Why a glimpse behind the curtain to the deeply personal and hidden grief of a bereaved parent? Not to inspire your pity; of that I can assure you. Instead to inspire others to look beyond the surface of a grieving friend or family member. To consider how families are affected by loss, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, as well as the unique family dynamics that result; which might help you comfort, support and encourage them. The bereaved desperately want to be understood, to have their feelings validated, to break free of the isolation, to mourn unrushed, to have another share their sorrow (not attempt to fix it). This post was written months ago and is not reflective of my current state of mind.
Two Years Later . . .
This morning, the 2nd anniversary of Bethany & Katie’s deaths, I woke up in my in-laws guest room and told the Lord,
I miss my babies. I miss the life I used to live. I miss the sweet ignorance of not knowing what disease plagued Gracen and Katie’s bodies, the unappreciated bliss of an unknown prognosis. I miss my failure to understand that You, Lord, promised to walk through this life of trials with me, never once leaving me, but not to protect me from the free will of others and not to make life pain free.
I miss waking up with purpose. Waking to enjoy the the birds singing and the sun shining.
I miss hugs and smiles and laughter — the sounds of life in my home. I miss making cookies just to hear Katie’s whoop of joy. Watching David and Bethany laugh over movie lines that cause me to roll my eyes. Seeing Katie sit at Bethany’s feet joyful that her big sister was home from college.
I miss arguments and bad attitudes and snark and sass. I miss seeing Katie curled up in David’s lap to watch a movie, David teasing Bethany and listening to him negotiate with Katie for hugs and kisses.
I miss sibling rivalry and laughter and two ganging up on one. I miss hearing how Gracen stood up for Katie at school, how Bethany watched out for Gracen and coming home to find all three watching music videos loud enough for the neighbors on either side to enjoy (?) too.
I miss praying for Bethany and Katie. I miss inviting You, Lord, close instead of desperately clinging to You. I miss what was and will never be again. I miss the life I’d planned to have. I miss ignorance and curse knowledge and I hate the last images of Bethany and Katie seared upon my mind, taunting me with their stillness, eyes once full of life and love vacant and unseeing.
I miss the me I used to be; the me I wish I could be again. I miss the me who did not live with the ever present ache of loss. The me who did not have to fortify herself for a simple trip to church, the me who did not have to plan in advance answers to everyday questions to guard my heart, my privacy and to avoid making others uncomfortable. I miss genuine smiles. I miss the ease with which I faced a day and the dark of night; of restful sleep, a focused mind, and simple motivation. I miss anticipation and excitement.
I miss having all the bar stools at my counter filled. . . I just miss so much — it all haunts me while I’m simultaneously thankful for Gracen and David. Joy and sorrow side by side — both aware of all I have and all I’ve lost in every moment of every day. One word defines my life — bittersweet.
And as I rolled over and curled in upon myself, I asked the Lord to help me get up and get going, to be a good house guest, to ignore the onslaught of sorrow, deep and numbing. To be able to be present instead of withdrawing from everyday conversation in desperate need for time alone — for the distraction fiction provides.
I finally rose at 10:30, hours later than I usually rise when we visit Kansas City. And when I entered living room Sunny greeted me with a warm, “Good morning sleepyhead”, and Donna quietly went about frying an egg for me, then sat down at the table to visit with me while I ate. No frustration, just uncomplicated acceptance and the kindness they have always shown me over the last twenty-eight years. I found my heart full to the brim with both gratitude and sorrow — both of which my wonderful in-laws share with me. I am not alone in my loss, in my sorrow, and in gratitude for what remains.
Empathy (shared sorrow) is so much more comforting than the fellowship of sorrow and pity. Pity pops in to express sympathy and promptly exits. Pity is love without commitment. It lures and deceives the grief-stricken with a promise of support only to silently slip away. Shared sorrow blesses the grieving by claiming a seat at the table of sorrow and dining on the bitter taste of disappointment and despair; drinking from the cup of agony before pulling out the dessert plates and loading them up with the sweet savor of united hearts and minds. Shared sorrow is committed love.
Helping the Bereaved Bear their Burdens
1. People outside the immediate circle of loss, tend to view the death of a loved one from a broad, general perspective. The bereaved grieve in fine detail. Acknowledging specific losses, unfinished plans, a lost legacy and the empty seat at the dinner table communicates to the bereaved that you care about the depths of their loss.
2. Speak the loved one’s name. When a baby is stillborn or dies shortly after birth the family is left with a void they are unable to fill with memories of their child. Using their child’s name, asking about the infant’s birth weight, length and hair color affirm the child’s worth. Avoidance equals isolation.
3. Speak the loved one’s name-regardless of their age at the time of death. As time goes on, the name of a loved one is spoken less and less frequently. The bereaved want their loved ones remembered. Mentioning their name, telling a family member you thought of their loved one and you miss them is a great blessing. Speak about their loved one in a positive way, don’t just say how sorry you are for their loss.
4. Many bereaved parents feel as if others treat them as if they are cursed following the death of a child. Avoiding bereaved parents because you are unsure what to say or do can frequently be perceived in unintended ways. So, avoidance is not the answer. Call or visit and simply say, “I have no words.” “I don’t know how to help, but I want to be there for you. Tell me what you need to hear from me.”, and if you love the bereaved person keep trying to reach out, but don’t make them responsible for making you feel comfortable in their presence.
5. Don’t expect the bereaved to step back into ministry roles and other normal activities. Some will return quickly, some will take six months or a year. Some will never return to that specific ministry or activity. Be sensitive. Churches are often in need of members to serve, but be careful not to push.
6. Never compare the loss of a loved one to the death of a pet (it’s more common than you think). The loss of a child and a spouse are the most devastating losses the bereaved endure. Don’t tell the grief-stricken that you understand how they feel because you lost a uncle, grandparent or parent. The level of intimacy in the severed relationship determines the depth of grief experienced.
7. When a parent loses a child, never say, “Well at least you have two more.” or “Be thankful for the ones you still have.” The death of one child doesn’t negate the parent’s love for the rest of their children. Grief and gratitude can and do co-exist. And the birth of subsequent children do not replace the child that died.
8. Don’t be offended if the bereaved don’t personally call you to notify you of the death. It is not at all unusual to for the bereaved to be too emotionally overwrought to call even their closest friends and family members. It’s is however, very common to contact one family member and ask them to contact the rest of the family. It’s not a slight. Some are busy at hospitals, others are in shock, and some just can’t speak.
9. Don’t ask for details especially in the case of suicide, murder, or accidents. Those who need to will share that information with someone they are close to. Others do not want to remember their loved one that way and may have been traumatized by things they’ve seen and experienced. Rehearsing it is retraumatizing and sometimes leaves the bereaved feeling as if you care more about the gory details than you do about them.
10. If you have pictures of the deceased, email copies or get prints made and bring them to the family. Every picture is a coveted treasure.