This is the second installment of an article I wrote. It discusses the things I have learnt – and wish others understood – about losing a child.
Death changes your relationships with the living
With every major loss I have endured, some relationships have developed or flourished, while others have perished.
In the weeks immediately following Ella’s death, I met a wise and compassionate mother who told me about losing her baby to SIDS. She spoke frankly of her experiences saying: People will surprise you, in both directions. You’ll experience amazing kindness, but you can also expect to lose some people from your life.
She was right. Despite the haze of my grief, some things have come sharply into focus. Grief strengthens and affirms some bonds. It destroys others. Sometimes, the parting of company has evoked fierce anger and bitter disappointment. At other times, it’s involved a gentle resignation and letting go.
You can’t humour people out of grief
It’s often said that ‘laughter is the best medicine’. Even in our darkest hour, it’s important to laugh – if only briefly and at the most absurd things. In saying that, you can’t humour people out of their grief. Several well-meaning friends have cracked jokes and offered cheerful, vapid remarks. They miss the mark – by a mile. They trivialise our loss, compound our suffering and demean our child. Sitting with us in our grief is the most powerful and generous thing you can do. Honour this moment; it is real and cannot be hurried.
It hurts to be excluded (when you have no living children)
A friend once observed that the hardest thing about being gay was the fact that he was excluded from the world’s largest club – the Married-With-Kids Club. While I can’t speak to being a persecuted minority, I certainly know about the pain which comes from loss and exclusion. Whenever my husband and I encounter a happy family, he says that ‘it feels like the whole world is having a party that we are not invited to.’
I haven’t forgotten
Sometimes, people avoid talking about children who have died because they don’t want to remind the parents. Let me tell you this: I forget all kinds of things, from where I left my keys to whether I’ve taken my vitamins. At my lowest, I shuffle from room to room, forgetting what I’m supposed to be doing. But I don’t ever forget my child. I think about Ella all the time – when I’m scanning my groceries, brushing my teeth, making small talk with the neighbours. Most parents love talking about their children because their children are the most special and amazing part of their lives. Bereaved parents are equally passionate about their kids. We want the chance to talk about them, albeit in an appropriate and supportive environment.
It’s better to be awkward than absent
My husband and I feel sorry for people who encounter us. In fact, we often remark that ‘we wouldn’t know what to say to us’. Our culture offers no clear template for dealing with grief, or helping people through it. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to say anything amazingly profound or insightful. You just have to say you’re sorry for our loss and, if the relationship warrants it, offer your support. If there were ‘right words’ to offer the grieving, our poets and scholars and philosophers and clergymen would have found them by now. To my knowledge, they haven’t. For the record, I wrote the book on being socially awkward. I understand that there are few situations more uncomfortable than addressing a grieving parent. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
I recently saw an acquaintance who declared that she’d thought of me and prayed for me almost every day. All I could think was ‘that’s nice, but it doesn’t help me in any way’. If you don’t express your care, it does nothing for the person who’s suffering. Sorrow tests our patience, but a bereaved parent will ultimately forgive a clumsy, awkward, ill-timed remark. They are less likely to forgive someone who is entirely absent in their darkest hour.
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My name is Suzi. My husband, Ted, and I are trying to heal after losing our baby Ella Rose Argyle (21 January 2017). Ella was stillborn at 34 weeks, after what appeared to be a healthy pregnancy. As we declared on her headstone, Ella is ‘beautiful, longed for and eternally loved’. She is, and always will be, a part of us. My hope is that this blog will honour her precious life and help other bereaved parents feel less alone as they navigate their grief.