I can put the brakes on a perfectly good conversation. I know it, because I have done it. In fact, I do it regularly. I wish that I didn’t have this skill… but I do. It just happened last week, for example. I was having a conversation with a pre-school teacher at the four year-old’s school. Someone I don’t know who was talking to me about a decision we are trying to make regarding the four year-old.
Teacher: “Awwww, he must be your first.”
Me: “No, he’s not, but we never [had to make this type of decision] with our first.”
Teacher: (laughing), “Well, what’s wrong with your first?” (May I pause to say that there are so very many things wrong with this question, especially when delivered by someone who fancies herself an expert in early childhood development.)
Me: “She’s dead.”
Teacher: (stunned silence)
Then only a week later, while introducing myself to some other moms as we were talking about our kids, I just flat out broke down. In tears. With strangers. Met by a collective gasp on their part when I told them that our first died of SIDS (I left out our third child, our daughter, Parker, who we lost as a result of a fatal chromosomal abnormality. I won’t get into the extreme guilt I had to work through about not including her in my list of children), and a desperate attempt on my part to re-normalize the vibe in the room. I hate it.
I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it.
(Caution: Self pity ahead) I cannot express with words how much I hate that I don’t get to talk about my children like normal parents do. I will never get to talk about my children like normal parents do. Because I am not normal. We are not “normal.” What I have been through is far less common these days than it was in pioneer days and before. In some ways, I wish I could go back in time. In those days, when you had a child that died young, or didn’t live through pregnancy (both of which, I unfortunately have), the rule was that you didn’t mention them. You moved on. You “got over it.” That was back when a) the death of a child at many different stages was FAR more common, and b) we didn’t have the sophisticated understanding of grief and the necessity of working through it and dealing with it. These days, it is quite rare to be in the club I’m in. The club that is full of the greatest people I never wanted to know. We are bereaved parents.
I have been in support groups with these wonderful people, and there is a theme that runs through our conversations… the things that people said accidentally, meaning to be comforting, that instead turned out to be so hurtful. There is an even more common theme: Those comments almost always start with the words, “at least.” Here’s a sampling (all of which I have heard from people regarding the SIDS death of my 3 ½ month old daughter, and the loss of my second daughter at 20 weeks gestation.)
- You’re young and you can have another.
- She was young and you didn’t really know her yet.
- You weren’t there when she died.
- You have each other.
- You didn’t do anything wrong.
- You have [the four year-old].
- You know you did everything you could to try to save her.
- You know you’re fertile.
and on, and on, and on. The words “at least” operate in our vernacular the same way the words “bless your heart,” or “with all due respect,” or “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” They negate the statement that follows by trying to minimize the emotion or cancel it altogether. “At least” says, “well, it could be worse.” There are many other variations on the theme, such as:
- You know, people die in war everyday, and imagine how their mother’s feel.
- It would have been so much harder if she had been sick.
Or my very “favorite,” and a common “favorite” of bereaved parents:
- She (he, they) is in a better place.
I had one person say to me, “you know marriages end because of this type of thing.”
All of these words say one thing, “it could be worse, and here is how.” This is our way of attempting to fix or minimize pain in others so that we can avoid dealing with the feelings around it ourselves. Grief is a whole bundle of big feelings. Many of them feel unmanageable. As we witness the pain of another, our natural instinct is to try to take it away. To “fix” it.
This is the truth, and if you read and understand nothing else of what I have said here, please read and understand this; we cannot fix or eliminate someone else’s pain. We are not so powerful.
So, what do you do when someone around you is grieving? How do you show support without obeying the gut instinct of trying to “fix” or “take away” the pain. It is far more simple than you can imagine. You do this: You walk along side of them. You tell them that you are sorry that they have to feel this way. You tell them that you don’t know what to say. You honor them and their feelings, and you leave your perspective and judgment out of it. You remind yourself that this is their path, and then you feel honored to be near them while they travel it. You can even silently thank your lucky stars that you are not traveling that path yourself. And most importantly, you love them. That, my friends, is the very best you can do, and it is more than enough.