I’ve wanted to write this article for a while because the topic has been on my mind, but to be honest; I’m also a little embarrassed to admit it.
I’ve become calloused as a result of losing my kids and writing my book. There, I said it. I’ve become emotionally calloused.
How did this happen? I believe it’s a defense mechanism I developed to protect myself from additional emotional impact. It’s not that I don’t care, I do. I just think it happened because I lived in such a state of emotional distress for years after losing my children and it’s going to take A LOT to trigger my emotions. Not to mention, I have heard some of the most horrific stories from thousands of bereaved dads. After a while, nothing surprises you.
I have friends that have asked me, “How do you sit and listen to all of these heartbreaking stories?” My response to that question is generally “I don’t know. I don’t take their emotional pain home with me. I listen and care about what they have to say but it doesn’t put me into a tailspin.” I think a lot has to do with the fact I cried so hard and for so long during my pain.
I’ve lost two grandparents and a co-worker over the last couple of years and I didn’t feel the level of grief that I think I would have experienced under “normal” conditions. I started to question if there was something wrong with me, has the anti-depressant caused me to become numb? Have I become cold hearted? Is this what doctors/nurses experience as a result of their line of work?
I have sympathy towards what others deal with, but I seem to have lost the ability to have empathy. Some would say I’ve become cold-hearted, but I would disagree only because I do care about others and their struggles.
Has anyone else experienced this after losing your child?
Have you become “calloused” in some way?
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I’m new to this page and just catching up on the excellent posts. This one in particular has struck me and something I wholeheartedly relate to. This started with me in 2007 after my mum passed away, and in many ways it helped me cope with losing my dad in 2010. I use the term cope extremely loosely there, and shouldn’t give the impression I didn’t care for my dad, I did, I just couldn’t let the grief hit me in the same way again. However the loss of our daughter last year smashed through this barrier, then allowed it to reform harder than ever.
We don’t yet know why what happened, happened. One hypothesis, and the most worrying, is that my wife and I both carry a dormant gene that activated in our daughter and caused her illness. The risk here would lay with our younger daughter, born three months before we lost our eldest. We haven’t had this confirmed, it is one hypothesis of many. However its the one I can’t shake off and I’m worried this, along with my newly reformed, stronger than ever, defense mechanism, is going to affect my relationship with our youngest until we know more. It hasn’t to date, I love her so dearly and the thought of coming home to her each evening gets me through a lonely commute when the distractions of a work day are done. However there is always something in the back of my mind, particularly when I give her her bedtime bottle that it could all happen again and this is when the emotional callous you talk about kicks in.
Hi Kelly and thanks for sharing. I can definitely relate to what you’ve described. Sometimes I think we, as bereaved parents, just have a much duller sense of what true tragedies are. Our scale of crises is just different than most after what we’ve been through. You may feel callous but through your writing you still show empathy and a desire to help others. I think that is all we can do, try to help where we can in the name of our children and understand that our scale is just not what most have in terms of what true loss is.
AJ – Thanks for the comment. I like your phrase “scale of crises”. I believe everything we do, experience and observe after losing a child is measured up to “the crises” we experienced after losing a child.
Thanks for putting it into those words.
BTW – I checked out your blog. Good to see someone else uses cycling as a form of therapy. You(we) should consider organizing a ride for grieving dads to come together for healing, fellowship and riding.
I love that idea Kelly!
Thank you for writing this- as usual you’ve put into words what most of us experience but can’t articulate. I have endless empathy for people with genuine problems but none for what I personally don’t consider ‘real problems’. I’ve wondered the same thing as you- I do care but then again sometimes I don’t! Thank you for explaining this & being brave enough to share this with us.
TheGriefGeek – I am happy that you connected with the article. Yeah, MY definition of “real problems” is different than some. That’s what happens when you’ve been forced to look at the world through a broken lens.
There is a theory I have called Relativity that explains most of what has been written in the replies. In the thirty years since my son died, I have spoken with many people (mostly Dads) that have suffered this loss, and while only recently giving my theory a name; I have used it to help explain what I consider a strength, not a lack of compassion. The strength is the ability to see things for what they are; when you go through a devastation this great, you are at the lowest point; a point at the very bottom from which everything is above. While there, you are overwhelmed, unable to see the top, a view few will see. Yet for those who raise up, there is strength in knowing this new found relativity; what is low, and therefore where all other issues are placed.
Numbness, most could not deal with the loss without it, some find it addictive, like an old friend, the absence of which causes fear; but like most early relationships you out grow.
