Updated: Jul 15
I don't know how to write this post without pissing some people off.
I keep reminding myself that I'm writing this one for the broken parents, the shattered hearts, those lost in the fog. Not everyone else surrounding them. So if someone is reading this right now, who does not know the exquisite ache of losing a child personally, who has not experienced that powerful fusion of love and sorrow, but only knows someone who has...
Then let me give you a heads-up.
This post is not about you. It's not about your feelings or your pride. It's not directed at you, nor is it a personal criticism or judgment. If you keep reading, do so with the open-hearted intention of being better for your broken friend. If you get to the end of this post without making it about yourself, then congratulations. You are one of the people who can take it. You are qualified to be at the side of someone who has one foot in the present and one foot in the void.
And if you don't, if you find yourself bristling with defensive energy, then kindly take three steps back from that broken heart in your life. Send a card. Send some money. Deliver groceries. Apply yourself to the practical matters. But say as little as possible. Comfort is not your specialty. Being a witness is not your calling.
If you find yourself somewhere in the middle—keep trying. Listen more than you speak. Learn to practice presence. Get used to the dark. This is a long, long road your friend is on. And you are developing a skill set the world so desperately needs. Death is here to stay, I'm afraid. Tragedy. Suffering. But you have the potential for true compassion—love in action. You get to be a counterweight to all that heaviness, the antidote for despair.
When someone breaks an arm, or becomes terribly ill, or requires surgery, the medical team is there not to fix it—the body does that—but to aid the healing process. In some cases, to kick-start it. In others, to usher it along smoothly. To support. To generate. To oversee. To do what the body cannot. And to witness whatever unfolds.
If I could say anything to the people surrounding someone who has lost a child, it would simply be this: You cannot fix this. YOU cannot fix this. You cannot fix THIS.
Please don't try. You will do even greater damage. Crawling into that wreckage and mucking about with your platitudes and "good advice", your ideas about what their process of grief and healing should look like, your own personal fears and inadequacies—often subconsciously carried and awkwardly lobbed at those around you, your litany of beliefs erected like a glass fortress to keep you safe in a world with no guarantees—you are only adding a heap of pain to someone who is already enduring a burden beyond their ability to carry.
Let go of the idea that this can be rectified. Or even altered. It cannot. There is no putting it back. And rebuilding is not your job. This is not your ground zero. You cannot accomplish anything here. Don't taskmaster the grieving. When it is time, when their soul whispers, when they are good and ready, they will rise and begin to clear what debris they can, slowly erecting something resembling a life on top of the ashes of the one they lost. You cannot do it for them nor are you there to. You are the nurse, not the bone. You bring the extra pillows and remind them to stay hydrated and dole out medicine at whatever o'clock; you do not knit the cells.
For those who know the cruelest loss, I say this: You will find yourself surrounded by good intentions. Many of them will do more harm. You will come to see your family and friends in an entirely different light. Their cumbersome gait, the infant and preschooler and juvenile lurking inside, the parts that have grown crooked over time, the fear that twists them... These things will be laid bare before you. As if you have been given new eyes. It will be hard to witness and harder still to endure. They will disappoint you. Hurt you. Lash out. Disappear. They will make demands and pout and need you (in your devastated state) to reassure them. And they will project. All their fears and misgivings will go before you like a shadow out of sync.
It will make you angry. Let you down. Bring you pain. You will question everything and everyone. The world will be upside down in a way that it always has been, but that you are just able to see. It is the last thing any grieving parent needs, but it cannot be helped. Because we have not done our part as a culture to grow our hearts rather than our fears.
In the beginning, some of it will feel unforgiveable. That's okay. You are under no obligation to be the bigger person in the middle of the worst experience of your life, though you often will be. With time, you may come to realize that, were the roles reversed, you might not have been much better. You might have said the wrong thing. You might have made yourself scarce. You might have issued unwarranted advice or stood obtusely by, unsure what to do. Your heart will likely soften. Some people will not return. Others will not be invited to. But many, you may decide, were doing their best with what they had. And what they had was practically zilch. They were trying to work on an aircraft engine with half a roll of duct tape and an old toothbrush. That's all they'd been given.
