Advice from a bereaved mother on how to be present in grief.
It happened right before Christmas — about nine months after my daughter died.
I was in the UPS store waiting in line with a wrapped package when I spotted the parent of a boy my daughter had gone to school with for years. Her back was turned, but I knew it was only a matter of time before she’d see me in the tiny space where I huddled near the door.
Our children had graduated from the same eighth grade class in 2015. I hadn’t seen her since then, except once. She’d walked right past me as if she didn’t know me.
I tensed as she turned around, wondering if she’d pretend not to see me this time too. As she made her way to the exit, she looked at me, and her face froze with shock, then stiffened into a smile.
“Hello,” she said, stopping with her hand on the door. “I read everything you write.” I assumed that was her way of telling me she knew my daughter had died. “I’m really sorry.”
“Thanks,” I replied and before I could say much more, she fled. I watched her, baffled and hurt, wondering if I should’ve done or said something different. Later, a mutual friend confirmed that she’s “really uncomfortable around death.”
I thought back to the first encounter I’d had with the woman, the time when she’d walked past me as if she hadn’t seen me. It had been in the summer, shortly after my daughter died.
“That was the worst anyone’s made me feel since Ana died,” I told my friend.
I was angry for a while, and then I let it go. Still, I wondered if other people felt that way about me. Did people avoid me? Was there a time limit to this new identity of mine, or would I always be regarded as a grieving mother, a worst-case scenario?
Death is hard, but grief Is not contagious.
Death used to make me uncomfortable too. Before Ana died, I didn’t have much experience with traumatic loss. I hope that I wouldn’t have tried to avoid a grieving parent, but — honestly — I don’t know how I would’ve reacted if the tables had been turned.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have known what to say.
Like many people, I grew up believing that grief has five stages, a concept first introduced in 1969 by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, “On Death and Dying.”
I thought that loss could be “gotten over” once these stages ran their course and that acceptance of your loss — whatever that loss might be— meant you moved on.
Yet studies are increasingly showing that the five-stages model is false. Stage theories don’t represent the reality of how people actually grieve — and this lack of understanding contributes to our cultural discomfort with loss and grief. It buckets grief into five neat packages and skews our collective expectations about the “right” way to grieve.
I think it also helps distance us from grieving people by perpetuating a (false) narrative that grief can be fully understood. It’s a recipe for platitudes and avoidance, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
What I really needed in that UPS store was a hug and a kind smile. I needed to hear the woman say my daughter’s name. I needed her to acknowledge my pain, not run from it. Maybe if we had cried together, just for a minute or two, then my loss wouldn’t have seemed so terrifying to her.
I am still me, after all — just a sadder version of me.
There are some losses we don’t get over.
While no one has told me to “get over it” (at least, not yet), I’ve encountered an unspoken avoidance of my loss which can be just as hurtful. The holidays are a good example of this.
By November of that same year — eight months after my daughter’s death — everyone was caught up in their Thanksgiving preparation and planning.
“Happy Thanksgiving!” people chirped as the holiday approached, and I parroted it back, wondering how I could possibly be happy. I don’t begrudge people their joy, but my reality was (and still is) very different. When you lose someone dear to you, like a child, holidays become something you survive, not celebrate. At least, at first.
For some people, this is true for years after their loss.
As time passes, many grieving parents don’t talk about this with their families and friends. We don’t want to ruin everyone’s fun, so we retreat. I know parents who have completely stopped celebrating holidays and other events because it’s too painful to hide their grief.
They’ve had loved ones and friends tell them it’s time to move on either through actions or sentiments like this:
“You can have another baby/child.”
“It’s been long enough, it’s time to move on.”
“It’s not healthy to dwell on your loss.”
“Your other children need you, so it’s time to get over your grief.”
The death of a child makes everyone feel helpless. Family and friends want to know that we’re okay. They want to fix the unfixable — and that’s when the platitudes come out, the “everything-happens-for-a-reasons.”
Platitudes are a form of grief avoidance.
Platitudes don’t allow grievers space for their grief. Everything happens for a reason, so what’s next? “Get over it.”
“He’s in a better place.”
“God has another angel.”
“At least she’s not in pain anymore.”
I could go on and on.
When you say these things to a grieving person, you send a signal that you don’t have the patience or desire to be present with them in their grief, even if that’s not what you mean to imply.
I get it. Losing a child is horrific. It’s hard to imagine a loss as big as this. My grief may ease with time, but I will miss my daughter until I take my last breath. I want people to understand this without feeling the need to fix it.
The best way to help a grieving parent (or anyone who has suffered a catastrophic loss) is to offer compassion and be present in the face of our pain. You don’t have to make it okay. You don’t have to say anything more than, “I’m so sorry” (minus the mad dash for the door). Don’t run away.
Please, don’t run away.
My grief makes some people uncomfortable. I know that, but there’s not much I can do about it. This grief isn’t going away anytime soon.
Learning how to be present for people dealing with a catastrophic loss — for as long as they need you to be present — will help. I promise it will. And once you learn how to sit with someone else’s grief, you’ll be in a much better position to deal with your own.
A version of this story was originally published in First For Women on March 19, 2018.