Monday, August 7, 2017

Voices of Experience: Why Self-Pity May Be Unjustified--And Unhelpful

Pure misery is a luxury one never learns to enjoy. ~ Rita Dove

Mark Henricks is a freelance journalist and musician and father of three children, including Brady Nathaniel Henricks, who died October 2, 2016 of suicide at age 16. Since losing his youngest child and only son, Mark has studied the grief research literature, searching for evidence-based bereavement coping strategies. In his effort to share with others what he has learned, he writes about these and related topics on his blog Grieve Well. The following post originally appeared there and is reprinted here with his permission.

Recently a young woman named Maria came to my house to buy the bunk beds that I raised three kids on. I put them on Craigslist because I’m an empty nester since my son Brady died last October and I’m thinking about moving. Also, I want to put my grandmother’s bed back up instead of the bunks.

While I was helping her carry the furniture to her vehicle, Maria asked if I had kids. I said I had two daughters and, after hesitating a second, added that I had a son who died last year. She didn’t say anything, which I didn’t think was odd, since a lot of people don’t know what to say when they hear something like that.

We finished loading up the beds and Maria gave me the money and I said thanks and to be sure to take care of her own three kids. I told her it’s possible for bad things to happen. She said she knew. “I lost one myself,” she said. I expressed surprise and sorrow and asked how long ago. She said it had been four or five years. Her child had died at age five months. I asked whether things were better now and she said they were, but she still had trouble talking about it.

We talked another minute or two about stuff like whether a 60-year-old like me could realistically hope to have another son, as she had done after her child died. (We decided chances were poor, and I didn’t even tell her I’d had a vasectomy after Brady was born.) Then we said goodbye.

The point of this story is that I often find myself walking around in the grocery store or other public place, looking at other people and wondering how many of them are carrying a burden of grief similar to mine. My tendency has been to assume that I am the only one who has experienced the loss of a child. This is understandable, since I think it’s fair to say that the general impression is that losing a child is far out of the norm.

However, thinking in this self-pitying way really brings me down. It is not happy to consider that I have been singled out by fate for a rare injustice. I feel crushed and at the same time angry at the unfairness. But is it really so? Am I so unusually unlucky? If I could accidentally encounter someone like Maria who had also experienced child loss, how rare a breed was I?

Of course, everyone who lives long enough will experience loss. Even Brady, who died at only 16, had experienced the death of his step-grandfather, my mother’s husband. If he’d lived much longer he would surely have experienced more losses. It’s a natural part of life, and everybody knows that.

Losing a child, however, is generally considered to be unnatural. But how unnatural is it? I started thinking about how many people I knew who had lost children, not counting the multitude of bereaved parents I’ve encountered since becoming an active participant in grief support groups. Without thinking too hard, I came up with a list of a dozen family, friends and business associates who had lost living children.

Naturally, it does not please me to think of all these bereaved parents. But it makes me less inclined to feel that I am all that unfortunate. Other people lose children. It’s not just me. This helped to rein in the self-pity and let me find a little more joy in being alive. Encouraged, I set out to find a better answer to the question: How many people have lost a child?

How Many Parents Lose a Child?

You would think an Internet search for that bit of information would provide an instant answer. For whatever reason, it does not. The Centers for Disease Control produces all kinds of data on death rates by age, year, cause, sex, race and other factors. But it doesn’t produce any straightforward statement that X number or percentage of parents have been bereaved by loss of a child.

The only source for that exact information I found was a 1999 survey commissioned by The Compassionate Friends, a bereavement grief support group. It said about 19 percent or about 1 in 5 adults lose a child, with a small majority of those losses occurring through miscarriage or stillbirth. About 1 in 10 parents experience the loss of a child after birth. So according to this something like 1 in 10 of the people I see are mourning the death of a living child much as I am, and another 1 in 10 or are mourning a miscarriage or stillbirth. The survey also found 22 percent of people experience death of a sibling.

I was surprised at how high these numbers were. There are a lot of secret grievers out there, it appears. You probably know some. I did. After Brady died I learned for the first time that my sister-in-law, whom I’ve known for 20 years, had lost an infant son to SIDS about 30 years ago.

One caveat about the TCF study: They do not have it on their website or refer to it anywhere I could see. I am not sure why this is. It may be a flawed study, or perhaps they just decided it was too dated. However, it’s the most reliable-looking evidence I have found that addresses the specific question: How many other people are going through what I’m going through?

The upshot of all this is that now when I’m walking around feeling horribly rained on, I try to remember that every fifth adult I see, roughly, has been similarly rained on by stillbirth, miscarriage or death of a living child. When I keep that in mind, I don’t feel as sorry for myself.

I think feeling less sorry for myself is good because it seems to me that self-pity is a big part of what I’m struggling with. I hope that this knowledge will help weaken self-pity’s grip on me. It may not help with the yearning and other parts of the grief experience. But I’ll take any help I can get. I’m not happy to know that a significant minority of the people I see smiling and laughing have had experiences more or less like mine. I do feel better knowing I have company, for some reason.

Is Self-Pity A Problem?

Next question: Is self-pity really anything to worry about? Can it make grief harder? The answer is somewhat murky. Self-pity seems to have received scant research attention.

When I searched Google Scholar for articles with “self-pity” in the title, I got just 29 hits, which seems amazingly few. And only a few were empirical studies. The rest were mostly attempts to analyze a particular aspect of self-pity without relying on empirical evidence, which I find of less value. I am more interested in evidence than opinions.

One good-looking study, from 2003, did find a correlation between high levels of self-pity and depression, anger, loneliness and worry. This seems to match my own experience with self-pity. So perhaps it is, indeed, wise for me to minimize self-pity.

As always, none of this is to be construed as criticism of anyone grieving a loss. I am not trying to tell anyone how to grieve or how not to grieve. Different strokes for different folks. Your mileage may vary. This is an account of my personal experience, nothing more.

© 2017 by Mark Hendricks. Readers are welcome to write to Mark with questions or comments about evidence-based bereavement grief coping strategies at

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