Don't Lean on Me
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
The subject of this post was requested by a friend and fellow grieving mother. If ever you would like to see me cover a subject on the blog that I otherwise haven't, please feel free to email me your requests. I cannot always promise that it will happen, or that I will cover it in the way or to the degree that you desire because I can only write from my personal experience, but I am happy to try.
We were warned.
In the first few months after Evelyn died, as we began to connect with other bereaved parents in our community and online, we were told again and again to expect the worst from people, but also the best. We were told that some of the people closest to us, people we thought would have our backs forever, people we believed loved us and understood our agony, people we expected would rise up and provide life-sustaining emotional support would let us down.
And at the same time, people we had never met, or felt we barely knew, or heretofore kept in the periphery of our social circle, or simply didn't expect that kind of emotional depth from, would show up like ghost lights in the darkness, would appear at our sides encouraging us to lean on them, would carry wisdom and vulnerability and openness and compassion in abundance at a time when we desperately needed it and often didn't know how to ask.
They will do and say unimaginable things, they would tell us. Cruel things. Unforgivable things. You will not understand. Your heart will break even more, which doesn't seem possible but is. And you will have to learn to look away from their callousness and focus on the people who are there beside you, instead of on the ones who walk away.
They were right, of course.
And yet, I still didn't see it coming.
At first I would nod and say, yes yes, we know we know. Because the truth is, we felt a lot of disappointment in the reactions of those around us in the beginning. Not because they didn't care, not because they didn't try, but because there is no way to understand the enormity of child loss until it touches you.
And that means there is no way to comprehend the greatness of our need, the intensity of our desperation and despair, the frailty of our emotional, spiritual, psychological, and physical selves unless you have lost a child yourself.
It means the people who love you, who are trying, who do want to support you and care for you best often don't know how. They will make mistakes. They will seem careless at times. They will say things that are hurtful or inappropriate. They will drop the ball. And frankly, even if they didn't, they would still likely let you down in some small way because no one person can possibly answer the vastness of the call and put their life on hold indefinitely to be everything you need every time you need it as you grieve the unthinkable. The truth is, the moment your child died, the whole world fell short for you in a way it can never come back from.
But that is not what those early friends from our support groups were talking about.
They were talking about something far more damaging and distressing. Something I have heard every single grieving parent I have spoken to or written to trade like war stories. They weren't talking about people who simply don't rise to the challenge because how can anyone? People who fail to act in all the ways you wish they would. That is indeliberate. It may be a failure of understanding, or of action, but not of intention, not of love or feeling or compassion.
They were talking about the people with a failure of heart. The people who act selfishly, who deliberately hurt you, who intend to be cruel or inflict pain. The people who don't simply walk away, but drop you like you never mattered to them at all. The people who shun and stonewall.
They were talking about the people who take offense to your grief, to the insistence and persistence of your challenging emotions, to the way you choose to remember your child, to your emotional fragility and the gentleness with which you sometimes must handle yourself.
They were talking about the people who feel compelled to tell you how self-centered your pain is. Or how sick they are of hearing about it. Or what a disappointment your grief is to them. Or all the ways you're letting them down now that your child has died and you're preoccupied with your mourning. The people who want to exhibit to you how insignificant you and your child are in the grand scheme of things.
And they were talking about the people who are empathy deficient. Who go beyond carelessness with their words and express outright insensitivity, who seem to forget entirely when they are in your presence that you had a child who died, and when and how. They say things that hit dangerously close to home—triggering things, heartless things. They gloat or they insult or they find a way to talk always and only about subjects you would obviously find distressing.
I learned the hard way how real these experiences are. I've felt the cold brush of avoidance from people I once counted as close, who simply could not, would not be a part of our lives after Ev died. And I've been outright attacked for daring to express my feelings, told that I should "get over it", treated as if my pain and my grief were somehow wrong and offensive.
But the worst was the loss of a good friend, who I can genuinely say was my closest friend at the time. It happened as we neared the one-year mark, and I encountered for the first time what professionals call the "anniversary reaction"—an absolute PTSD nightmare where all my symptoms ratcheted up tenfold and I found myself reliving the last days I shared with my daughter before she died as well as the first excruciating days I knew without her.
If there were one person I would have put money on not to become one of the people I was warned about, it would have been her. So when our relationship began to unravel, I was caught completely off guard. I was both naively certain that we were going to be okay, and keenly aware that we were very, very not okay. And experiencing the implosion of it all was like falling in slow motion, knowing you are going down, flailing for purchase, for anything that can stop the swiftly sinking momentum, but all your movements are wrong—too fast or too slow—and nothing seems to connect, and the floor is rising, and you know it is going to be hard and unforgiving on impact, and it seems there is still time to save yourself and yet you are startlingly aware there isn't.
