I didn’t realize how uneducated our society was about grief until I experienced a traumatic loss. We say “we lost him/her ” instead of “he/she died.” It just sounds less sad right? We feel sad for a moment but then are expected to say “life goes on”and get back to normal. Well I can tell you, life will never be “normal” again. I get it, death is a scary thing, no one wants to die, but we all end up doing just that, it’s the cycle of life. But when a child dies, the cycle is working in the opposite direction. You expect that eventually you’ll bury a grandparent or parent, but never your own child. So people find themselves at a loss of what to say. But I cannot fault them, because before all this, I felt the same way. It’s so hard to find the “right” words that we end up saying something dumb, or worst of all, saying nothing at all. This has truly been a learning experience for me and I just want to shed some light to this awkward situation of what to say to someone who is grieving, particularly in this case, grieving the loss of a child.
1. Erase every meaningless platitude out of your vocabulary.
No one wants to hear the same cliché statements. Not only does it seem disingenuous or forced, but it’s also complete bullshit. “Everything happens for reason” or “time heals all wounds” or “they’re in a better place” etc. All these phrases fall flat because everything doesn’t happen for a reason, sometimes your world can come crumbling down in an instant for NO good reason, and instead of figuring out the why, you just have to try and pick up all the pieces. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, time is your worst enemy during grief because everyday is like groundhog day. You wake up hoping things will be better, but they’re not. And the better place would be to have them here on this earth in my arms, so no thanks to that statement too. Essentially everyone who is grieving a loss will have a rebuttal for all these meaningless statements, so do not offer empty words or try and “fix” their grief. There is no fixing this, it is pain that will stay with this person for a lifetime. So acknowledge their pain, empathize with it, and offer your honesty and heart.
2. Please do not compare your grief to mine.
The absolute worst possible thing you can hear is “I know EXACTLY how you feel.” Oh ya do? “Yeah my great grandma died when I was 4, or my dog ran away last week, or I’ve struggled with depression too …” Ok great, well guess what, you’ll never know exactly how I feel, ever. All the mothers who I have spoken to, who have actually walked this same path of loosing a child, have never uttered those words to me. These mothers know the level of pain, but no one can know exactly how you feel or how you grieve but yourself. So then on top of it, to try and relate it something you have never actually experienced is the biggest sucker punch of all.
3. Don’t diminish my feelings or hurry my grief.
Oh how many times I heard “Well you’re probably so hormonal right now too” or “Well you can have more children” or “Are you feeling better/over it yet?” To diminish my pain to say it’s hormone induced is ridiculous. You would never say that to a mother who lost her child later in life, so why is it appropriate since I recently gave birth? Also, the thought of having another child is the furthest thing from your mind, because all you want is HIM. It’s not a sweater, you just don’t replace one with the other. And yes, I hope one day we are lucky enough to welcome another child into this world, but what if were aren’t? You can’t predict the future. A loss like this shows you that nothing in this life is guaranteed. And lastly, I will NEVER get over the loss of my son. It’s not something to “get over.” I can only hope in time that the tears will be less frequent, but I know that I will think of my son everyday until I’m dead in the ground.
4. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge them or speak their name.
When you experience early child loss, you get this bittersweet title of “Mom” but your arms are empty. So please acknowledge their presence in this world, because it was quite impactful. My biggest fear is that with as each year passes, he will be forgotten. We plan to celebrate his birthday every year just like any other child. And since we share a Birthday, I rather you wish him a happy day than myself. So if your fear is that you will make me upset by “bringing him up” you’re not. I think of him of every second of everyday, so by you mentioning him actually validates his life. So say his name whenever you want. And while this is probably a whole other blog post but I’ve also gotten this ridiculous question MANY times “are you going to give him a real name?” Guess what, he has a real name and it’s Baby Boy. That is what we called him his whole life and never selected a name throughout our entire pregnancy, so when we met him and held him, we said “he’s our Baby Boy” end of story.
