Karen Abrahamson's Reviews > When the Bough Breaks: Forever After the Death of a Child

When the Bough Breaks by Judith R. Bernstein
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When psychologist Judith R. Berstein's adult son, Steven, died on July 12, 1987, she was caught totally unaware. Initially, her world was "colored by the year of horror, watching our son's struggle with cancer." She describes those months as being "wrapped in the warm blanket of caring friends and family."

Then, following Steven's death, she and her husband were "lost." "How," she asked, "are we to live with this for the rest of our lives? Will the crushing ache in my chest ever lessen? Can we ever return to our old selves, involved in the lives of our daughters, caring about our work, hobbies, friends, or the changing of the seasons?" Would it ever be possible to enjoy "the colors of the rainbow" again? Or would their lives be forever "a holocaust of grief" with the colors forever changed?

Seven years after Steven's death, Bernstein read a professional journal article about grief and "realized it discussed grief as if it were a finite period" and that it was normal for grief to end within six months to perhaps two years. Distressed by this expert opinion, she kept reading books and scholarly journal articles. "I asked myself how you ever get over this? What can be normal again after you've lost a son?"

As she studied expert opinions on grief, Berstein realized that something was missing: the perspective of grieved parents. She decided to "interview other bereaved parents to see how they were surviving years and decades later." "When the Bough Breaks" is the culmination of those years of research and interviews of bereaved parents from whom she gained so much insight. Along with her years of scholarly research, she uses the insights gleaned from her interviews with bereaved parents to form an integrated understanding of the process of grief. The conclusion that she arrived at is stark and real and hopeful:

"We know that our grief will never end. We will mourn for our children every day for the rest of our lives. We will never return to normal. But we will live again. We will be able to enjoy the bittersweet colors of a sunset. We may be productive. Laughter is not out of the question. Life will be forever colored by what has happened. For every parent who loses a child, one life ended and another life is indelibly changed."

Throughout her journey through grief, Bernstein has learned about what is and what is not possible. Central to that understanding is that overcoming or recovery from grief is not possible. One does not "recover" from the loss of a child. "The course of healing involves integrating that trauma, not overcoming it. . . . The process of integration involves changes in the person's view of the world, in the way they relate to others, in their values, in spiritual feelings, and so forth. It's the difference between stepping over an obstacle and being rerouted by it. . . . The emotional journey people take to regain equilibrium, to be able once again to feel good and value life, to reform themselves so that their loss is somehow integrated into the fiber of their existence---that is the process of mourning."

The problem that mourners face is that they are too frequently expected by family, friends, and experts to recover and to do so in a relatively short amount of time, adding to the unimaginable stress and guilt they are already carrying. Berstein's goal is offer an "antidote" to this problem that she divides into three areas: mourning, integration, and adaptation. She notes that "if we are to help and understand trauma victims, should we not ask instead where they are in the process of learning to live with what has happened? Where is that process in five, ten, thirty years? These are the questions I set out to ask."

Berstein's division of grief into periods of mourning, integration, and adaptation became the basis of her study of the grief process in "When the Bough Breaks":

In Part 1: The Way Through Mourning, she examines GRIEF AND THE STAGES OF MOURNING, including mourning that is complicated by mental illness, personality problems, and substance abuse; FACTORS THAT MAKE GRIEF EVEN MORE PAINFUL such as guilt and self-blame, denial, inhibition of feelings, relationship with the child, life circumstances such as marital stability, stress, support, and previous loss experience; and the NATURE OF DEATH including sudden death from murder, suicide, or drug abuse and anticipated death including death from AIDS.

In Part 2: The Rest of Our Lives, she addresses issues such as ALTERED PERSPECTIVES including lost innocence and changed values; MOURNING IN MARRIAGES such as the different approaches that males and females generally take toward mourning; FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS including how siblings of the deceased child approach mourning, altered relationships that parents have with surviving children, subsequent and replacement children, what happens when "special" children die, and how grandparents approach the mourning process; SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS including friends and experts; and issues pertaining to RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY such as examining tough questions, rituals, clergy, belief in reunion, psychic phenomenon, mystical connections, and memorials.

The book is a unique blend of reporting on empirical research in the field of grief and Berstein's own qualitative research. It clearly echoes her own journey through grief both as a professional psychologist and a bereaved mother. The poignant interviews with bereaved parents help to destroy the myth that grief follows any particular timeline. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that a bereaved parent will always carry some part of the grieving process with him or her, that person can learn to smile and laugh again and to enjoy the memories of what once was and the events that make up what is now. The result is a deeply empathic guide for how to live and even thrive in the "forever after" following a child's death.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
October 15, 2014 – Shelved
October 15, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
October 15, 2014 – Shelved as: books-and-blog

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