Grieving a Child with Mental Illness

Sunday, October 12 2014 Christina Halli

Last week, my son Bob announced he is no longer playing basketball. Bob's been playing competitively since age five and is pretty good. This year he is a junior in high school, which means varsity -- his dream.

Bob made the decision to quit because basketball is "no fun" anymore. It brings about severe stress and crippling anxiety. In the past, Bob's anxiety has led to depression and suicidal ideation.

I told my son I support him. I'm proud he made his mental health and well-being a priority. Then I went upstairs to the privacy of my bedroom and sobbed.

Grief is Common When Parenting a Child with Mental Illness

The five stages of grief following a loss are commonly known:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Let's be clear. Losing a child to mental illness is a huge loss to a parent. My own grief has been intense.

Parents of mentally ill children experience recurring loss and grief. Grieving a child with a mental illness is a real experience and one example is shared here.

When my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 12, my husband and I mourned our many losses. We grieved the child we thought we had. We lamented the future we imagined for him. We sorely missed the friends that disappeared. We bemoaned the fate of our family, forever changed.

The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) describes the stages of emotional response a family goes through when dealing with mental illness:

  • Dealing with catastrophic events--shock and denial
  • Learning to cope--anger and grief
  • Moving into advocacy--understanding and acceptance

It is not surprising the two lists are similar. I quickly learned the grieving process is neither linear nor circular as I found myself jumping from shock and denial during each crisis to education and advocacy on account of my child's age.

Grieving Recurs for Parents of Mentally Ill Children

They say everyone grieves differently and there is no definitive end for the pain. Since Bob's diagnosis, the losses persisted. We mourned the family dinners and vacations we no longer took. We wept silently during the eighth grade dance and graduation Bob missed. We ached for the normal teen years and activities Bob would never experience.

There will be parental grief and loss with each transition Bob makes. Today we say goodbye to the state basketball championship. Soon Bob will go to college and start a career. Later he may get married and have children. Or not. Whatever Bob's choices, I'm certain his successes will be bittersweet for us.

With grief there is hope. I truly support Bob's decision to take a break from basketball. I am optimistic Bob will experience less anxiety this school year. I secretly fantasize Bob will use his free time to study more and improve his grades. I am prudently hopeful this decision will lead to others that sustain Bob's stability. I remind myself to live in the present and love the child I have with his many gifts and talents.

I accept grieving as a part of living with a mentally ill child. I acknowledge grieving can be healthy. I ask myself where I am in the grieving process and recall the stages are not linear. Finally, I grab a tissue and assure myself that sobbing today because Bob is no longer playing basketball is okay.

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Author: Christina Halli

View all posts by Christina Halli.

Grieving a Child with Mental Illness

M.Eskilson
says:
November, 6 2014 at 9:42 am

Christina: Just happened on your post today. Since it was written, you've no doubt spoken with parents of basketball-loving kids representing a range talents and temperaments, so I may be repeating what you've already learned, but... On a completely practical level, I have a grown daughter who played bb through grade school and leaped enthusiastically into the sport in middle school. Prior to seventh grade, she had always loved bb's camaraderie and competition, but the court atmosphere changed drastically from sixth to seventh grade. Middle schoolers are heading for college and, suddenly, to all involved -- coaches, kids, parents, and scouts, everything in bb counts toward scholarships and stats. What had been fun for my daughter had turned highly competitive and, at times, down right cut throat. Your son may well have been responding to that shift, deciding his enjoyment of the sport wasn't worth the pains a high-competition game would require. Kids with bb talent, such as my daughter, sometimes opt out of high-stakes programs at that juncture, not because they're giving up or running away, but because they have an intuitive understanding of their own emotional economics. So, your son's compass is likely working wonderfully. Rather than lamenting the loss of basketball tournaments, encourage your son to trial debate, forensics, track and field... Connectedness, interaction, and success is the bottom line, in whatever healthy field kids discover it. My daughter went to state with shot put and on to college with a full-ride academic scholarship. My 26-year-old son has rapid cycling bipolar. "Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature's delight." (Marcus Aurelius)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Christina Halli
says:
November, 6 2014 at 10:04 am

Thank you for your comment. I agree my son made a good decision based on his own best interest. He knew the stress was more than he could handle. I am hopeful he will find the connectedness, interaction, and success you describe.

W Palthey
says:
December, 14 2014 at 12:47 pm

i have been on this trail of tears also. It is hard but we have learned to trust my son - high school age, when he says he is not going to do such and such. It may be the prom, it may be the end of the year soccer or ultimate banquet, it may be a party, all school rafting trip...the list goes on. All things that should be fun and the " normal kids" enjoy. Once he decides he is not going, that is it, end of dicussion. My response will be to him that it is no big deal. Like you though I will go and have a cry over all the things that he misses due to managing his bipolar. Last month he dropped the bomb that he was done with school. ( It wasn't really a big surprise, he had not done any
homework for months. The school has done everything in their ability to help him. )
That was a good two weeks of crying for me. I went through all the phases of grief. My husband was not as effected, he knew school was a stressor. Why go, if it makes him
feel worse? His Dr said there is nothing wrong with taking an alternative route. So
now that we are on the scenic route in life he is actually doing really well. I even admit
it was the right thing to do. He knows what he needs to do, we just have to keep
trusting him. In fact some really great opportunities lay ahead, but I always proceed
towards these with caution until they are passed and are actual feathers in the cap.
I really enjoy this blog, your experience has been very similar to mine.

Maree McRae
says:
April, 29 2018 at 5:00 pm

I grieve daily as my sons schizoaffective disorder has continued to take a fierce grip on him and his life.
I pray and send him love and strength. These people fighting severe mental illness are my heroes. That definition has changed for me witnessing my sons struggle. And I will hurt forever for him and his horrific fight.

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