Almost all comments made to a bereaved parent are said with the very best of intentions and with the hope of providing even a small bit of comfort at a time when giving comfort seems an impossibly lofty goal. People mean well. I know they do. That said, sometimes what sounds good in your head may be like a dagger to the heart of a grief-stricken parent. There are so many socially acceptable sympathy catch phrases used nowadays that I can only guess were coined by someone who has either never dealt with grief or who has a much thicker skin than I. I heard a few of those phrases immediately after Ella died. They were the types of things that people say when they aren't quite sure what to say, but are they the right things to say? Are those phrases helpful, or are they hurtful? I’m sure some would say that it’s the thought that counts. And who am I to take anyone to task for offering sympathy or for inarticulately but sincerely expressing his condolences?
This is such a sensitive subject, maybe even a slightly controversial one, but I think it is one that warrants clarification. I’m going to try to be as honest as possible here, giving what were and, to a certain extent, still are my reactions to some of what was said or written to me after Ella died. I would humbly ask that you bear in mind that sometimes honesty is a little more blunt and a little less PC. I would hope that whoever reads this does so with an open mind and an open heart and without feeling as though he is being called to the carpet because that is not my intention at all. I am not here to admonish anyone or to do any finger pointing. I am not lashing out to cause people pain because of my own pain. My purpose - my genuine desire - is to share how well-intentioned words can sometimes cause unintended pain.
And so we begin a countdown of sorts, a list of the sentiments and phrases that may sound good in the giving but that can be painful in the receiving...
6. “Your little baby just earned her angel wings.” “Your baby’s an angel now.”
For some reason, this particular sentiment bothers me. I understand the thought behind it. What’s not to like about angels? They’re beautiful, float-y, eternally happy creatures, and they’ve got wings! Wings, people!! And just look at St. Michael the Archangel - he’s hardcore and totally awesome! He kicked the devil’s butt something fierce.
Except…people are NOT angels. As a Catholic, I believe that human beings were created by God in His image and likeness and were given bodies and souls. Angels are pure spirits that cannot die. I realize that not everyone believes the same thing, and I understand that there are parents out there who take great comfort in such statements as the bolded one above and in the idea that their much loved baby is now an angel. Me? Not so much. Hearing Ella referred to as an angel is just not a comfort to me; rather, hearing it makes me want to whip out the Catechism to explain proper theology.
My daughter, having been baptized in the Catholic Church and dying an innocent in a state of grace, is a saint. My sweet Ella is the patron saint of awesome.
5. “At least she’s not struggling/suffering anymore.”
No loving, sane, rational parent wants her child to suffer. Most parents would offer to take their children’s places if they could, if it meant that their kids wouldn’t have to suffer. I would have gladly taken on my daughter’s pain and suffering if I could have. But knowing that Ella’s suffering is over is such small relief in light of the fact that her suffering ended only with her death.
So I feel like the world’s biggest asshole for wanting her back here alive and in my arms because I know that for her, life meant struggle. Life meant an uncertain future that involved certain pain. Life meant surgery and scars, pokes, prods and needles, countless therapies and long recoveries.
But life meant LIFE. Oh, how I miss that sweet, precious, irreplaceable, beautiful life! Yes, her suffering has ended, but I can’t help but want her back.
4. “I just can’t imagine what you’re going through.” “Oh, I couldn’t imagine!”
I wake up every morning with the certain knowledge that my sweet baby is not here. I wake up knowing that I won’t get to hold her, feed her, hear her laugh, see her smile, play with her, bathe her, change her diaper, or watch her grow. I wake up every day knowing this, and I go to bed every night knowing this. I don’t have to imagine it, nor would I have ever wanted to imagine it. I most certainly don’t want others to have to imagine what I now live and know! When people say that they can’t imagine what I am going through, it only serves to underscore that I can’t imagine it either because I have to live it, think it and breathe it every day. I don’t have to imagine what it would be like if my child died because I live that horrible truth.
