One of the things Marc says he loves the most about me (which is ironic because it’s one of the things I like least) is my enthusiasm. He loves my honesty too. A priest friend once told me I shared a quality with St. Peter – act first, think later. AKA: open mouth, insert foot all the way to the hip.
Put those three qualities together and sometimes they have unintended consequences – like The Perfect Storm! Yesterday I was writing an entry about the book Grief Diaries: How to Help the Newly Bereaved and in my enthusiasm about the book , and being in Compassionate Friends mode, it appears that instead of monitoring those three qualities very carefully, I was giving them free rein.
A dear friend emailed me this morning telling me that after reading my post, they felt convicted that they’d said something that ended up being more like a ‘butcher knife thrust’ than the ‘intended verbal hug’. My heart leapt into my throat as I read the email. I realized at that moment that I hadn’t thought through very carefully what I wrote yesterday and it might have hurt more people than just my friend who was brave and trusting enough to email me about it.
I talked to Marc about yesterday’s blog entry and his response was that this blog is probably best understood by someone who has also lost a child. Even though it could be/sometimes is helpful to many other people, those experiencing grief, those wanting to know how they can help loved ones going through grief, and those as my cousin this morning affectionately put it, ‘those who love you most’, the main focus is in dealing with a specific grief – the loss of a young child. What I’m probably forgetting as I write is that not everyone can relate or understand the meaning behind the words, that maybe an explanation is necessary to avoid hurting anyone.
That being said, what I didn’t write, because it didn’t occur to me, was to explain WHY certain comments hurt instead of help. It would take me years to understand it myself. Thankfully I recently read a brief but excellent explanation, no doubt written by someone who understands what happens when we’re experiencing intense grief. It explains far better than I can why grieving parents are hurt by comments that were never intended to hurt.
Especially right after a child has died, the parents are literally stripped of all the inner protection all of us have most of the time and don’t even know we have it. Someone in that state has absolutely no filters and no capacity for perspective so that even when someone speaks something true (or maybe true…who knows) like God wanted their child with Him, the grieving parent has no ability to process that. It cannot penetrate the grief, grief which is screaming, “I want my child back!” Most condolences of that sort simply reinforce the knowledge that the child is not coming back; they make the reality more acute in that moment.
Within that loss of inner protection is a very real loss of spiritual identity and a loss of being able to see life, as it has become, through a helpful spiritual lens. There is too much pain and too much chaos within to be able to find any sort of comfort or direction from the consolations offered by people. It’s almost as if the language, which was an integral part of you before, suddenly becomes incomprehensible. You hear it but the fact that you can’t grasp it or find some way to integrate it also reinforces the totality of the loss. Loss within loss at a time when a parent can barely find the mental and emotional energy to do anything except cry to God to return their child to them.
What people do not understand is that when they talk to a grieving parent, they are talking to someone who is absolutely shell-shocked and is drowning in a kind of post traumatic stress disorder. They cannot hear. The parent is not just a normal person going through a rough time with all their normal faculties and normal grasp on their faith. They hear things differently, absorb them differently and interpret them differently than other people and they are helpless to be otherwise and are terribly vulnerable. Not unlike when a soldier comes back from a brutal war and something small like someone dropping a cup immediately puts them back in the war zone, back in the danger and back in the terror because their brain has been rewired by the trauma, so too with parents who have lost a child.
People do not understand that complete loss of ‘normal’ coping skills. Grieving parents not only lose their child, they struggle with many losses within the Loss that they do not understand.”
I admit that when I wrote the paragraph yesterday about comments that though intended to be helpful were actually hurtful and I quoted a few; I just opened my iPad Kindle app found one page with things not to say and I randomly listed a few as examples. They were not handpicked to share the ones that I remember hurting the most. And when I said I’d heard many of the comments in the ‘things not to say’ chapter, again that was not intended to be intentionally directed at any one or more individuals. A lot of people shared their concern and their desire to ease our pain in those first weeks and months after Bernadette died. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately!) we/I honestly can’t remember who said what! At the time our minds were in such a thick fog and our memories were so muddled that even if some of those things were said to us we couldn’t actually recall who said what. We knew people cared and that they were probably very uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say so they said what they’d heard over the years or what was said to them at one time or another. It was only NOW, when the storm has calmed down from a class 5 hurricane to a class 2 or 1 that I have started to really become aware that standard sayings, “It’s God will” etc. were painful and to ask WHY? When I shared yesterday’s blog, I was focusing on the shared experience of painful comments, nothing more. And the article I quoted above explains why the experience seems to be universal.
I unfortunately can not reach out to everyone who might have felt guilty over my post yesterday to assure them that I am not hanging onto any hurt. I wish I could tell them what I told one friend once who told me she was so scared of saying something that would hurt me. I assured her that I’d already experienced the worst pain I could ever imagine and that her words, if they hurt at all, would be like a pinprick compared to crashing at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It would be a tragedy if what I wrote increases people’s fears of speaking to me and others who are vulnerable due to their intense pain. Their silence and distance would be more painful than their words. The love behind the words and the hugs that speak a deeper language of love than words are what are remembered and treasured.