We represent a rupture in the order of nature. Something that shouldn't be. No one is prepared for that, even if they had been prepared for that, which they haven't. People react to our impossibility in different ways. Some are drawn out of morbid fascination. Others repulsed. Some cannot look away. Others will turn their heads and lose their lunch. Ask yourself, were you in the audience and not the tragic drama, what would you do? Not this version of you, post-horrific-loss. But the previous version of you. How did that person handle a train wreck of the heart?
When we lost Ev, I could divide the people around me into two categories—those who could take it and those who couldn't. Four years later, not much has changed.
The people who can take it still can. They sit at my side when I cry. They know it cannot be made right. They celebrate my highs and witness my lows. They resist making any of it good or bad, right or wrong. They take their cues from me, knowing I am the expert in my child, in her birth and death, in what was and what remains, in my own Humpty Dumpty heart, it's height and it's fall, it's many scattered pieces, in my love and my sorrow and this solitary road I have found myself on. They aren't well-wishers, or advice givers, or naysayers. They know how deep this water is and they know their own limitations. They don't splash by the shore with their floaties on pretending to instruct the one with the scuba gear. And they don't run away. They can be present with my deformity without staring or getting sick.
I don't know how they do it, to be honest. I'm not sure I could have. I have known a precious few people who lost a child before I did, and I genuinely cannot say if I handled it well. I hope, for their sakes, that I did. I hope I could take it. I certainly can now. I can take anything. That's what this loss does to you. It makes you unceasingly vulnerable and impenetrable at the same time. I get to stand in the dark by someone else's side now. Because I'm here anyway. Their pain does not frighten me.
The people who could not take it have not yet figured out how. I don't hold it against them anymore. I wouldn't want to look at this either. I wouldn't want to face it. Isn't it easier to throw a blanket over it? Cover it with some recycled sayings about angels and heaven and who's better where? Pray it away. Wrap it up with a hashtag. Make it tidy. Give it a happily ever after or a moral of the story. Shut it down. Put it very far away.
You're going to find out, like I have, like every grieving parent does, that there are a lot more people who can't take it than who can. And you're going to be surprised at how they sort out. And you're going to get mad, experience shock, find your heart broken in a whole new way. And then you're going to get over it. Because you do not have time or energy to expend on fruitless endeavors anymore. Turn them out if you must. Your endurance is already being tested. There's no reason to suffer the opinions of fools. Love them from afar if that's possible. Forgive them if you can. Many of them want to be useful but don't know how and don't take direction well. This shit is hard. Some people deserve a pass. Others, do not. You will know the difference instinctively.
Locate the people who can take it. If they don't turn up naturally, go out and find them. In a support group. In bereavement counseling. In books. Online. Wherever you can. They are your lifeline. You are wild with shock and sick with longing. Someone has to take your temperature and give you the aspirin, remind you to lie down, bring you hot tea and cold water, make sure you're eating. Keep the tissues handy. With enough time, you might begin to hear their stories. Often you will find out they have their own tragedy to endure. Maybe the same as yours. Maybe similar. Maybe very different. But experiences of love and grief, pain and suffering, these have universal threads tying them together. Occasionally, you will meet someone who for no discernible explanation is simply better at this, a prodigy of consolation. Those exist, believe it or not, like unicorns of compassion.
Resist the urge to judge. Let yourself feel the disappointment and the anger. And move on. Focus on who is still standing after this particular bomb has dropped. Who's holding out a hand? Who has bandages and antibiotics? Who can find water and who can see the sun? Those are your people now. I know it's hard. I know it's unfair. Your loss is infinitely compounded. And yes, fuck that. Throw a big middle finger at the universe. And then take that waiting hand. Let them pull you up. Or better yet, sit quietly beside you while you decide if standing is even worth it anymore. The people who can take it know that decision is yours. They won't rush you or push you or try to drag you to your feet. They won't judge you for taking the time you need to get there. They won't use words like should or have to or need to. They know that grief is proprietary. Maybe they were strategically placed to be near you after detonation. Maybe it's all random. Be grateful for them either way. They're your tribe in the aftermath.