I love that.
Learning Compassion by being in Nature
I have learned that in facing my grief and re-connecting to all my emotions, I have experienced a shift. There is no doubt in my mind that this change has been facilitated by being in Nature. We are intrinsically bound to plants. Without plants, we wouldn’t exist. We may not be fully aware of it, but we’re connected to them with every single breath we take and with every piece of food we swallow. And yet, as a species, we seem to have lost our emotional link to them, in part because of the way food is produced nowadays and also because many of us live in cities. This disconnect harms us.
I am reminded of Jane Goodall’s words in an interview she gave in 2013 about the healing effect of plants:
Expressing the feelings no-one wants to hear
Being outdoors helped me to express feelings of sadness, anger, impotence, and frustration. It’s not only the fact that I was outside but that I was also moving my body, and by that I mean, I was actively engaging with the plants and soil by pulling, digging, lifting, tilling, and planting.
This physical activity in a natural surrounding helped to release the wrought-up tension within me that had solidified into one solid, agonizing block. Piece by piece I began to work through the deep grief I had been carrying since Alex’s death. This was made possible because the physical exertion in a natural setting helped break the static, emotional energy that had atrophied within me in the early months when I had merely existed. Bottled-up feelings, which had been unable to break through because I was doing such a great job at keeping them under control, were finally able to find cathartic, spontaneous self-expression.
Some of these emotions, which are often termed ‘negative’ by society and medical practitioners, are a natural response to the instinctive reaction of homicide loss. For example, I don’t view the anger I experienced following the murder of my child as ‘negative’ any more than I would say crying out in pain on burning my hand is ‘negative.’ To my mind, anger and/or survivor’s guilt (to name but two) as a response to homicide are natural, instinctive, primal reactions that must be felt and given expression in a healthy and safe way. To not do so has the potential to harm us both physically and psychologically. Suppressing strong emotions stops us from being able to start healing.
Externalizing feelings safely
It’s vitally important that bereaved parents and family members find a safe way to externalize their feelings. I would suggest that physical activity in Nature is ideal as a means to bring these emotions to the surface. In breaking down our innermost feelings into smaller parts that can flow through us, we allow ourselves to walk step by step through the trauma of child loss to a place of acceptance. It is cathartic in that it breaks down the unbearable, crushing heaviness of grief into chunks that we can learn to live with.
‘Acceptance’ and re-connection
Acceptance releases us from the anguish and exhaustion of maintaining our deepest emotions under control. But I wish to be clear — when I use the word ‘acceptance’ I don’t mean ‘agreeing’ or ‘being OK’ with what has happened. NOT AT ALL. Many homicide-loss survivors recoil at the mere mention of the word and I understand why. I will NEVER be OK with what the killer did to my Alex. Violence and murder can never, ever be acceptable. When I talk about ‘acceptance’ I mean acknowledging my grief, the source of my pain and my new reality. I can learn to ‘accept’ my new reality, that of my son having been murdered and that he is no longer physically present in my life. In fact, I must do so if I’m to rebuild my life.
When I use the word ‘acceptance’ I mean that we, as the co-victims of homicide and child loss, learn to fully acknowledge what happened to our child and to us and our families. ‘Acceptance’ is the first step on the path of re-connection and healing.
As the process of re-connection began within me, so I was able to absorb Nature’s positive and healing energy. It felt as if I was opening myself up from the inside out, naturally and without fear. I learned to feel compassion for myself.
In Gardening Through Grief I explain how this shift occurred:
“As I helped my young trees and vegetables grow, so I was growing me. If I cried and screamed, there was no one to take offence or pass judgement. Instead, the earth and rustling of the young branches soothed me, the rain washed my face, the cricket and cicada song touched my soul. What helped me cope with the horror and destruction of Alex’s death was nature itself.
I learned that I could not hasten nature’s pace any more than I could bring back my dead son. In being forced to accept patience, I also re-learned the acceptance of the cycle of life and death.
I learned to face my own son’s death.“
Connection to the ‘self’
I’m blessed in that I get to enjoy my farm in southern Spain. This beautiful place has become a sanctuary for me. It’s here that I have learned to reconnect with life and have been able to share my experience with others who have also suffered loss.
Because child loss risks annihilating the very essence of who were are, we invariably feel great fear and thereby cut ourselves off from the ‘self’. We are so lost in deep grief that our ability to find the path towards healing becomes compromised. Many of the feelings of traumatic grief are pushed away because the intensity of the sorrow overwhelms us. We simply can’t cope. It’s understandable. How could it be otherwise?
But there is a way through grief to a place of acceptance. This is not the same as ‘getting over’ because there is no such thing as ‘getting over’ child loss. In any event, I wouldn’t want to ‘get over’ my loss because to do so would require my negating the very love that causes my grief in the first place.
Walking through grief
My love for Alex will last forever, so consequently, I will grieve his death forever. That’s why I talk about walking ‘through’ grief much as I would talk about walking through treacherous terrain. It’s tough, and at times you feel as if you can’t go one step further. Learning to carry this grief is exhausting, but one learns. I am still learning. It’s being able to hold the love despite the pain that has shown me that reconnection to all my feelings is possible. There is no timeline to how long I will travel this path to healing because we are all as unique as our sorrow. Yet the stronger I become, the more capacity I have for holding space for my grief.
It takes courage. But then every second of every day that we are still standing following such loss is an act of courage. And when I buckle under the weight of the sadness, I think of Alex and how much he suffered in his last hours alive, and it strengthens my resolve. It’s by responding with compassion to my own unique grief that I allow myself to take the steps away from trauma to a state of equilibrium. It’s here where I am learning to live life again — a place where sorrow, gratefulness, and peace reside in equal measure.
“In seeing plants grow I discerned hope within my heart. The miracle of watching seedlings push through the soil helped me to understand that I too could change from a closed, deeply hurting mother into something unforeseen and different. It didn’t matter if my tears mixed with the soil as I dug, I kept digging. My response to being outdoors was initially indiscernible and yet, as time passed, whether it was physical work or lying with eyes half-closed under the trees, I began to sense a connection to the Earth I’d never felt before.”
In writing, I heal
Being on the farm allows me to continue to work as a freelance writer. Articles regarding my experience of child loss appear on my blog. I also write and post about my life as a female farmer on Instagram — Hacienda La Bonita — as well as the Hacienda La Bonita Facebook page. I find joy in sharing my love of all things outdoor and Andalusian.
© Copyright 2018 Katja Faber