By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
CDCR’s employees live and work all across the state so when an employee suffers a loss, such as the death of their child, the ripple effects can impact schools, communities and the CDCR workplace. This is when the department’s Peer Support Program (PSP) goes into action.
“This program was established to ensure staff involved in work-related critical incidents are provided with intervention and available resources to cope with the immediate effects of a traumatic incident,” the PSP website states. “PSP is activated following work-related critical incidents (such as) sexual/physical assault, officer/agent involved shooting, death of a co-worker or family member of a co-worker, riots, hostage incident, (and) an employee with suicidal thoughts or when an employee is facing a crisis.”
October is Child Death Awareness Month and PSP offers many resources to employees who have suffered the death of a child.
“The PSP provides a peer who will listen, answer questions, offer resources and help an employee deal with his/her situation in a confidential environment,” the PSP brochure states.
Rosanna Rodriguez, CDCR’s statewide peer support program manager, said people grieve differently and sometimes their coworkers aren’t certain how to react. The bereaved parents may be in shock, confused and unable to deal with too much at one time.
What to expect for a bereaved parent
“There is no more devastating loss than the death of a child,” reports the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (see PDF linked below titled “Grief of Parents: A Lifetime Journey”). “Parental grief is different from other losses – it is intensified, exaggerated and lengthened.”
According to the national report, “Parents do not go through grief and come out the other side as before the loss. Grief changes parents. … As they attempt to move forward, bereaved parents realize they are survivors and have been strong enough to endure what is probably life’s harshest blow.”
Fathers and mothers grieve differently, according to the report. With much of the attention focused on the mother, fathers are often left with little support.
“Men are often asked how their wives are doing but not how they are doing. Such expectations place an unmanageable burden on men and deprive them of their … need to grieve,” the report states. “It is not unusual for grieving fathers to feel overwhelmed, ignored, isolated and abandoned, but many say that such strong emotions are very difficult to contain after their child’s death.”
After the initial shock wears off, parents are hit with other symptoms.
“Those who have had a child die often immediately experience shock, numbness, denial, and disbelief, all of which act as a cushion against the full impact of the loss. As time passes and these emotions wear off, others emerge, often including guilt, anger, loneliness, despair, sadness, and regret. These feelings are all part of the emotional reaction called ‘grief’ and may be so overwhelming that parents often do not understand what they are experiencing,” according to The Compassionate Friends, a support group for those who’ve lost children (see link below).
Grief can also cause fatigue, anxiety and insomnia.
“The emotional loss of grief often manifests itself in physical ways. Parents may sleep for only a few hours, if at all, each night. Feeling tired, walking in a fog, long- and short-term memory loss, and an inability to concentrate are not uncommon. Sleep deprivation and the extreme stress of the situation often lead to the feeling that you are ‘losing it,’ but this is a normal psychological reaction,” according to the support group. “Guilt, real or imagined, is normal. The feeling that if only something had been different, the child might have lived, is common. Despair and loneliness are common. Even when you are with a group of people, you may feel alone. Few people can understand how deeply a bereaved parent hurts unless they have been there.”
Grief isn’t on a timetable.
“There’s a myth that the one-year anniversary marks the end of the mourning period. After a year has passed, many people mistakenly think that a grieving person should be over the loss and able to move on with his or her life,” writes “Journeying through Grief” author Kenneth Haugk. “You don’t receive a one-year diploma that says you’ve ‘graduated’ from your grief.”
In Still Standing magazine (link to PDF article below), bereaved mother Angela Miller writes, “I wish people could understand that grief lasts forever because love lasts forever; that the loss of a child is not one finite event, it is a continuous loss that unfolds minute by minute over the course of a lifetime. Every missed birthday, holiday, milestone; should-be back-to-school years and graduations; weddings that will never be, grandchildren that should have been but will never be born – an entire generation of people are irrevocably altered forever.”
How to help a bereaved parent
Grieving parents are often told to “get over it” or to “move on” by those who might mean well, but the message can seem callous.
“We have activated Peer Support for units that have a coworker who has lost a child,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a way to help the coworkers assist the transition for the grieving parent when they return to work. Often, people don’t know what to say. Listening without passing judgement is probably the best thing a coworker can do.”
The Compassionate Friends suggests sometimes words aren’t sufficient when trying to comfort a bereaved parent.
“Avoid using ‘It was God’s will’ and other cliches that attempt to minimize or explain the death. Don’t try to find something positive in the child’s death, such as, ‘At least you have other children.’ There are no words that make it all right that their child has died,” the support group states on their website.
The national report reinforces this suggestion.
“Allow the parent(s) to express feelings without imposing your views or feelings about what is appropriate behavior,” the national report states. “Avoid telling the parent(s) you know just how they feel.”
Other suggestions include asking about the child, speaking the child’s name, offering flowers or personal notes to the parent(s), remembering anniversaries and special days or donating to a specific memorial in honor of the child.
“Don’t tell them that they are ‘lucky it wasn’t worse;’ a traumatized person is not consoled by those statements. Instead, tell them that you are sorry such an event has occurred and you want to understand and assist them,” the PSP website states.
“Be cautious with your word choice when speaking to the griever. Although well-intended, expressions such as ‘I understand’ and ‘I can imagine what it’s like’ may not help, as loss and grief are different for each person. A simple ‘I’m sorry to hear of your loss’ or ‘I’m thinking of you’ are good ways to communicate your condolences. You may also want to write a special note to show you care,” the PSP site states.
Another national support-group, The Bereaved Parents of the USA, offers meetings and comfort for families.
According to their website, parents who’ve lost a child will be different.
“Be patient with us. Our lives have totally changed,” an article on the website states. “Don’t forget us one, two, three, four or even five years down the road. We will never forget that death date, birthday or special occasion.”
The article tells friends and family to “not be offended if we don’t laugh as much as we used to, don’t want to go out as much as we used to, don’t feel comfortable in crowds (and) are no longer the life of the party.” It also states, bereaved parents often “need to be around other people who’ve lost children.”
In it for the long haul
“Peer Support is there for the duration,” said Rodriguez. “Grief doesn’t just go away when a child has died. After the first few months, the grieving parent may find some of their personal support network dropping away. Peer support volunteers recognize and understand this so we are here if the employee wants to talk. We don’t drop off.”
The Employee Assistance Program offers counseling and other services. Call 866-327-4762 for more information or visit https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Wellness/eap.html.
Resources from CDCR’s Employee Health & Wellness:
Other organizations (may not be accessible from a CDCR computer):