I Felt Their Pain

This post was written over the course of a few days. I couldn’t decide where I was going with it and even if I wanted to post it. But here it is.

I am having a difficult day today. I saw on Twitter that another baby has died. Last week it was little Maddie Spohr, who was 17 months old. And today it’s Thalon Myers, just under 4 months old. I don’t want to link to them, because I don’t want any trackbacks to here to diminish what those families are experiencing1. Each death is a tragedy and each child was a gift. But, selfishly maybe, hearing about little Thalon brought back the pain of my own loss.

There was a link to a list of suggestions on how to approach and comfort a mother who has just experienced such a loss. The suggestions there are very helpful. If I’d have known about that list I’d have handed it out to every person that came into contact with me after Gabriel died. It seemed that everyone thought it was ok to say things like “You’re still young” and “You can always have another one”.

I was so utterly angry after Gabriel’s funeral that I’m pretty sure there was nothing anyone could say that would comfort me. Most of what I heard through my fog just caused me more grief. My aunt even told me at one point “You still have that one” (meaning Lil’ Miss). I’m sure she meant well, but I still haven’t gotten over the rage I felt at hearing it. As if Gabriel was just a throw-away and I should be thankful for being able to bear children at least. Pfft.

But the absolute worst part was hearing the sounds of other children or hearing stories of other children. My child was dead and I couldn’t love him or mother him or do any of the things that other mothers could do with their living children. I didn’t want to hear about them because it just hurt so damned much. And that made me even more angry.

I was reading Heather Spohr’s account of bringing her Maddie’s ashes home and that brought back all of those memories too. Gabriel’s funeral was on Monday and on Wednesday I went to pick up his box2 and nearly lost my mind. I was bringing my son home in a box. How unfair was that? There was no new baby smells, no crying, no cuddling. Inside the box was a small, Ziplock sized bag that contained what remained of his physical body. Imagine two cups of flour. That’s about the equivalent of what was left of my son. I thought it ironic too that there was a pad lock with numbers holding the bag together3. Who was going to steal him? Did they think I was going to inhale him? After I looked inside that box, my soul left my body, I think, and I was left empty. I couldn’t breathe– literally. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t hear anything besides my own heart exploding. I closed that box and didn’t open it again for 2 years.

When I went through the comments to both Heather and Shana (Thalon’s mom) I was reminded of what kinds of things I hated hearing while I was deep in my grief. So many people left them heartfelt condolences and didn’t mean to be hurtful, but so many of those comments would have sent me (during my grief) into a spiral.

To me the worst thing would be to be reminded that someone somewhere has a living child. For example, “I hugged my little one a little tighter today in your child’s honor” is meant to offer comfort, but is hurtful to a newly grieving mother. She can’t hug her child anymore. Her child is gone and the above comment just brought the pain of that realization to the surface.

Another one was “When my twin toddlers came running to me today…” Again, a new grieving mother can no longer experience whatever it was that those toddlers did. She lost that when she lost her child. That is agony for her. The sentiment of the comment will be realized later, but when she initially sees that her grief and pain will be compounded. It’s inevitable. I don’t think that anyone who has never lost a child can understand why being sentimental about your living child to a newly grieving mother can make things just a little bit worse. Or, if she was like me, a whole lot worse.

I knew for three months in advance that Gabriel was going to die. I had grief counseling before he was even born. I was warned that people would say things that were meant well but that would hurt me. I was supposed to be prepared. I wasn’t. I can’t imagine what it’s like for a mother to all of the sudden loss her child. For her baby to be there one minute and lost the next. I can’t imagine that, in those situations, those mothers are any better at handling stories of living children than I was.

I’m lucky in two respects (as compared to other mothers who have lost their children): I knew Gabriel was going to die and he died shortly after birth. So I was prepared and I didn’t get weeks, months or years of bonding time with him. But I still lost my mind when the mortuary came for his little body. I still lost my mind when I saw living children. I still lost my mind when I brought that box of ashes home. But I didn’t have those memories of him to torment me even more. Just my two days with him in the hospital. That didn’t diminish my pain, of course, but I didn’t have the shock and all that goes with having a living child which would, no doubt, add to the struggle for breath. I am heartbroken for Heather and Shana, but can’t offer them comfort because there is none. Not right now.

I hope that both mothers stay away from their blogs and Twitter for a while. Even when you think you’re strong and you think you understand what is being said, the pain still grips you just a little tighter when living children are mentioned. They have lost that when they lost their babies. They don’t need to be constantly reminded of their loss by well-meaning people who think all children bring comfort and joy. That’s just not so for mothers who have just lost one of their own.

Two things helped me when I was grieving.

One was to be part of a support group for grieving parents (as opposed to grieving spouses and such). Being able to talk and to listen to other people that have been where I was brought me a little peace of mind. I learned that what I was feeling was normal and that it was ok to feel all of those negative things I was feeling. I didn’t have to be polite when someone was being thoughtless. I didn’t have to journey alone.

The second one was gardening. I started by planting a tree as a living memorial for Gabriel. Then I repotted all of the plants I’d received at his funeral. They were just more living, growing memorials to my son4. Then I made flowerbeds so I could display little garden statues and plaques in his honor. I picked perennials so they would keep coming back. I took care of those plants like they were my child. I talked to them, I fed them, I weeded them. I mothered those plants. I was productive and that eased my mind tremendously.

My advice to anyone wishing to offer comfort to Heather and Shana is to just offer condolences and maybe point them to other mothers who can offer understanding. As much as you want to do so, you just can’t understand their pain unless you’ve traveled their road. There is a tremendous comfort in being heard by someone who has survived their own pain and remember what it felt like.

And please, though you mean well and are seeking to lessen their pain, don’t mention your own living children. Not now. They will only feel unfairly reminded of their own tragic loss. The wound is so fresh, the heartbreak so recent and the hole so gaping that it will not help them right now.

I just wanted to say that I didn’t intentionally ignore the fathers who have lost their children. They experience it a little differently– and sadly, are expected to be stronger. Their own grief is pushed aside as society, I think, doesn’t expect them to feel pain at the loss of their child. That’s incredibly unfair to the fathers and I in no way want to diminish their grief. I wrote this post from a mother’s perspective and shared my own feelings.

Sour Grapes has also felt the sting of loss and offers this from the comments:

The comfort for those mothers (and fathers) will come when they realise you can actually survive such a blow. Your life can go on. But that’s not something to suggest at this stage.

My advice to friends of the bereaved: don’t try to make it better, or make it less. Try to see that it’s at least as bad as your friend is making it out to be (she’s actually trying to make it easy for you). Never dismiss the sorrow, the rage, the anger, the frustration. If you can’t handle it up close, stay away and send a nice card. You’ll get your chance to be chirpy and upbeat later.

He’s right. The parents will feel guilty for causing your discomfort while they grieve. They don’t want to burden you with their own pain. I do remember 6 or 7 weeks after Gabriel’s funeral when someone said to me “You’re still crying? Isn’t it time to get over it?” I wasn’t over it. Am still not “over it”, though I’ve learned to let go. Give them time. Mommy and Daddy will need so much time. More than you can possibly understand. And, yes, realize that they are both trying to make this whole experience more easy for you by not letting loose with all of their feelings. Just because the mothers and fathers seem “ok” and “courageous” and “graceful” doesn’t necessarily mean they feel that way.

memorial to Gabriel.

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  1. Oops. Too late. []
  2. His ashes were put in a picture box instead of an urn and we put a picture of him in it. []
  3. The state of Ohio requires a serial number for all cremations. []
  4. I still have them all, as a matter of fact, save for the tree which was left behind when we moved. []

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