5. If you are pregnant or recently welcomed a child, tread lightly.
This is a sticky situation I know. But if you’re experiencing the euphoria of being pregnant or recently having a child, you are literally experiencing the complete opposite of what I’m going through and everything that I WANT to have, so just the thought of you is a reminder enough. It’s terrible because I so badly want to be the friend that I know I would be if the situation was different, but unfortunately it’s not. I cannot hear stories of sleep deprivation or breast feeding endeavors. You have every right to have and feel those experiences, you’ll just have to share them with someone else right now. The triggers and pain that come with this are already unbearable, from seeing a random new mom at Target or watching E! News reporting that Blake Lively is expecting. So when it’s a close friend, it’s even harder. So you just have to know in time, all that I can hope is that those triggers are not so fresh. But I cannot tell you a date of when I’ll be ready, so please don’t put an expiration date on our friendship or take it personal. While your life is moving forward, ours is standing still. It’s devastating. Even in the future, your child will be a constant reminder that our son is not here playing along side yours. So even as the years pass, don’t be surprised if that emotion washes over me.
*I had a friend who recently had her baby shower. She mailed me an invite but she included a personal handwritten note with it. She expressed of how she wanted to include me in her celebration because we are friends, but said she did not expect me to attend. It was the perfect thing to do in that situation. She sent the invite so I wouldn’t feel excluded, and wondering why wouldn’t I be invited. But then she also gave me grace to say, I totally get why you wouldn’t be there. Applause hands and thumbs up emjoi for her.
6. Do not assume one’s religious beliefs.
This is kind of compounded with the first one about platitudes. Because many people will tack on: “This is God’s will” or “God must have spared him from a painful life” or “At least he is with Him now” etc. I do not want to delve too deep into religion because it is very personal. So with that being said, your personal relationship with God is not my relationship. No matter your religion, we all interpret our beliefs differently. Many people actually express anger at God when experiencing loss. Feelings of “What did I do to deserve this?” or “Why did God take this person away from me?” Questions we currently can’t get, or may never get answered. When did God nominate you Speaker of the House? So you trying to speak on God’s behalf brings no comfort to someone who is in shock from their loss.
8. Just listen and take their lead.
Don’t be awkward and say nothing, but also don’t ask a bunch of probing questions either. One friend who came and visited me simply said “I will take your lead friend. If you want to talk about what happened and cry we can do that. If you wanna chat about Housewives drama on Bravo and laugh we can do that too.” It gave me the comfort to have the conversation I needed in that moment and knew that they were there to listen.
9. Don’t avoid me, I don’t have the plague.
In life it’s always easier just to pretend like everything is OK. That’s why many of us avoid going to the dentist … it’s better not to know than having to deal with any potential bad news. People feel like they’re going to “catch” what we have or be brought down by our sadness and pain. I know most of the time this actually just comes from fear of saying the wrong thing, but I’ve just listed all the things not to say and I’m sure Google has some great answers too. All in all, it’s better to say something than nothing at all.
10. Just show up.
Don’t say “What can I do?” Just do something. When someone is stuck in the sadness, fog and shock of grief, it’s impossible to think of what you need in that moment, and then trying to communicate that is hard too. Offer something specific and follow through. Instead of saying “I’d love to bring you meal, let me know when.” SAY: “I’d love to bring you a meal. How about Tuesday?” It allows the person to not have to reach back out to you and say “Oh yeah, about the meal offer, can you come tomorrow?” I know I could never ever follow up and ask that. But with the second statement you can respond “Oh thank you, that is so kind, Tuesday is actually perfect!” Of course gestures of bringing meals, helping with housework, or coordinating a joyful activity are very generous. But at the end of the day, you just want to not feel alone, you want to know someone is thinking of you, that they are there for you, to listen to you. That can be communicated with a quick text or email, it’s just that simple. The out pour of support is quite strong in the beginning, but it can start to taper off. People get back to their routine, life gets in the way, I get it. But if you can continue to check in and be there for someone long after the initial loss, that is the most treasured thing of all.