Almost three and a half years ago I was thrown into the world of the grieving parent. At the time, I was in a highly alert state, taking words that were said to me and dissecting them one by one. Sometimes people said things that I found confusing, and maybe even hurtful. I started reading…
Often people will go to great lengths to convince themselves that what happened to you could never happen to them. Unfortunately, a host of comfortless cliches are usually born from the ‘it-could-never-happen-to-me mentality.’
I get it. It’s a defense mechanism people use to calm their own fears and to preserve their own senses of safety. It also helps avoid them actually feeling the horror, fear, trauma and gripping terror that is child loss. But this sentiment, this way of trying to put as much space possible between themselves and and what happened to you is terribly damaging to a grieving parent.
No one wants to believe his or her child could die. No one wants to believe that bad things happen to good people. We don’t want to believe that we are not as in control of our lives as we think we are. We don’t want to believe it could very well happen to us or someone we love. At any. moment. in. time.
When child loss happens to someone close to you, it shakes and destroys even the strongest foundations. It pops even the most carefully-crafted safety bubbles. It obliterates everything you ever thought you knew about life. It is every parent’s worst nightmare.
The truth is, what happened to me and what happened to you, could happen to anyone, at any time. Yes. A terrifying and sobering truth. No one is immune to tragedy. As every bereaved parent knows, it could happen to anyone, no matter who you are, what zip code you live in, or how well you think you’ve done everything within your power to prevent all tragedies from touching you.
Unfortunately, when people go to any lengths to believe it could never happen to them, what generally happens is the person who should be offering comfort and care, instead offers some kind of ridiculous, non-comforting and often hurtful statement to a grieving parent. Though generally well-meaning– sometimes not– usually it comes from a place of self-preservation and fear, instead of a place of helpfulness and care. Even the best of intentions can still hurt. Deeply.
After my son died the first words those closet to me uttered were, “How did you let this happen?!!” and “What kind of mother are you?!!” among other cruel, torturous words. Really?!!! Ouch. Consider yourself blessed to be so gravely ignorant. The words hurt so badly I blacked out immediately after those words pierced my ears. Why in the ever-loving-heck would you ever think that, let alone say that to someone who has just gone through the most unimaginable trauma possible?!
Now, rationally, I understand the reason they said those things is because they desperately wanted to convince themselves that what happened to me could never, ever happen to them. They needed a way to put the most distance between themselves and what happened to me. Blaming me helped them feel safe. It perhaps made them feel better, but it made me feel like shit– for a lifetime. Understanding the reasoning behind why someone might say hurtful things doesn’t make it ok. At all.
To this day, the shame, blame and cruelty of those words have punctured my heart in a way that can never be repaired. To this day, those cruel statements still plague me. And the sad, hard truth is they will most likely torture me for the rest of my life. Whether directly, or indirectly– it is never, ever ok to shift blame onto a bereaved parent. Ever.
Don’t do it. Please.
For the love of everyone, everywhere, I’m begging you: don’t be that person. You don’t want to be the reason someone is haunted for the rest of her life. You don’t want to be the reason someone decided their life wasn’t worth living. Words have power. Power to destroy or to build up. Choose to harness that power for incredible good. For healing. Always use your words to lift someone up. Higher and higher.
The goal should always be to offer all the love and unconditional support necessary to comfort a grieving parent whose entire world was just obliterated. Anything else is terribly damaging. Keep the focus on the person whose heart is broken, and try to take your own fears out of the equation. Ask what would be helpful for your hurting loved one instead of assuming.
Always be mindful of the words you speak. Be especially mindful of what you say to someone who is in a state of trauma and shock. Words spoken during a traumatic event can become a torturous loop of thoughts that plays over and over and over again for the rest of someone’s life. A thought pattern that can be extremely hard to break, even for the most talented trauma therapist.
“It could never happen to me,” is a lie people tell themselves in order to put the most distance between themselves and what happened. Yet distance is not what’s needed when tragedy strikes. What’s needed is the bravery to close the gap by stepping right inside, square in the middle of someone’s pain. And just be with them in it. Which means feeling all of it too. Terrifying– I know– but imagine how much more terrified your loved one is. You at least get to go back to your normal life. This is their new normal– forever.
If you truly want to support a bereaved parent, leave the ‘it-could-never-happen-to-me’ mindset at the door. There’s a better way than speaking from a place of fear. Instead, try coming from a place of comfort and love. No shame or blame, just love. Leave your judgments somewhere else. Yes, this might mean you have to feel your own fear, feel your own vulnerability, feel your own safety bubble pop– but please do it anyway. Learning to be a compassionate support for someone who’s hurting might be the most important thing you’ll ever do. It matters more than you know. You can be the difference between life and death for a bereaved parent trying to survive breath by breath.
And, if you can’t offer a bereaved parent words of comfort or love, instead, do the most loving thing possible by closing your mouth and opening wide your arms and heart instead. Knowing that it very well could happen to you will help you offer the same kind of compassionate support you would hope for if roles were reversed. This kind of empathy saves lives.
Offering a loving, safe place to land is always better than saying the wrong thing that might haunt and torture a bereaved parent for a lifetime.
Be someone’s soft place to land.
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This article was originally published by Angela Miller at A Bed For My Heart.