“I know what will make you feel better,” she said, as if that were the goal. To feel better. As if there were anything on planet earth that could ever make me feel better while my babies were not here with me…where they belong.
“We should go to the hospital to visit your friend and see her new baby,” my mother pressed, determined to fix my broken. Determined to lift me from my pit of grief. Because a month is too long to be weeping still for a baby…or for twin babies.
I just blinked, unable to respond, covering my true reaction to her suggestion. Masking pain as I followed her direction, because something must be wrong with me. A semblance of shamed caught in my throat at my inability to even grieve correctly.
My mother was a strong woman. And wise. Certainly, she knew best. I pushed the pit of despair down further, not wanting to seem like I couldn’t handle it. Not wanting to be an inconvenience…to make anyone comfortable. Not wanting to be selfish.
So I went to the hospital, walking past the shiny celebratory balloons held by the new father whose face shone with pride, my own body still healing from delivering the baby girls who never breathed a breath outside of my body. I forced myself to hold the tiny, wiggling new baby, biting back the tears…arms still aching to hold my sweet girls. So no one would see…so my pain wouldn’t ruin their moment of joy.
I kept composure until we reached the elevator. Then, the tears poured forth, spilling down my cheeks.
“I know what will make you feel better,” she offered. “Let’s pick out an outfit for the new baby.”
My mother was beautiful and strong. And she loved me fiercely. So much, in fact, that she couldn’t bear to look upon my broken. She wanted me to be restored, pieced back together. She wanted me to be whole. But she didn’t understand that fully feeling my pain, allowing the agonizing sorrow…the flowing tears…was the only path to finding healing. What she didn’t understand was that it would take time…a long time. Longer than mere days, or weeks, or even months. What she didn’t understand was that while I would feel joy and live life fully, I would never truly be whole again. There would always be a piece of my heart missing.
Those early days of raw grief were many years ago for me. Since that time, I’ve supported thousands of grieving parents through Sufficient Grace Ministries. And each time, I hear concerned extended family and friends nudging a mother or father to move on, not to wallow in their (still fresh) grief. I want to reassure them that they are moving toward healing by leaning in and allowing the hard work of grief. Much like labor pains, grief works best when you lean into it, working with the rhythm of the waves.
What a grieving parent needs more than advice or judgment or suggestions for how to feel better is to have a friend who will just enter into the sadness with them awhile. To sit with them, holding that sacred space a bit.
People often say the hurtful things while intending to offer comfort to a grieving friend. It is very difficult to know how to minister to the needs of a parent who has lost her child. There are no magic words to take away the pain of such a loss, and many find it overwhelming just to look into the face of such suffering. Here are a few suggestions from a mother who has walked this path more than once.
1. Don’t allow the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing keep you from reaching out in love. There are no perfect words. A simple “I’m sorry” and a hug can go a long way.
2. Acknowledge the baby. Refer to the child by name. It is often a blessing to a grieving heart to hear her child’s name spoken. Do not think that talking about him/her will bring the mother more pain. The memory of her baby is always on her mind. Sharing can be a comfort. Be willing to listen. She may need to tell her story over and over again.
“If you know someone who has lost a child or lost anybody who’s important to them, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died, they didn’t forget they died. You’re not reminding them. What you’re reminding them of is that you remember that they lived, and that’s a great, great gift.’”
~ Elizabeth Edwards
3. Those who are grieving are not always able to ask for help. Instead of saying, “Let me know if you need anything,” just do something for the mother and her family. Be available, but also be willing to give space when needed. Bring a meal. Offer to watch the other children for awhile. Come over and sit with her, offering a listening ear.
4. Realize that your friend has been forever changed by the loss of her baby. Don’t expect her to be exactly the same. And please realize that grief has its own time table. Allow her the time she needs, and remain supportive. Everyone grieves differently. Don’t judge her choices or her “performance.” She may not react the same way that you think you would.
5. Avoid clichés such as “You can have more children” or “This was God’s will.” Even words meant to comfort can actually sting a grieving heart like salt poured into an open wound.
A wonderful quote by Patsy Clairmont from her book Stained Glass Hearts sums up well the art of ministering to a broken heart:
“Honestly, when I’m hurting, I’d rather have a friend who stands and weeps with me or wonders with me than one who rattles off his or her thin take on the universe.”
Sometimes, we just need a friend to walk with us a little while, to sit with us, to love us as we are, to impart grace, to listen, to hurt with us, weep with us, and pray for us.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15
Kelly Gerken is the president and founder of Sufficient Grace Ministries, an organization providing perinatal hospice services, bereavement support and Dreams of You memory-making materials to families facing the loss of a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death and the death of a young child. Kelly has walked through the loss of three of her five children, and now reaches out to walk with other grieving families as an SGM perinatal loss support doula and SGM Remembrance Photographer. She is a creator and facilitator of training for birth professionals on compassionate care for bereaved parents facing perinatal loss. Her memoir, Sufficient Grace, was published in 2014. You can read more about Kelly’s journey of grace, hope and healing and the outreaches of SGM, order resources or find her book here: www.sufficientgraceministries.org.