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When Parents Grieve What They Thought Would Be

Did you have different expectations for parenthood?

Pexels by Andrew Neel
Source: Pexels by Andrew Neel

When we experience a loss, whether physical or perceived, we tend to respond with shock and disbelief. We may then experience an intense flood of emotions, all while trying to accept a reality that we did not want.

As parents, when our child is diagnosed with a medical condition, learning disability, autism, or anything else that could be serious and/or long-lasting, we may experience grief and mourning as we struggle to understand what we are feeling and why we are feeling this way.

In my private practice, parents will often ask me to evaluate their child in order to answer whatever questions they've been asking. These may include:

  • Is my child on the autistic spectrum?
  • Does my child have ADHD?
  • Does my child have a learning disability? What type?
  • How does my child’s anxiety impact his ability to learn?

By the time they meet with me, most parents have already consulted with their pediatrician and maybe even a neurologist. They see me in order to confirm what their child is struggling with and outline a plan to pursue treatment.

During the seeking information phase, there are a lot of feelings to be felt, most notably a great deal of fear and uncertainty. There may also be anxiety about what your child may be struggling with, sometimes combined with sadness and grieving.

Welcome to Holland

Emily Perl Kingsley wrote a powerful description of what it is to have had expectations for what you thought your life would be, and how a person feels when the reality doesn’t match the fantasy or “the plan.” She also describes enjoying your “new destination” although it was not part of the trip itinerary.

In essence, she describes the journey of parenthood as a trip that was planned for Italy. Mid-flight, the itinerary changes, and the flight has changed course and is now going to Holland. Kingsley describes the disappointment, the sadness, the yearning for Italy, and having to accept Holland:

"It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around… and you begin to notice Holland has windmills… and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts."

Part of the process is grieving the loss of the "trip to Italy" before mentally and emotionally embracing a new "location." The process is analogous to parenting a child who you did not expect to have a disability. It involves both changing your mindset to accepting and embracing the child who is and letting go of the idea of who you thought your child would be.

Stages of Grief

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross created an understanding of grief that has permeated our popular and clinical understanding of grief, although the model has not been strongly supported by empirical research. Kübler-Ross defined the 5 stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Those who have experienced grief know it’s not a linear process; Kübler-Ross herself emphasized this. You don’t check the boxes as you pass through each phase and once you’ve reached acceptance, you have now accomplished your end goal. Instead, we pass through the stages of grief in random orders and can regress and return to an earlier phase.

As much as most of us would love to be able to check each box and receive a prize or certificate when we reach the end, grief is much more complicated than that. It’s OK to stay in one phase longer than the others and to go back and forth. The process will take time as the present grief may also be triggering earlier grief or trauma that was not processed fully.

Seek Therapy

When you’re grieving, it can feel isolating, never-ending, all-consuming, overwhelming, and just dreadful. There are days that you may feel like you don’t want to come out from under your covers, or you’re struggling to leave your couch. You may be struggling to do your job or parent your children. There’s no need to suffer alone. Seek the help of a therapist who can help you to process your grief, accept your reality, and heal.

Support groups are also a place where you can be with others who are experiencing grief as well. It’s validating and healthy to see that some will be “behind” you and others will be “ahead” of you in the healing process.

In therapy, individual or group, speak honestly to your emotional struggles and how your reality is not in line with the way you believed your life would be, or how you wanted it to be. Acknowledge that you had a different plan and process all of the feelings that come with it.

Loss triggers grief, and grief is a process. There’s no shame in how you are feeling and know you are not alone. There exist many of us who can support and guide each other as we process and adapt to being in Holland even though we really wanted to go to Italy.

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