For me, I received two great gifts, compassion, and perspective, the strength is earned while climbing out of the hole.
Mark – I love your thoughts on this. It is a view that few will see, thankfully for them. I too received compassion and perspective, both are powerful gifts. I also received the gift of speaking up when you see someone being treated poorly or bullied. Whether its at work or just out and about. I believe we all carry our own demons, and yeah some peoples may not be as bad as mine (in my mind) but its still a burden that impacts them and thankfully they don’t know what we know.
Thank you for you thoughts on this. Peace.
Great post Kelly
The very depth of the pain from losing a child, takes away other feelings you once had, for sure. Do we become calloused to protect ourselves from that pain again or because once you have felt that much pain other things in life become trivial. You almost laugh at things that people think are important, you also stare death in the eyes. Fear escapes you and death can at times become you. I know we need to keep living, but I embrace without fear the end, because the end has in my belief a new beginning. My favorite thought or line since our sons death is, “they just don’t get it” and you move on. It is true the bond you feel and have for others when you learn they have lost a child as well and the number of years seems to matter when you ask when they past…..why is that? I think it’s because you want to know how you compare, how did they get there, how did they cope and even how they succeeded in over coming…..but you know, you really know, they too are scared for life, their personal journey……and then you go back to your own journey and privately weep……
Gkiger – Great comment: “Do we become calloused to protect ourselves from that pain again or because once you have felt that much pain other things in life become trivial.” I think the answer to that for me is both. There are times when I shake my head and laugh to myself when someone is really stressed out because of something so trivial like “my car broke down”. I wish I still had that innocence about me. The innocence of not knowing about the unthinkable. I will say I did gain something as well, something valuable. Something that I wish I could’ve learned without the devastation. That something is the ability to say “fuck it” and mean it. There is a sense of freedom that comes with knowing how bad things can really get and the fact that no matter what and how hard someone tries, they will not rattle my cage. And it they do, its for a moment and then I remind myself to just smile and move forward. That’s not to say I don’t want to lash out, because there are times I want to because somewhere deep inside there is a short fuse for BS and anger that still lingers. Not the kind of anger that controls me, the kind the is quick and fierce and then I move on with my day without dwelling on it,
Thanks for sharing.
Bingo! Nail on the head with that one. I see all other comments agree.
I try for empathy, but it’s often forced. I’m still ’emotional’, but certainly not in the same normal way. We’ve all suffered terrible losses, and this is how we’re left standing to allow us to live and see another day. For some of us, we’ve managed to make it this far on our journey, but it’s come at that emotional cost!!
The only benefit I can report is a complete and utter lack of fear. A truck recently barrelled into an intersection I was walking in and I pulled a total ‘Carrie’ staredown at him. No fear, no reaction. Nothing can hurt me more than the loss of my daughter.
Jim – Interesting insight. I too have experienced the reduced fear. I used to hate flying. I would get nervous a couple of days prior and would dwell on it. Now it doesn’t bother me at all, fear is completely gone. I’ve even jumped off the side of a mountain in Colorado paragliding. Same with public speaking, hated it. But know I do it all of the time with Grieving Dads workshops, with no nerves. I always ask myself, “what’s the worst thing that can happen.” I believe I’ve experience the worst thing that can happened, twice. Trust me when I tell you this, I’m not looking to top the loss of a child to test if something else is worse, it just has put things into perspective.
These are just a couple of examples, there are many.
Thanks for your thoughts.
Kelly, I think you hit the nail on the head when you referred to anti-depressants as a possible contributor to the emotional flat-lining that you interpret as “callousness.” From a study of anti-depressant users in The British Journal of Psychiatry Aug 2009: “Most participants described a general reduction in the intensity of all the emotions that they experienced, so that all their emotions felt flattened or evened out, and their emotional responses to all events were toned down in some way. Very common descriptions of this phenomenon included feelings of emotions being ‘dulled’, ‘numbed’, ‘ flattened’ or completely ‘blocked’, as well as descriptions of feeling ‘blank’ and ‘flat’. A few participants described a more extreme phenomenon, in which they did not experience any emotions at all. Others felt that they often experienced their emotions as thoughts rather than as feelings, as if their emotional experience had become more ‘cognitive’ or ‘intellectual’. Some participants were able rationally to recognize situations in which they should feel a certain way, and yet the actual emotional response was not there or was altered in some way. Alternatively, some participants could still respond to emotional situations in an appropriate way, but without what they felt was real feeling.”
