Thursday, June 11, 2015

Why You Can Never Say the Right Thing to a Woman in Grief

Since losing Liam, I've seen a lot of articles and lists like "15 Things NOT to Say to a Bereaved Mother," or "The Worst Thing to Say to a Woman Who Has Had a Miscarriage." Most of the time, as I read through these, I find one or two items that leave me puzzled. "Why would anyone be bothered by that?" I think to myself. It wasn't until I was talking to a woman who has suffered a similar tragedy to mine that I realized I had a list of my own. I told her about an experience reading a pamphlet from the hospital two weeks after Liam died and getting so angry over the phrase "new normal." And I figured she must understand what I meant, because we'd been through the same thing, and then she stopped me and said,

"Wait. I don't understand why you were bothered by that."

So I explained that I felt like it meant my life was always going to be sad from now on and I was just going to have to live with it. And she said something to the effect of, "Oh. That makes sense. I was going to ask, wouldn't you want things to be different after an experience like that? I would hate to go through that and not have it change me at all."

I hadn't thought about that. All I was thinking about was how old normal was happy and now I wasn't happy and so new normal must be living in despair for the rest of my life but, as the pamphlet suggested, I'd "never get over it. Just get used to it." I had no intention of getting used to being utterly miserable. But that's what I was at the time.

After this experience I realized we must all be thinking about this differently. That's the thing about grief. It doesn't make any sense. It's emotional, not logical. So one day it might not bother me that someone believes I'll get pregnant someday. Because that day I'm hopeful, and I think they might be right.

But the next day if someone tells me the same exact thing, my honest reaction might be, "How the **** do you know?" Because, honestly, you don't know. And neither do I. And if somehow you did know and I didn't, that just wouldn't be okay with me. Because this is my life and I should know better than anyone what is going to happen in it. But I don't.

And also because I need to be realistic right now instead of hopeful. I need a back up plan in case everything goes terribly wrong. Again.

But mostly because part of grieving is being angry, and you happen to be the nearest outlet for my anger. I'm sorry.

And mostly, mostly it's because nothing you say will ever bring my son back to me.

But sometimes you do say something that helps. And no one can ever know what that is going to be at the time. For me it was the acquaintance in church who put her arm around me and said, "It gets better, but you never forget." Because that day I was struggling to believe those two things could coexist. And the Bishop's counselor who told us, just hours after we saw that terrible ultrasound, that we could later have the opportunity to raise Liam after this life. Because I had no idea that was even possible. And the friend at work who told me he liked the picture on my desk, and shocked me so much that all I got out was a quick, "What?" To which he pointed and nervously replied, "Cute feet."

And sometimes the words coming out of your mouth aren't helpful at all, but it's okay, because you said something and that's more than anyone else has done all day.

So please don't stop saying something. These lists of things not to say to grieving parents make good points about how grief works, but they are also mistakenly scaring people into believing that if you want to talk about grief you have to say the "right" thing. There is no right thing, because nothing you say will ever fix what's actually hurting. But there are helpful things, and hurtful things. Use your head. Be real. And give up on "fixing" anything.

And when you try your best and the person you hoped to comfort only ends up angry, take a note, but don't take it personally. 

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