30 September 2011

Conversations :: "You shouldn't be sad because ..."

Losing a child makes for some potentially strained and awkward social interactions, especially when you’re meeting people for the first time. I thought I would spend some time this week talking about what some of those conversations have been and how we’ve chosen to handle them. These posts are intended to be descriptive (my explanation of what we have chosen to say or not say in these conversations) rather than prescriptive (this isn’t me saying: “this is how you do it”). I simply want to share what these conversations are, what has worked for me, and hopefully spark some discussion around what has worked for you if you’ve been a part of conversations like these as well.

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You can have another baby
Perhaps the hardest thing for me to hear from others after Ewan died (and the most common) was, “Well, at least you can have another baby,” or some version thereof. I was still recovering from birth. The sod was still fresh on his grave. And they were talking about another baby as if that were a fitting salve for our loss.

the ache.

I am acquainted with a number of other mothers who are familiar with what it is to lose a child, and I am fairly certain that at one point or another, we have all heard some version of this statement said to us.

I had a good friend remind me in those first weeks and months after Ewan’s death that people are doing the best they can. Losing anyone is a tremendous difficulty, and losing a child in particular is especially devastating in that it’s one of those things that just isn’t supposed to happen. It turns the right and natural order of things on its head. People want to say something because they want to acknowledge your loss and they want to help. There are very few words out there that are any good at all in moments like these and unfortunately, these are sometimes the ones that come out.

On those days I was feeling particularly resentful at having heard someone say this to me again, I thought, “Yeah, they are doing the best they can with a difficult situation. But I’m the one who buried my child here. I know it’s hard to find things to say, but on the other hand, should that really be my problem?”

I knew I could probably have more children. I was young and healthy and we had conceived Ewan with no real difficulty.

But I missed him. I wanted him. I was never going to be able to take the photographs of him that I had dreamed of taking. I was never going to get to give him a bath or dress him or read him a story. I was never going to see him smile or hear him laugh.

I missed him, and no number of additional pregnancies and healthy babies could or will change that fact.

What was it, I wondered, that made this such a common thing to say? Do people reason that because these children aren’t alive outside the womb for very long that the parents don’t get as attached? Is it supposed that because we missed out on so many normal types of parenting moments that we’re not able to develop the same type of loving relationship with our children? Do they think that we did not also cherish our pregnancies, laugh at our children’s in utero antics on display, or make plans for all the things we would do together? Or is it because we have a culture that increasingly sees children as disposable and as inconveniences rather than as unique human individuals?

James and I were talking about this one night. It was after Ewan had died and I was still on maternity leave. Someone else had said this to me and I wondered, what gives? Why do so many people say this? How do you make the point that while you may very well have the ability to have more children, you can never, ever replace the one you lost?

It was James that said something like, “You know, you would never tell a grieving widow, ‘At least you can get married again.’” She very well might be able to get married again, but she can never replace the spouse she lost. James was right. In almost any other situation where someone was grieving the death of someone she loved, it was not only unthinkable, but unheard of to imply that the relationship could be replaced.

So what did I say to people who said, “But you can have more children”? I said, “Perhaps, yes. But I miss him. I miss my Ewan. There will never be another one of him ever again.”

It’s been a long time since anyone has said that to me, and there are some I suppose who think that because I’ve got a healthy baby on the way, my grief has passed. But those words still ring as true now as they did then. Even as I exult over the new life inside, I still weep for the boy I didn’t get to hold nearly enough. There’s no one like him.

He's not suffering anymore
I was told on the day he died and many times after, "You should be glad that he isn't suffering anymore." I think it was also on that same day I even heard, "You should be happy. He's in heaven now."

I had given birth just over two weeks prior. The body of my newborn barely cold, and someone was telling me I had a good reason to be happy?

Believe me, watching your newborn endure open heart surgeries and other highly invasive procedures is no cakewalk. Being helpless to offer any real help as he fights as bacterial infection while also attempting to recover from all these things is more than enough to make you shake your fist at the universe and demand an answer for his pain, and for yours.

The truth is, I was glad he wasn't suffering anymore. I absolutely hated what he had been through, and I hated the thought of him facing anymore if he had survived all those things. But I was hardly happy about any of it. Nine months of anticipating and hoping and waiting for him, and months more before that of dreaming and praying and wanting him to come, and he was gone sixteen days after I met him face to face. I felt robbed. All around me, people who had done all the same things as me in preparing for their children were either holding their babies or anticipating their arrival without the complications of a severe heart defect.

Even a year later, the fact that Ewan isn't suffering anymore is hardly comforting. While it may be true and while I hated every minute of what he had to endure, what statements like these fail to recognize is the tension that exists between what we know and what we feel. I've written about this multiple times. I can be thankful that my son no longer suffers with a body that could not sustain his life, and at the same time, groan and weep and grieve that he is no longer here.

I suppose there is a kind of logic to thinking that the cessation of his suffering should mitigate my feelings of loss -- that one truth should answer the moans and wails of the other. But I have no interest the kind of logic that reasons that because his suffering has stopped, mine should also. It falls too far shy of human.

And so in these instances I say that "Yes, I am thankful that Ewan no longer suffers. It was an impossible thing to watch. But I still love my child, and he is not here with me as he should be." I will have a whole lifetime of pondering would-have-beens. "Ewan may no longer be suffering," I will say, "but this still isn't right."

There's a quote from the C. S. Lewis book A Grief Observed, which is a raw and emotional account of his journey through grief after the loss of his wife. It is fitting to add it here:
And poor C. quotes me, "Do not mourn like those that have no hope." It astonishes me, the way we are invited to apply to ourselves words so obviously addressed to our betters. What St. Paul says can comfort only those who love God better than the dead, and the dead better than themselves. If a mother is mourning not for what she has lost but for what her dead child has lost, it is a comfort to believe that the child has not lost the end for which it was created. And it is a comfort to believe that she herself, in losing her chief or only natural happiness, has not lost a greater thing, that she may still hope to "glorify God and enjoy Him forever." A comfort to the God-aimed, eternal spirit within her. But not to her motherhood. The specifically maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place or time, will she have her son on her knees, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, or see her grandchild.

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Conversation Time!

I know there are a lot of you out there who have been in these shoes and have heard these words, too. Whether the child was your first (you can have more!), your last (at least you’ve got other healthy children!), or anywhere in between – what, if anything, have you said to those who tell you ‘you can have more “or that “at least you have more”? What reasons were you given for why you shouldn't be so sad? How have people responded to what you said? Was there anything someone said to you that was helpful?

For those of you who love and support parents who have lost children, what has been most difficult for you about watching your friends grieve? Was there anything you did or said that proved helpful for them?

Please discuss on the Team Ewan page on Facebook.