Impact Matters: Why You Can’t Heal Our Wounds
If there’s one topic that has been written about at length in the grief community, it’s what not to say to a bereaved parent. There are bulleted lists, slide shows, and blog posts covering one of the most achingly common issues a grieving parent encounters. I have read them, nodding my head in agreement. I’ve experienced my fair share of callous comments, masquerading as concern. Many of us could write entire novels filled with the painful statements we have fielded from onlookers.
Maybe the reason bereaved parents keep writing about this topic is that society continues to rain down upon us empty platitudes that hurt more than heal. We are expected to smile and nod, reluctantly granting permission to society to continue acting aloof.
I certainly don’t want to imply that we prefer deafening silence, but I certainly prefer silence over manufactured greeting card one-liners any day. That may sound harsh, but quite frankly it’s the truth.
I need to explain this simple idea: impact matters more than intent.
Someone can have the purest intentions and still say something so obtuse that it makes our skin crawl. Whether it’s purposeful or not, certain phrases seek to belittle our experience. Spoken or written words can be a soothing balm for our battered hearts, or they can crush us, landing heavily on souls that can’t handle much more.
When someone offers up yet another cliché reassurance, despite their intent, we’re left raging at the impact. With one breath, many people manage to minimize our loss down to bad luck, “God’s plan” or even worse, insinuate blame.
I need to defend the bereaved’s right to be outraged by these statements. I know I’m not the only one who has been told to shake it off. An individual’s attempt at consoling us doesn’t negate our right to be hurt by the impact of the assumed intent. People think they can use a verbal band-aid to make it all better when the fact is that nothing will make it better. Nobody has the magical combination of words that eases our pain or suffering.
Instead, we are left feeling confused and angry and infinitely sadder. We don’t need you to tell us how to feel better, when to feel better, or offer any combination of advice to us. It is not comforting to hear what you think some higher power’s plan may be, or that you know someone who went through something similar.
We need you to hold out your hand, tell us you’re here for us and sit in silence with us. Try to learn from us. Try to control your discomfort with death. Death is the one thing the entire human race has in common, but society has yet to master the language of grief.
A woman I barely know asked me the other day, “Is everything well in your world now?” Cue my widened eyes and arched eyebrow as I tried to comprehend what she was implying. It ate away at me for a week, inspiring this article. Was she saying that my life should be sunshine and butterflies now that my sick child was gone, no longer a burden? Maybe she did truly wonder how life was, but then why word it that way? Simple questions are no longer innocent chatter after a child dies. Everything is under scrutiny – tone, body language, eye contact – and for good reason. We are still parents to our children and are acutely aware of any attempt to demote their importance because of death.
Some people are just nosy, hiding their inquiries behind comments that are masked as polite banter. Others deliver unknowingly off-color comments and make heartbreaking attempts to comfort us. We’re not monsters – we know we risk sounding ungrateful when really all we’re asking for is pure unabashed empathy and a genuine attempt at an engaged interaction during our darkest hours.
If you’re reading this because you want to know how to comfort a grieving parent, there are one million beautifully written articles on the topic. From this article, I beg you to take away from it the idea that you cannot heal our wounds.
This is one time in our lives when we can selfishly demand a certain caliber of behavior. We already have a lot of hard work laid before us. Grieving a deceased child is the most exhausting work we’ll ever do. We’re worn out and heartsick. We don’t have to shoulder the burden of making people feel better about themselves on top of everything else. We want you to feel the pain with us and realize the agony of losing a child should leave you speechless.