I haven’t posted on here much in the past two months. And that’s because in the midst of the greatest torment of my personal life, I’ve had to endure the greatest torment of my professional life.
In order to remain professional, I haven’t written about that, though I will share a few details in an upcoming post. Suffice it to say, that period is now behind me, and I am making a cautious foray back into writing.
I’m sure this will offend some people, but one topic has been gnawing and gnawing at me these past months, begging to be explored as more and more observations have piled up. And that’s that some people can be pretty fucking clueless when it comes to grief and sympathy. (I apologize, sort of, for the swearing – for the sensitive-minded, there’s a bit more of it in this post.)
Of all of the comments and sentiments that have been shared with me since Luke died, a few have been of the thoughtless variety. Saying that time will make things better. No, it fucking doesn’t. My pain is deeper below the surface, but it’s still just as intense. One person said they hoped my time off had helped me to heal. Well, after you bury your child, you never fucking heal. That shit haunts you forever. One person asked what was the name I was planning to use. Um, I wasn’t planning to use it. My son is a person and that’s his name. Someone referred to my stillbirth as a miscarriage. I don’t mean to diminish the anguish and grief of those who have experienced miscarriage, but I Delivered a Dead Baby, and it’s just another category all together.
But for all the insensitivity of these comments, I wouldn’t trade a single one of them for the alternative of no comment at all. At least I know those people made an effort, even if it was a careless one.
And that’s a sentiment I’ve heard universally from every one of the baby loss moms I’ve come to know. We’d much rather people say the wrong thing than say nothing at all.
We hold this sentiment so strongly that it has turned our minds into card catalogs where we mentally file each of our relatives, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances and how they have responded to our tragedy. It’s a Dewey decimal system for grief, of sorts, and it’s completely upended our social web from how we knew and experienced it B.L.-Before Loss.
Flip through the catalog to “People with Golden Hearts” and that’s where you’ll find the people who have written, called, texted, messaged, and emailed repeatedly in the months since our loss. I’m sad to report that it’s a really small number, especially on Zack’s side. His colleagues and almost all of his friends have fallen down terribly in this regard and I’ve written most of them off. I file those people under “Dead to Me,” though I’m probably much too polite to ever reveal these feelings in public.
Flip to “People Who Disappoint” and there are the those who acknowledged the loss in a card, email, or text but have remained uncomfortably silent in person. Or the people who inquired once, meekly, about our well-being, but never again. One evening Zack and I endured hours over dinner and drinks with people who basically made small talk and didn’t say one word about our loss. The anger and grief welled up within me and it was all I could do not to run into the bathroom and bawl and scream.
Then you get to “People Who Have Moved On” and there are those who seem to think that it’s four months out and I must be over it by now. At a recent gathering of friends, people clustered around and cooed over a newborn baby. Which is fine and understandable, but not one of them came up and put an arm around me and said, “This must be really hard for you—how are you doing? I know Luke would be about four months old now.” And that really hurt. (Which made me feel guilty, because I really did want to be happy for my friend.)
Many people have said to me some variation of “It’s not that people don’t care. It’s that they don’t know what to say or are afraid of saying the wrong thing.”
That’s such a fucking copout and it makes me incredibly angry. If you know me and cherish our relationship, I would advise you not to ever say this to me.
Here’s the solution to not knowing what to say. THINK ABOUT IT FOR A FEW MINUTES. Or use fucking Google, for Christ’s sake. It’s really not that difficult.
In fact, for those who have asked what they can do for us, that’s it right there. Don’t make me a casserole or send me a gift card. All I ask is that you stop and think for a few minutes about what it must be like to unexpectedly lose someone close to you. Then understand that I’m not looking for people to deliver magic words that are going to reveal the heart of the universe and instantly wipe my grief away. In fact, there are no words that can do that. I just need to know that you’re thinking about me, and more importantly, that you’re thinking about Luke. I just need to know you care.
Those kind of sentiments mean the world and bring the lift I need to get through of the day-by-day, ugly, arduous, in-your-face slog of life on Planet I Delivered a Dead Baby. A colleague emails me periodically to let me know she thinks of and prays for me every day. One person reached out, after a brief encounter with her and her young son, to say she was sorry if the meeting was a trigger and made me sad. It was a beautiful display of empathy and I was incredibly moved.
I guess each of us is afraid of death to some degree and this is why it can be so hard for people to feel empathy in these situations. It brings them perilously close to their greatest fears. But there is no single more meaningful thing that you can do than to spend a few minutes of solidarity with me and other grieving individuals in our intense sadness. We don’t get to escape this planet, so the least you can do is come for a short visit.
If you acknowledge my loss, you’re not going to suddenly, unexpectedly remind me of something I’ve been trying to shove away and never think about. I think about Luke. All. The. Time. How could I not? He’s in my thoughts first thing in the morning and last thing at night. When I’m in the bookstore and see the happy, innocent couple with the 2-year-old daughter and the newborn son. When my friends are making a fuss over someone else’s baby. When pregnant women aren’t sensitive to my situation. When “Mary Did You Know” comes on the holiday CD I picked up from the library (I instantly changed the lyrics in my mind to horrible, awful words and had to skip ahead to the next song).
Saying you’re thinking of me isn’t going to be a trigger for my grief-it’s actually going to make it a little bit easier. NOT saying something, in fact, is more likely to be the trigger.
I don’t want years to pass and to end up thinking that Luke was just a figment of my imagination, to steal the title of Elizabeth McCracken’s stillbirth memoir. I want people to use his name. To write it on cards. To include him in their celebrations. To say it when they notice a fog of sadness creep into my eyes.
If you’re one of those people who didn’t say anything, or made a half-assed effort, or did something insensitive, things are not beyond repair. All you need to do is say, I’m sorry I didn’t call or write, I’m sorry I said or did this, I know it was a copout, I know I was a coward, I know I put my foot in my mouth. I feel really bad about that, and I just want you to know I think of you, and Zack, and Zoe, and Luke, and your entire family and I feel the pain of your son’s loss deeply.
That’s what it takes to have a golden heart.