Originally posted on my personal blog.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
~Romans 12:15, The Bible
It’s easy for most people to rejoice with someone who has something to celebrate. Most of us find it much harder to weep with another when met with their deep sorrow. I’ve been blessed to have a few people close to me who are excellent at both. Sometimes I have even felt my own feelings more consciously and more deeply after observing some of these friends’ genuine responses. They have helped me rejoice and weep for myself more honestly. I didn’t actually know that was possible before knowing these people with such a gift of empathy.
But many of us don’t have that gift. Empathy.
I love Brené Brown’s video explanation of empathy (it’s only two minutes, go ahead and click the link!). In short, it’s “feeling with people.” Two of my personal favorite points of her definition are: “Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with ‘at least,’” and “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
There are things you really should not say to grieving parents. “At least you already have two kids.” Yes, I do. And I am beyond grateful for them, especially in light of the loss of three other babies. But for someone else to say that to me communicates (no matter how unintentionally) that because I have those two precious, healthy girls, I should be less sad about the death of their youngest brother.
Here are some things that were said or done either to me, or to someone else who was grieving some kind of loss, that were not exactly helpful:
- On a rainy day after another woman’s miscarriage: “At least you don’t have to push a stroller through this mud today.”
- After one twin died in utero but the other survived: “At least you still have one living twin, and you won’t have to go through the difficulty of parenting twins.”
- After a big move: “That’s not a big problem compared to others’ suffering. You shouldn’t be this upset about it.”
- After a blighted ovum: a pregnancy in which there is no fetus visible on ultrasound, only a gestational sac. “At least there wasn’t actually a baby, so you can know no one actually died.”
- “You can always try again.”
- “I think you should get some testing done.”
- Some close family members never showed up in the immediate aftermath and have never since mentioned the loss.
Some of these examples seem cruel, though I know most people speak to those of us in grief with good intentions. But even those that aren’t “that bad” make light of the current sorrow or even cast blame, such as suggesting a couple who has lost multiple babies through miscarriage ought to have testing done to figure out what’s “wrong” with them. While in fresh grief, this can feel like being blamed for the miscarriage. Seeking testing is a decision that should be made by the couple, not imposed upon them by someone else. A grieving person might even think some of these things themselves, but that doesn’t mean others should feel free to voice these ideas. I’ve thought to myself this week, “It’s nice to drink regular coffee again,” but that doesn’t mean I’m glad to no longer be pregnant so that I can drink coffee! And that also doesn’t give someone else permission to say, “At least you can have coffee!”
The coffee is an intentionally trivial example. There are more serious things to be grateful for, like my two living children. It is true that I am abundantly thankful to have them, but from where I’m standing when someone else says, “I’m glad you at least have those two,” it feels like you’re trying to talk me out of my grief. Like you’re trying to cheer me up, help me lift my chin up and not be such a downer. But that is not an empathic response. I don’t need to be cheered up. A person doesn’t cheer up from great loss. I need somebody to sit beside me, hand me tissues, and need to grab one for themselves, too.
It can also be unhelpful to tell me stories of all the people you know who have lost babies. I say “it can be” rather than “it is” because in some cases, I’ve been connected to another mom or a group of moms who have lost babies, and sharing our stories has been quite healing. Forming connections can be so helpful. What is less helpful, however, is trying to help me look forward to the day I’ll have another baby or two or four just like your cousin or aunt or neighbor. Multiple people have essentially promised me future babies after each one of my losses this year. There are a few reasons I do not personally find these comments encouraging (and maybe there are people who do; I’m only speaking for myself here):
For one, future fertility is not yours to promise. Nor is it mine. Children are God’s to give. Two, comments like this minimize my current sorrow by insisting I look forward to a more hopeful future. It’s okay that I’m still sad. I will be for a long time, probably forever, to some extent. Three, it assumes I want to try to have more children when, quite frankly, the idea of risking repeating this experience petrifies me. Then I feel bad for letting you down by not being as hopeful as you are, and how backward is that? My grief does not need cheering up or false promises. It needs a hug or a nap or a box of tissues.
This week I attended a moms’ group meeting where the speaker was a counselor named Jean, and she gave a talk on grief. Here are some things I’ve learned in my experience but that she gave me words for:
It’s most important to remember that the person facing a loss is the only one who can determine whether that person or thing was meaningful enough for it to cause grief. And they are the only expert on their grief. So follow their lead. Ask if they want to talk, and listen if they do; be respectful of their privacy if they don’t. When we’re hurting, we need people we trust to be present with us. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say; say that. Acknowledge the person’s loss. It validates their experience to have you say “I was thinking of your baby today,” or whatever the loss may be. Don’t avoid this because you think, “I don’t want to bring it up or make them cry!” The memory is always right there. Even if it makes us cry, we want to know we’re not alone in remembering someone we lost.