As for myself (no anti-depressants, just an occasional puff or two of legal pot up here in the state of Washington): since my son died suddenly nearly three years ago, I find that I am more sympathetic to people who have lost children, but my emotional responses to the more mundane losses of everyday life have certainly matured. I realize now, much more than before, that severe loss is part of life and that everyone gets a turn experiencing it, some of us quite early in life, some at mid-life, and some in their later years. No one can escape it: we all get dealt a losing hand eventually. Indeed, the inevitability of loss is the foundation of the entire Buddhist faith and an important element in many other spiritual traditions that strive to make sense of the human condition.
Ray – Interesting information on the anti-depressants. I do hate the fact I take them, but when I start to slowly come off of them, I feel like I could put my fist through a wall. I become very agitated and quick tempered. It’s not fair to others around me to have to deal with that. I was never that way prior to the losses, but I think its just a part of the unseen internal damage done as a result of my children’s death. However, with a low dose, it controls that and provides me a sense of peace and comfort that allows me to smile and joke around with others. Another thing that helps me are warm sunny days, which kind of sucks for a guy who lives in a cloudy dreary winter climate of Chicago.
Thanks for sharing Ray!
Hi, Kelly. Thanks, as always, for your thought-provoking posts. This one was ironic for me, because I discussed this very topic just a few days ago at my men’s group. I had expressed to the group that since our son had died, I just didn’t have the same level of empathy for others. And, interestingly, I was reluctant to post here because I was a bit embarrassed by that admission. You wrote about that, too. But still, I sat on my reply. I have always been a good listener, finding connection with what was shared with me. Even if I didn’t exactly agree with the total picture, I could find a space of understanding and solidarity with others’ frustration, sadness, anger, over whatever had pushed them to the brink. Now, I mostly don’t want to hear it. Or rather, I don’t want to open the floodgates. What I’ve come to realize is that while I always defined myself as an emotional person, I have been changed. I have narrowed the band of my highs and lows – the equivalent of a non-pharmaceutical anti-depressant. The reasoning being that if I don’t acknowledge the fullness of their pain (and I admit it is pain for them), I don’t have to open up to the full range of emotions. I’ve narrowed my band of feeling, as it were. Now, that is my reality. I haven’t quite reconciled what to do with that. Despite my pain, my loss, my grief, I don’t know if I want to be “that guy” because… I have a lot to be thankful for since / despite our loss. I have a son. I want to model positive human behavior for him. So, I’m wrestling with it. Wrestling. With. It. I am and it certainly is a work in progress. Thanks for providing this forum. – Thom
Thom – Thank you for your comments. I too have limited my band of highs and lows by removing myself from everyday mundane drama that people like to create. Some family attribute it to me not caring, but to be honest, their right. Some of it I don’t care about because most of it is self fabricated and could easily be controlled. On the other hand, I also try to limit my exposure to the drama because it sucks away my happiness. In some warped way, I truly enjoy sitting with or speaking with grieving parents. It gives me a sense of “I’m making a difference in others lives.” I know it would make my two children smile.
Hi Kelly- Yes, I too have succumbed to that emotional numbness you write about. I think that having experienced such agony for so long, the absolute pinnacle of grief, that I have tripped an emotional circuit breaker to keep from completely shorting out. Not only do I not feel the same empathy for others, the same level of sadness for myself, I don’t feel the same joy or excitement I did before Jake’s death. Perhaps, as you say, it is a defense mechanism, but maybe our pain has drained our reservoir of emotions and there isn’t much left. Everything is at about a 4 or 5 on the scale and nothing can really move the needle past that. The universe has savaged me beyond reason. There is nothing it can do that would be any worse.
Ed – I love the analogy, “I have tripped an emotional circuit breaker to keep from completely shorting out.” At the end of the day, I think that is exactly what has happened to me and other grieving parents. We’ve experienced the unthinkable.
Thanks for sharing this story.
I can so relate as well. I was just talking to my therapist about this just the other day. I call it “The wall” I’ve built since Dylan’s passing, it’s the same as calloused. As you know, callouses on the body are built up gradually as a protection mechanism. The emotional callouses we’ve built for ourselves is no different. They build up naturally from life experiences and protect us from the immense pain we suffer(ed) and the last thing we want is to experience them again.
Our callouses are naturally thicker than the average person so please don’t be embarrassed at all because you’re not alone! Instead of being embarrassed, perhaps we’re just disappointed in the fact that no matter what, we’ll always be “different” than most in our ability to feel emotion.
Think of it this way also, without the callouses, you wouldn’t have the emotional ability to help others in the way you do, it would be TOO painful.
Peace my brother and, talk to you soon.
