02 October 2011

Conversations :: {Conclusion} And sometimes they get it right

Lest it be thought that people only ever said and did the wrong thing after my son died, I wanted to share some stories where people got it right (thanks for the idea, Michelle!).

After Ewan left us, we were told a lot, "If there's anything I can do, please don't hesitate." While genuinely moved by the offer for help (and more than willing to take people up on the offer), we were both so overwhelmed at the time, it was difficult to know what sorts of things would really be helpful to us. So while the stories below aren't meant to be a prescription for "how to help out grieving parent," these are things that did us both a world of good.

ewan's funeral
As far as this mama is concerned, a hug is never out of order!

I hardly need to recount for you how, after the initial diagnosis, James and I were devastated. We couldn’t talk about Ewan without weeping, grieving what we were losing (the normal and expected “we’re having a baby" experience) and the tremendous challenges we knew Ewan would face. I had imagined finding out the sex of our baby at the ultrasound, and then promptly running to the store to pick up a few gender-specific items of clothing to celebrate. That never happened.

But a weekend or two later, my parents came to visit for the weekend. Mom had picked out a little navy onesie with a striped orange, yellow, and brown tie appliqu├ęd on the front. Dad had picked out a little blue stuffed dog. The tag read, “For our grandson, Ewan.” As devastated as they were about the diagnosis (and Ewan their first grandchild, too), they still found Ewan worth celebrating. He was still here, he was still alive, and diagnosis be darned -- we were still going to celebrate that baby. It was one of the best and most life-affirming feelings in the world.

Practical Help
When we were in the hospital and after Ewan died, several friends and church members brought meals to the hospital. They had a cafeteria there, but it didn’t take long at all to grow weary of the fare they served. And after Ewan’s death, it was a welcome relief not to have to go grocery shopping or worry about what to fix for dinner. I think we had meals coming to us most nights for a period of about six weeks or so. I didn’t even have to ask. Someone offered to organize it, and all I had to do was say yes, and the food was brought to our door. We felt incredibly loved and cared for (and had some incredible meals).

One of my friends told me she wasn't particularly confident as a cook, but still wanted to help. I remember at that point, going out and getting simple day-to-day things done seemed like too much. So she did our laundry and grocery shopping a few times. A few weeks later when she asked me if there was anything more she could do (and I was feeling up to rejoining the world outside again), I asked her if we could just spend some time together. It was exactly what I needed.

Identifying and Filling a Need
It didn't ever feel right for me to ask for money after Ewan died. I knew we were facing some incredible expenses, but something in me at the time couldn't stomach the thought of asking for that kind of help. Finally, someone approached me and said something like, "Listen. There are a lot of people who are asking how to help you out financially. At a time like this, the last thing they want you worrying about is how you're going to pay for things. So let me figure out an easy way for them to help you." And that was that. A webpage was set up where people could send donations electronically. The fact that someone else could identify that need and be so proactive in following through on an easy and practical way to do it was very helpful for us.

The UPS Man
It was just a few days after Ewan had died that our UPS man (the same one who had delivered many a baby gift to our door) came with another delivery. By then it was obvious that I was no longer pregnant. “Hey, you had your baby!” he said excitedly. “Where is he?” It was the first time I had to tell someone who didn’t already know what had happened. I blurted out something completely awkward like, “He was born with a heart defect, and he died.” His face instantly turned ashen and he said quite sincerely, “I am so deeply sorry for your loss. I have no idea of the grief you must be feeling right now.” He listened attentively as I told him briefly about Ewan, our hospital stay, and what the past several days had been like. He came back to our door at the end of his shift that same day to make a delivery of his own: flowers and a card from him and his wife. And in the card, he called Ewan by name. I don't think I understood how powerful it was to hear other people say his name and acknowledge his personhood in that way until that moment.

The Dentist
It was so interesting to watch how my family and James and I moved through our grief together. When my mom had seen the dentist (the same dentist I grew up with) at her last 6-month check-up before Ewan was born, we hadn’t gotten the diagnosis yet. By the time it came for her next check-up later in the fall, Ewan had been born and died. As they were catching up on all that had happened, Mom explained to him that I had had a baby boy and that he had later died due to complications from a serious heart defect. By then, Mom had been used to hearing, “I’m sorry,” only to have the other person promptly change the topic, assuming she wouldn’t want to talk about him. But our dentist asked, “What is his name?” and gave her leave to talk about what he was like. I remember her telling me, “He is my grandson. Of course I want to talk about him!” I knew I always liked that dentist.

Don’t underestimate the power of hugs and crying together
Honestly for me, one of the best and most healing things for me was those who, like me, found themselves without any words at all. They were devastated and stunned, and they were grieving, too. They knew there was nothing they could do to fix this. It was so powerful just for someone to hug me like they meant it, and cry with me. No apologies, no timeline, no excuses, no feeling of "when is this going to be over?" -- just grieving together instead of apart.

A final word
If there's anything I know about grief and loss, it is that while the devastation and types of emotions experienced by the bereaved are often shared in common, the way in which different people express and move through that grief is very different. People often shared with me after Ewan's death how brave it was that I was so transparent and open with it. The truth is, it didn't feel to me like I was being especially transparent or brave in talking and writing about it openly, because in my mind, I was simply working through my grief in the way that felt most natural to me. I found it both healing and incredibly cathartic.

There are many people I know who are much more private with their grief -- maybe they don't feel like talking openly about their loss, or perhaps they are not particularly fond of hugs. Grief is an intimate, intense, and deeply personal thing. Perhaps they feel the need to withdraw for awhile. And while that is not my particular bent, I definitely get this side of it, too. It seems that for many, it will take a lot of time to be able to open up and talk about it with anyone. For some, it may be something they process through privately in a journal or in the confines of their own minds.

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Conversation Time

I know this is delving into some deeply personal territory, so please only share if you feel completely comfortable and safe doing so.

If you've been in the position of grieving the death of someone you loved, what were the things that others said and did that you found helpful and/or honoring? 
Do you tend to be more expressive or private with how you experience your loss (or does it depend on the person asking, how you're feeling that day, the situation you're in, etc.)? 
What kinds of things worked best for you in working through the feelings of loss?

The conversation is happening in the Team Ewan community on Facebook