When someone is widowed in old age or loses an elderly parent, perhaps after a long decline in health, we can easily understand that there is tremendous grief and sadness felt by loved ones left behind. We can identify with what they are going through, to a certain extent, because the loss follows the usual order of life. Often the loss is anticipated well in advance.
But child loss, like all out of order death, is different. It is so different that most people who have not been through it, may struggle with how to interact with someone who has. When encountering a loss parent in a social situation they may become Uncomfortable. Why is this? It is because there is no way to become comfortable with child loss.
Sometimes the discomfort is selfishness, insensitivity, or rudeness. The bereaved become an elephant in a room full of happy people who do not want their parade rained on. This is a symptom of the unavoidable shallowness that is often characteristic of prosperity and ease.
In others the discomfort may simply be ignorance: What do I do? What do I say? Better to avoid this person than risk making a mess of things.
But I think very often the problem is fear. The non-bereaved are on unfamiliar ground. And it is scary.
Before loss, if I was in the presence of a bereaved mother who started talking about her departed child, I would get uncomfortable. I’d be fine if the topic of conversation was unrelated to her dead child but as soon as It came up I would instantly feel anxious. I was not irritated because she was spoiling my fun or ruining a good day for me or demanding attention. I was uncomfortable because I felt pity for her which embarrassed me on her behalf. No one wants to be the object of pity.
And I was worried I might not have an easy fix for her. I believed I should be able to wave my magic tongue and make her feel better somehow but, like a dope, I left my toolbox full of helpful platitudes at home that day. I drew a blank when brought face to face with the grown up world of Hardship and I sensed my imagined reputation as a wise and helpful advisor was in imminent jeopardy.
I could not feel true compassion for her because I had not experienced loss at that time. Though I fooled myself into thinking so, it was not compassion I felt for this woman. It was pure pity for her continued state of pain which made her attempts at making people know or remember her son seem pathetic to me. To the pre-loss me she seemed inappropriately stuck in the past (despite her smile) or maybe even mentally and emotionally damaged because of the trauma she had gone through. To my uninitiated eyes she looked incredibly strong and pitifully weak all at the same time. It made me feel Uncomfortable.
And I was afraid. I sensed danger and thought, What if she opens up and I don’t have any answers for her. What if she, gulp, cries. What if she loses control and I can’t help her get back to normal? What if I fail to comfort her? Maybe she needs professional help. What if I say something wrong? What if I make it worse? How bad might it get?
What I know now is that this woman was simply sharing what was on her mind – her gone-too-soon child. She was missing her baby and needed to express that. She needed to hear his name spoken out loud. That’s all. No pathology, no selfish appropriation of available compassion. No attention seeking. Just a mom missing her child.
I am selective about who I talk to about our loss because I don’t want people to look at me with pity the way I looked at her. That’s pride, without a doubt. And in social settings, as a textbook introvert who definitely prefers to operate in the background, I do realize that speaking about a child that has died does in fact draw attention. How could it not?
So I have to be careful to remember there are others present who might be hurting as much or more than I. Child loss is not the only sorrow. It may be someone else’s turn to be comforted or encouraged right now.
And even if the world forgets our children (and it will), we will not. And our Father in Heaven remembers every thing and every moment of their lives. Though it is a strong temptation, I don’t have to bring Hans up in every conversation in order to keep his memory alive. I have more than a memory. I have a living son. True, he lives very far away but he is as close to me as the love of my Savior.
So, to those who desire to reach out to a hurting friend who has suffered the loss of a child I say, Be uncomfortable. Don’t fight it because, as I said earlier, there is no way to become comfortable with child loss.
But don’t be afraid. Share a memory of or something you admired about the departed one. If your tears are genuine, let them fall. They are a sweet blessing to a hurting heart.
Unless your motive is morbid curiosity or you are fishing for some sort of inside story; unless your interest is merely that of a spectator, or your aim is to wound, you cannot possibly make child loss worse than it already is.
And it’s okay to be Uncomfortable.