Jean summed up these ideas by advising people to be a “pal” to a person experiencing loss:
- P = be Present
- A = Acknowledge. Validate. Remember with them.
- L = Listen and Love
I understand how uncomfortable we can all feel while waiting for someone we love to be “better.” When asked how long it will take to feel better after losing a loved one, author David Kessler asks in return, “Well, how long will they be dead?”
It’s helpful to realize grief will always exist in some form. Still, it’s awkward for people to not know what to say or how to act. I don’t expect anyone who visits me to have a perfect answer to any of my questions. And I don’t want people to try to “fix” me. That feels dismissive of and disrespectful to the magnitude of my loss. If you want to be supportive to me or someone else in your life who is hurting, but sorrowful conversation scares you, here are some things people have done for me (and for others who shared with me) that have been helpful or healing:
- Bring a meal
- Especially after a miscarriage, bring iron-rich foods and yummy beverages like tea or Gatorade to help replenish a mom’s blood supply
- Take my kids some place fun, or watch them at my house so I can rest
- Wash the inevitable mountain of dishes
- Fold or start a load of laundry
- Offer to do hard chores/errands for me that I’m avoiding, like taking the blankets back to the fire station that the emergency respondents left behind.
- Write a letter or poem expressing the sorrow you feel over my situation (this is empathy: Feeling with someone)
- Give a memento to acknowledge the loss and/or show you’re remembering my baby along with me. Some ways this has been done that have been special:
- Flowers—even some from friends who live out of state using delivery services
- Jewelry—I’ve received several pieces of jewelry over the last year that are significant in different ways. This time I was given three tiny angel charms (two blue and one white), a necklace with a teeny-tiny baby hand-print engraved on it, and a necklace with all five of my children’s initials engraved on it.
- One friend planted blue perennial flowers at her house, with her kids, to honor my latest baby boy and so that they can continue to remember him with me every year.
- Framed quotes and Bible verses about loss or grief
- Send a text or email asking how I am or saying you’re thinking of me; it removes the pressure of having to respond immediately, and I can write back in my own time and way.
- Babysit our kids so my husband and I can go on a date and reconnect with each other since we’ve been so preoccupied with wading through our sorrow.
If you’re willing to visit someone who is sorrowful and risk embracing a tough conversation, here are some questions you can ask instead of “Are you okay?” because no, of course they’re not okay.
- Do you want company today?
- Would you rather just rest than visit?
- How are you today?
- Do you want to talk about _____?
- What has been helpful for you as you process?
- Is there anything I can do for you while I’m here?
Most of all, be willing to listen if your grieving friend wants to talk about their loss. Be open to hearing the name of the baby you probably did not meet, or of another loved one who has passed away. Use the deceased person’s name. I think we often feel afraid of “triggering” a grieving friend by “bringing it up” or by using a loved one’s name who has died, but the truth is, the topic is always right under the surface for a grieving person. Those of us who have lost someone long to hear their name used. It may make us cry to hear their name, but it is also a relief to know someone else remembers. And we generally exist on the brink of tears, so don’t worry so much about making them fall.
Some of the most beautiful yet simple examples of empathy I’ve experienced this week have come from my sweet four-year-old. She drew a picture of a snowman a few days ago and gave it to me (pictured at the top of this page). As she placed it in my hands she said, “I drew a snowman so you wouldn’t forget I wanted the baby to play in the snow with us.” You might think this would have stung, but instead it really touched me. This was her four-year-old way of expressing that she is also sad our baby isn’t here. She misses him. And she’s sharing a piece of her grief with me. Grieve with a person who is broken. It is so much more helpful than trying to talk them out of their sadness.
My daughter’s most recent and even sweeter example of empathy came this weekend. I was in my room reading a book in my chair where I usually retreat to journal, pray, and cry if I need to. She came upstairs and initiated the following conversation:
“Mama, were you up here crying?”
“Not yet,” I said. After a pause I asked, “Is it important to you to know when I’m crying?”
“So I can come be sad with you.”
She wants to know when I’m sad so she can come be sad with me. So I don’t have to be sad alone. That’s empathy. If someone in your life is sad, just be sad with them. That’s enough.