The very thought of the death of a child makes us whisper countless urgent prayers to God and a whole litany of saints. It shoves us down on our knees to beg for safety, mercy, protection and life. No one should have to imagine this type of heartache. For whatever reason, some of us have to live it. Please just take a moment to thank God if you don’t, and then go hug your kids and hold them tightly.
3. “God needed her up in Heaven.”
Really?! He needed her? For what?! He’s God! He has EVERYTHING! I needed her here in my arms, healed and healthy. I needed her to be here so that I could watch her grow up, so that I could hug her and kiss her and love her, so that I could sing her silly songs and play goofy games just to make her smile. I needed her to be here so that I could hear her squeal that squeal she did when she was happy, so that I could see her kick her legs when she was excited.
I will never understand God’s will in all of this, but that’s a post for another day. What I do believe is that God didn’t need her with Him. He chose for her to go Home sooner than we ever thought or wanted. His plan for her life was vastly different than ours, and we have to trust that plan. But He didn’t “need” her with Him.
2. “She’s in a better place now.”
This gem was said to me while I was sobbing over my sweet baby’s still and quiet body shortly after she passed away. Too numb to say what I was thinking, which was along the lines of “ARE YOU F*&%ING KIDDING ME?!”, I just nodded and kept crying.
Please please please - for the love of all that is right and holy in this world - do not say that phrase to someone who just lost a loved one. Even though that “Better Place” only became really real to me the moment my daughter died and even though they contain so much truth, those words are just utter unwelcome bullshit when the grief is still so raw. The best place in the world for Ella was in MY arms, and to say or imply otherwise, especially at the absolute worst moment in my life while she lay still warm but lifeless in my arms, was beyond excruciating. It breaks my heart and makes me cry to even think of it so many months later.
1. Saying nothing at all
Grief has led me to isolate myself and withdraw from so much of life - family and friends, people in general, places other than home, noise in general. I crave silence and solitude. Grieving is such an isolating and lonely thing to go through, but sometimes what makes it even lonelier is watching everyone else move on with their lives while I'm standing still but facing backward, trying to hold on to every single memory I have of my sweet girl. I can’t help but dwell on her short, sweet life and her absence from mine. She occupies so many of my thoughts at so many random times of the day and night. For some people to say nothing at all to acknowledge her absence or to acknowledge my loss is a difficult thing to bear. It is normal and expected, and it is the proper course of things as life does indeed go on. I do not expect daily affirmations, but it is still so difficult.
There’s something about our culture, I think, that makes us wary or afraid to talk about death, as though talking about it would invite it to our own doorsteps. We’re afraid to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, so we say nothing at all. Heck, I‘m guilty of this exact thing. I have been woefully negligent with regard to comforting the sorrowful, and even though my own situation has opened my eyes to my shortfalls with grieving friends, I still have so much trouble reaching out to them. Instead of holding them, I just hold myself back. The business of real life, my own sadness and the sense that anything I say will be totally inadequate all get in the way of just offering comfort.
I’ve told you my honest reactions to what was said to me, and I’ve told you how I have failed my own friends during their times of grief. So where does that leave the well-intentioned among us who want nothing more than to console those who are grieving? What should we say? Is there such a thing as a right or safe thing to say? In my opinion, there is; I would be remiss if I left you only with a fear of saying the “wrong” thing.
The most appreciated and most well-received sentiments that I’ve heard have included the following:
How are you?
I’m praying for you.
I'm here for you anytime.
I am so sorry.
I am so sorry.
I’m thinking about you.
I miss her, too.
She will always be remembered.
If there’s one thing you take away from this post, please let it be this: Never be afraid to offer comfort to the sorrowing as it is truly a spiritual work of mercy. By that same token, though, please consider what impact your words might have, however well-intentioned they are. Whisper a prayer to the Holy Spirit to guide you in your choice of words, and then think and feel before you speak.
St. Ella, pray for us!