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Professional Corner

The Grieving Parent

by Richard Miske, MA

You see them all over the place, couples holding hands, couples getting married, couples riding in cars, and sometimes, even couples arguing. Establishing a relationship with another person is not an easy task. As shown by the numerous articles, books, movies, and workshops, creating and maintaining a good relationship takes a lot of effort. Each person in the relationship comes with a set of experiences and it is from those experiences the person draws how he or she will react.

For many parents, they wait with anticipation for the birth of their child. Whether it is their first child or their seventh, they know their lives with change. The parents may be teens, in their twenties or even their forties. But what happens to their relationship when a child who has a disability is brought into the picture? What will the effect of this child be on their relationship?

Each parent will mentally go through a number of hopes and dreams for what this unborn child will accomplish. However when the parent finds out that the child has a handicapping condition, their hopes and their dreams are suddenly challenged with whether these dreams will actually occur.

Research has shown that many parents go through many emotions. These emotions are often referred to as the grief cycle as explained by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The emotions include anger, denial, anxiety and guilt. While these are stages, there are no specific time frames and many parents will go through this cycle many times in their lives. Parents will probably go through each emotion every time the program for their child gets changed or the child faces a new milestone in his or her life. How well each parent deals with these steps depends on that person’s background as well as the emotional support they can feel from the other person in the relationship. For single households this support may need to come from relatives or friends.

Anger is often expressed by parents wondering why this thing has happened to them. They are often angry at how their lives will change and why people will not accept their child. Parents may blame other people or the child for the frustrations that may occur in raising their child. Extra time will need to be spent explaining things or in going to additional appointments.

For many parents, they go through a stage of searching to see if their child really does have a diagnosis. They look for situations where they can test the child to see if the doctor may be wrong. They take the child to several experts or professionals to see if a second or third opinion might make a difference in the diagnosis.

When the child is the first one in the family to have a special needs diagnosis, guilt can often pose a problem. Blame can be placed on one parent or the other particularly when there is frustration with communication with the child. It is important for parents to have good communication skills for each other because this feeling of guilt and anxiety may cause great stress in the family.

With each emotion there may be tears of pain as the parent tries to teach the child new skills or simply wants to understand the child’s basic wants and desires. There may be tears of joy as the child succeeds to a new level. If you talk with parents of older children that have special needs, they can easily relate to what these parents are experiencing. These parents, who have lived through the growing years will also be able to talk about the tears of joy when they see their child complete and finish the various educational programs.

While the worry never goes away, it does get better as the parent watches the child become an adult. (Even at this stage, the parent will wonder what is next and what does the future bring.) Times may change and laws will open new doors for the children in the future. Technology will help in identifying children at an early age and assisting them with their education, but knowing technology or the law will never change a parent going through these emotions. As a parent advisor, we need to be sensitive to these emotions and be willing to allow the parents to go through the various stages.

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Last modified: January 26, 2013