Expect to Encounter Various Levels of Sensitivity
Relatives, friends, and co-workers who learn of our loss will all be affected at some level, and most will certainly want to express their sympathy and to offer us comfort. Unfortunately, this is rarely an easy thing to do.
No matter how sincere their desire to help, no matter how solid their friendship, many people will find it impossible to talk with us in a meaningful way about what has happened. They may avoid us altogether, or, if they do approach us, they may talk about anything and everything but the topic which is foremost in our minds.
Those who do not shrink from discussing our baby's death may make comments which seem inappropriate, insensitive, or even cruel.
On the other hand, we may find that understanding comes from unexpected quarters - the stranger who says just the right thing, the distant relative or fleeting acquaintance who comes forward with a similar experience to share, sowing seeds which may blossom into a new and unexpected friendship.
Understanding the Feelings Behind Unhelpful Remarks
It is important to realize that people who say thoughtless or insensitive things are not deliberately trying to make us feel worse.
In most cases, they have only good intentions and are trying their best to comfort us. Their hearts are in the right place, it's just that the words are coming out wrong.
Perhaps they have unresolved feelings about the prospect of their own death which are interfering with their ability to respond to our loss in a helpful way - they may, in fact, resent us at some level for forcing them to think about an issue they prefer to ignore as much as possible.
Perhaps they are trying to protect us from the intensity of the feelings our loss has aroused in them, trying to "be strong" for us by hiding the fact that they share in our grief.
Perhaps they think that minimizing the importance of what has happened will actually take some of our pain away.
Or perhaps they are falling back on the deep cushion of tradition - reciting from rote what they learned were the appropriate words for such an occasion rather than speaking the truth in their own hearts.
Especially when our own grief is at peak intensity, it is difficult to look beyond the superficial meaning of such statements as:
- "There was probably something wrong with the baby any way."
- "It was better for the baby to die before you got to know it."
- "Now you have a little angel in heaven."
- "This happened for the best - it's all part of God's plan."
- "Be brave. Don't cry."
- "It's time to put this behind you and get on with your life."
Responding to remarks like these in ways that aggravate an already awkward situation, however, will only add to our own distress. It is best to respond to the speaker's underlying desire to comfort rather than to the exact words that were spoken, perhaps simply stating our own feelings:
It may not be necessary to put our feelings into words at all. Simply reaching out to clasp the other person's hand or hugging them is often more eloquent than anything we can find to say. We will have ample opportunity later on to share our feelings of anger or annoyance with our spouse or an understanding friend.
- "Thank you for your concern."
- "It helps that you are thinking of us."
- "We loved our baby very much, and we're sorry that she's gone."
Sooner or later, someone will say something which we feel we just cannot shrug off - sooner or later we will all feel the need to reply directly to an unfeeling comment. When this happens, it is best to stay with a simple statement of our own point of view:
Arguing with the speaker or getting caught up in a personal attack will only make us feel worse when it is over, while a more diplomatic approach has a chance of increasing the other person's understanding and may prevent them from inadvertently adding to someone else's pain.
- "I don't agree with you."
- "That isn't the way I feel about it."
- "It doesn't help me to think of my baby's death that way."
As Time Goes By
As days turn into weeks and weeks to months, we sometimes find that the caring people who were there for us at the time of the baby's death seem to drift away, that not as many are reaching out to us as before.
It is not that they have forgotten us and our loss. As is only natural, they have become preoccupied once again with their own day-to-day concerns.
Some may assume that we are "over it", and may not realize that we still need their support. We really can't expect to get what we need from our supporters unless we let them know that we need it.
Most people will be glad to take the time to be with us if we let them know what we want.
Helping Others Help You
The notion that those from whom we expect to receive comfort might actually need us to help them deal with their own feelings may at first seem to border on the preposterous. We are, after all, overwhelmed by our own pain and grief.
We need every ounce of energy just to keep ourselves and what is left of our family from falling apart at the seams. How can we be expected to sympathize with people who are only indirectly affected by our baby's death?
It may help to remember a time when we were in their shoes, a time when we wanted or were expected to provide comfort to a bereaved friend or relative. How did we feel? Frightened because it could have been us? Relieved because it wasn't us? Guilty because we were relieved? Did we know what to say, what to do?
Too bad someone couldn't have told us what we know now. Well, we do know it now, and if we want our friends to be effective in their efforts to help us, it's up to us to help them.
We can help them by taking the initiative in our conversations with them. We shouldn't wait for them to bring up the topic of our loss.
If we as parents can speak matter-of-factly about our baby's death, those around us will learn to be less frightened by it. We can also help them by telling them in a straightforward way what we want and need them to do and by providing feedback on which of their attempts are working for us and which are not.
Grandparents must bear the double burden of dealing with their own feelings of loss for a "grandchild-not-to-be" and of seeing their own son or daughter in pain. Grandparents' grief may be every bit as powerful as that of the parents, especially if it reawakens memories of childbearing losses a generation old.
They have built many of their own hopes and dreams for the future on the tiny life that is no more. Their sadness may be deepened by a sense of utter helplessness as they realize that nothing they can do will take away their children's suffering.
Although they may feel that they must hide their own grief in order to provide physical and emotional support, acknowledging and sharing their painful feelings is more likely to make the bereaved family feel that their loss is understood and appreciated.
In the long run, crying together and hurting together can only strengthen and deepen the bonds between grandparents, parents, and surviving grandchildren.