[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, March 2014]

    I’ve written about bereavement here before, because it is one of those dislocations of life that can so terribly derail families and individuals in major ways.

    A couple of weeks ago, my wife learned that her uncle had died of cardiovascular disease.  One could call the event “sudden” in that although he had his share of personal stress, he didn’t appear to have any previous evidence of illness prior to the day he died.  He was age 64.  His death was shocking enough to the family for its abrupt onset, but it has been made all the worse by the fact that his father, who is in his 90s, has now outlived him.

    I’ve worked with enough grieving people to know that besides the fear of dementia, and of being a burden on their family, this situation is one of the most dreaded among older parents.  There is a sense that a parent should never outlive a child, that it is “unnatural.”

    How does a counselor even BEGIN to address this kind of pain?
   I’ve found that to be able to give a perspective that can help grievers move forward, a counselor has to have some ability to reframe the “unnatural” feel of loss for them.  One way to do that is to shift their attention from the *length* of their child’s life to the *purpose* of it.  Assume first that each of us is here for some reason–to make our own particular impact on the world and our relations in it–then we can better arrive at the conclusion that a life is complete, not once a certain number of years have passed, but when its purpose is served.  Not everyone requires 70+ years to meet that accomplishment.  Some make a bigger “splash” in their world with a shorter amount of time, and those ripples extend outward to better others in a way other people might require a few decades to do.

    And in fact, if you ask parents who have outlived children, most will concede that their lost child was indeed a larger-than-life personality.  There isn’t a parent alive who doesn’t hope their children will accomplish more, touch a wider range of lives than they have themselves.  All parents hope their children will be better people than they are, the kind of person who will push above and beyond them.  In other words, parents may have deeper lives, requiring more years, but one or more of their children can have *broader* lives, spreading wider, doing more in fewer years.  Even if parents outlive their children, they can still have some sense of pride that their children did more with the years they had.

    I’m sure you’ve heard some version of the adage, “It isn’t the amount of years in your life, but the amount of life in your years that matters.”  This is the psychological machinery that helps people reach a point where they can accept that conclusion.

    As always, I have to give the caveat that no amount of insight or acceptance will make the pain of loss go away.  That isn’t the goal of grief counseling.  Rather, it’s about helping people redirect their pain, use it to honor lost loved ones and make themselves better in the process.  Isn’t that what loved ones want of us?