And the timing was horrific. The shock and the powerlessness were all too great a reminder of Ev's death, and so triggered me all the more. And the grip of the PTSD I was dealing with then meant that I could not process or respond to what was happening in an empowered or enlightened way. I was devastated and deeply emotional. I was crippled with anxiety and panic, riding the whole wave with my amygdala, perceiving everything as louder, brighter, harsher than it likely was. I was confused and struggling to even understand what was happening or why, and found it very hard to choose my responses with any real wisdom.
Through a mutual friend, I asked for the equivalent of a ceasefire—a period to put what was happening between us aside so I could focus on surviving the first anniversary of my daughter's death, on mourning and remembering her in all the ways that she deserved. What I got was a ghosting, an absolute disconnect from me and my family IRL and online, an abrupt and permanent dissolution of a decade-long friendship that was immensely valuable to me.
I have spent more time than I care to admit reliving that fallout, wondering what I could have said or done to make it end differently, how I could have gotten it right. I have tumbled through an entirely new onslaught of emotions aside from the grief I was already living—hurt, anger, shame, betrayal, resignation. I have speculated on what she was feeling and thinking, on why and why me and why then. I have grappled with my own judgment and discernment of others. Did I really know her? Was I missing something? I've told myself a dozen stories to try and fill in the gaps in my understanding that she left behind. And I have had to swallow over and over the ambiguous loss, the lack of closure, the feeling that I was never really heard, that I was misunderstood, misrepresented.
And here's what I've concluded. I don't know. I don't know what happened. I know the events as I recall them, but for me, they hardly amount to an explanation. I don't know why or what for. I don't know what was gained. I don't have answers. I will likely never know. And if I can find a way to live with the not-knowing surrounding Evelyn's death, then I can find a way to live with this too.
I have shared my feelings and my story with others in the bereaved community, and received the support and validation only those who have truly been there can provide. And I have traded stories of abandonment, betrayal, and heartbreak with other women who have their own tales of friendships gone stale or sour, their own ambiguous losses, their own unanswered questions.
What I do know, is that the loss of a child is a crack in the fabric of the universe. And it follows then that nothing and no one can remain the same. It follows that other changes and losses cascade around us like dominoes. It follows that people speak and act in ways we find strange or surprising or alarming. It follows that we, as a point of attraction, are utterly changed, and therefore who and what we encounter forever after will be different.
When your child dies, everything changes. Sometimes in ways you appreciate. Often in ways you don't.
My best bit of advice to those of you grappling with these secondary losses—especially the really painful, spiteful ones—is to comfort yourself through it, find validation and support in others who have been there and understand, and work your way towards surrender and forgiveness of yourself and them.
In other words, as soon as you feasibly can, let it go and move on. You have enough on your plate as you learn to live without your child. You likely didn't deserve whatever you got, and you likely cannot fix it. At the end of the day, you are exactly where you are. And if you are still breathing while your child is not, that in itself is a miracle of willpower and love. And if someone wants to resent you for where you are or what you're going through, if someone wants to criticize you and take personal offense at your pain and your loss and your struggle to cope, that is a choice they get to make. They can gnaw that bitter bone to the very end.
But you don't need that right now. You don't need to injure yourself further with the company of those who have only harsh words for your tender heart. So whether it's your call or theirs, let them go. It's okay to say this isn't working. It's okay to say stop or no. You can do that with kindness. Find people you can open your heart to instead. Find people whose expectations of you are in proportion to the gravity of your loss. Find people who can be vulnerable and compassionate and forgiving and patient.
And yes, you may have to look farther than your immediate circle. You may find there are fewer people you hold close now than you did before. That is as it should be. The ones you do find you will treasure like the gold they are. They will increase your capacity for love. They will increase your capacity for life. And that is exactly what you need.
And when their chips are down, when they are suffering or muddling through the dark or hurting in ways the rest of the world doesn't understand, you will be there. You know the darkest dark. You are not afraid of pain because you live with it every day. You have something so very precious and valuable to offer now that your heart has been broken a thousand different ways because your heart has been broken a thousand different ways—compassion.
I hope that you'll share your stories of secondary loss in the comments below. Grief is so isolating, and many of us often feel we are alone in these experiences. But that couldn't be further from the truth. If you want to read more posts where I touch on this subject, you might try these: Grief Hijacking: When Others Need Your Loss to be About Them, Envy: The Lost Stage of Grief, and A Love Letter to my Predecessor.
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