October is coming. The children dress up as goblins and ghosts and they tell you to give them what they want or they will play a trick at your expense. Early in my grief, the feeling wasn’t so different. I watched as friends saw me coming, friends with swelling bellies, turn on their heels and walk swiftly in the opposite direction, as if I was the grim reaper, as if infant death was leprous or as if misery loves company and as if I wanted their baby to die so that I wouldn’t feel so alone.
Grief isn’t sanitary, but it’s not contagious. There is a gentle comfort in knowing I am not alone, but ensuring I am not alone is not actually a requisite objective along the grief journey. I can be messy all by myself. But it’s harder, messier, and just flat lonely.
My baby changed me, and I longed to share that – the devastation and the glory of it – with those who knew me. I wanted them to bear witness to who I really was; the messy, the ugly, the beauty of it all. The tragedy in my life compelled a “fight or flight” response in those friends though, and while I watched some retreat, I listened as others placated, trying to subdue and silence my narrative, their proclamations of rejection spoken with such certainty and conviction: “You can just try again,” “An infertile mother in heaven gets to be a mother now.” I marveled at such decisive yet such stupid beliefs cast upon my broken heart.
At a time when everything felt taken away, I wasn’t going to helplessly allow such ignorance to blemish my child’s story. Firmly I corrected each false narrative, realizing that perhaps the death of my baby provided an opportunity for those I had once so deeply admired to actually grow up to awaken their senses, knowledge, compassion and, their faith. I was not about to let the thesis of my child’s short life on this earth to be that God rescued me from having a special needs child, or any other fruitless proposition as people scurried to throw excuses at me for God’s namesake instead of providing comfort to their friend.
Grief Isn’t the Antagonist
Grief is not inherently antagonistic to faith or other offerings from friends. Rather, platitudes are adversarial to the true freedom there is in hope and healing. This is why we bereaved mothers talk about this so much: it’s not an attack against our old friends, it’s edification against ignorance. We want actually to keep you, and we want to share – our lives, our journeys, our devastation, our stories – with you. Old friends, your “fight or flight” is destructive to our healing when we come to you so naked in our heartbreak.
Keep the Old, but Make New Friends
The old schoolchild song of one friend being like silver and the other gold rings true in grief. Yes, keep the old friends, if you can. But yes, make new friends, too.
Bereaved mothers, we do ourselves a terrible disservice to wallow in the friendships lost. Those closest to us while we are fresh in our grief, we are going to need to give them mercy. Maybe, heaps of mercy. But, as we find our feet on this new path we’ve been thrust upon, we might find there are others here – lots, of others here. Lots of mothers here.
Parenting Our Grief
“Mostly I strayed away from parenting books because I have never felt that there is one right way to parent. Also, many of the books I’ve come across focus on the behavior of the child, not that of the parent, which I would argue is even more important.”
Healing mothers, it is important for us to make new friends. It is important for us to be good friends:
• Relate to others but give mercy in the instances you do not relate. Another mother’s decisions are not a reflection of the worth or value of you or your decisions. The age to which a baby lived is not a measure of the worthiness of sorrow. Be gentle in the ways you set the boundaries that keep you safe, that you don’t inadvertently invalidate another on this journey. We can find our place without hurting others and we can speak our truth without hatred.
• Be merciful toward yourself. Regret, shame, self-loathing, these things aren’t synonymous with maternal love. We do not need to steal photos for proof of our hurt, we do not need to counterfeit another’s creativity as a means of measuring how much our babies mean to us, and we do not need to subject ourselves to a merit system of who we think grieves the hardest.
Healing mama, befriend yourself.
My new friend Heidi, we only know each other because both of our babies died. She likes to imagine that when two bereaved parents meet, perhaps their babies meet too. I like that idea, which wasn’t something I’d ever have thought on my own.
Giving my friend permission to access my child in her mind this way, might at first disrupt my maternal narrative of my child staying in my thoughts wherever I had last held him there, but it does so to bring me a deeper delight in the reality of my child, my motherhood and this path I still stumble on.
My friend with the same name as me, she has a daughter named Atlas – an astonishingly beautiful reminder that our children can guide us. She says that “every day of motherhood is a day of practice.”
Isn’t it, though?
Let us practice cultivating friendship – with each other, and with ourselves – on this healing motherhood journey.
(This is part 2 of a two-part series on friendships in grief, with part 1 written by Heidi Beltran.)