Dan – You are 100% correct, the callouses have allowed me to help grieving parents and others going through difficult times without the urge to avoid or run from the conversation. I find myself running towards them and take that responsibility seriously.
Peace my friend.
I am glad you wrote this because I have been thinking about it a lot recently, I have very much noticed that I don’t “care” as much about others people’s issues that I did in the past. Even when someone loses a loved one, yes I feel kind of bad for them, but as others have said on here in my mind I think “You don’t know what real loss is”…and then I feel guilty for feeling that way, but it IS how I feel these days.
Nothing can possibly compare to losing a child, we have all learned that the hard way. I think we do create a hard shell within our emotions, a survival mechanism if you like, that just won’t allow us to feel the level of grief for anything like before.
This is the new us and i am starting to notice these changes more and more after losing my son last year, we will never be the same again. How could we….
Thanks for your articles as always
Mick – Thanks for your comment. You really don’t know what real loss is until you have to go shopping for an outfit for your child’s funeral. Or saying goodbye to your child while they are dying knowing that you’re they one that is supposed to protect them. There isn’t anything you can do to stop it from happening. These kind of events causes damage that is immeasurable. It’s a wound most people cannot comprehend.
Yes! I feel the same way. I don’t know that I have lost my ability to feel empathy, but I feel like my empathy meter has been broken. It just doesn’t kick on like it once did. I do feel sympathy, but I also find myself sometimes feeling negative thoughts towards people…and that scares me. I’ll hear someone grieving over a “natural” loss and I’ll find myself wanting to shake them and to tell them to suck it up. Yeah, I’m sure it’s sad to lose your 95-year-old father…but he lived a LONG life. I know it hurts to lose a pet. I know life is full of ups and downs…but you haven’t seen what I’ve seen. I’ve been beyond the scope of normal human emotion to a place where sadness and grief and loss no longer have any meaning. It’s like looking into a black hole and then falling in.
I’m currently going through the breakup of my marriage and a lot of what went wrong between us started after we lost our daughter. I know I changed. I know she changed…but I can only truthfully speak for myself. I used to be a very emotionally open person, but I allowed myself to put up barriers around my emotions because I was scared of ever being hurt that way again. I know my ex-wife began to feel like I wasn’t emotionally there like I used to be (she even got to the point where she thought I was having an affair) and I probably wasn’t there like she needed me to be there. I just could not open up. I couldn’t let my guard down.
What’s ironic is that I’m learning to lower that protection and I’m learning to live with the pain. I went so long feeling like nothing could touch me and now I’m finding so much depression in desperately needing human contact, but not having it.
People who have not lost a child just cannot fathom the emotional damage it causes. It destroys parts of us and I don’t know if we ever get those parts back. Do we learn to rewire our brains, or do we learn to accept that life will never feel complete again? I wish I knew.
SurferJoe – I love your statement, “you haven’t seen what I’ve seen”. I think that pretty much sums up how I feel and often think. Non-grieving parents that I work with are often surprised when I say things like “I don’t care what others think or if I get fired. There isn’t much any one can do to me that I haven’t already survived.” I don’t say those things to test anyone or to be defiant. I just think if people “have seen what I’ve seen”, they would feel the same way.
Thanks for sharing.
Thank you. You are spot on with this observation. For me too, it isn’t that I don’t care, but even when I support someone else dealing with loss similar to that of my son Paul over 8 years ago, I just can’t take their grief home with me, too. Things that would have totally set me off years ago barely cause a raised eyebrow. As I say during some presentations, “I used to be a fairly normal guy. I used to live in a fairly normal world. Neither of those things is true anymore.” Peace.
Jon – It has to be because we have experienced the worst possible pain that when you hear other’s pain, it doesn’t shock or surprise us. I meet people that are non-bereaved parents that I tell my story to and they tear up and some stop me because they can’t fathom the pain that a bereaved parent goes through. I think what I’ve been through has made me stronger and has allowed me to use my pain to help others without causing emotional impact.
Thanks for sharing.
You are not alone. I have also become numb to a lot of things. I find myself cold and uncaring when people lose their pets, or complain about their parking lot door dings, or the fact that their dryer quit working and they can’t afford a new one. I am unsympathetic people who suffer loss that is somehow not equal to mine. Grief has made me selfish and hard.
Melissa – Good to know I am not alone. Its kind of weird for me, I have become much more compassionate to others struggles (real ones) in life, but it doesn’t break through the hardened shell that has seemed to have developed. Not sure if that makes sense.
Thanks for sharing.