Updated: Apr 6, 2022
It is a hard fact of child loss that everything else pales by comparison. Every other loss, pain, suffering feels somehow less than what we've already lost, hurt, suffered. Every other joy, dream, success is diminished against the backdrop of our pain—a little less shiny, a little less remarkable. The ultimate dream, the ultimate joy, is one that we know we won't experience again in this lifetime—holding our child once more.
I've often said that I know child loss is the most excruciating pain because if you ask any parent whether they would rather suffer x, y, or z or lose a child, you know what they'll answer. If you ask any parent who has suffered x, y, or z whether they would prefer to experience it all over again or lose a child, you already know their answer. We would all trade our lives, our comfort, our health, our wealth, our peace for the life and well-being of our child.
But some of us didn't get that choice.
In some ways, our loss has made us stronger, more resilient, more unaffected. In other ways, it has made us more fragile, delicate, and vulnerable. I find myself less sensitive in certain ways than I was in The Before. I'm not as worried about money or what people think of me. My idea of success looks and feels different now. Failure is not the rock bottom I once believed it to be. But I also find myself more sensitive in other ways. I have zero tolerance for the general lack of compassion I witness in the world every day, for the ways we dehumanize each other, for the suffering we wittingly create and the callous turn of our backs.
One thing I find over and over, and that I hear time and again from other grieving parents, is the conflicted experience of brushing up against someone else's crisis.
Someone else loses a job or a partner or a parent. They lose their home or their health. They agonize over life's changes—another break up, a child going away to college, a parent needing care, the discomfort of menopause, the apathy of retirement. You can really add anything to this list that isn't the death of a child or the seriously impaired health of a child (or grandchild). And grieving parents find themselves triggered in some way.
A range of unanticipated emotions rise to the surface, feelings we thought we dealt with already, things we struggled to push down so we could carry on. Anger is among them. Fury at someone else's "light load". The gall they have to complain, especially if it's to you. Rage that you can't share their naivete anymore, the luxury of being upset over something so surmountable. Outrage at the goddamned unfairness of it all, that this might be the worst they ever know, while you sip from death's most bitter cup every freaking day.
Guilt is also among them. It springs up in answer to the ways we berate ourselves for feeling things society has labeled as "bad" or "wrong". As though a feeling is inherently evil. As though emotions are born of our bidding. We catch ourselves in a fit of anger and feel primal, less than human. We are ashamed that we feel anything other than empathy at the idea of someone else's suffering, even when we know that it would be exactly the same if roles were reversed and our child was moving out while theirs was dead.
Sorrow, too, makes an appearance. The remembrance of all we've lost is striking when compared to another, and our grief crests anew, washing us in fresh waves of agony. Pity—feeling sorry for ourselves is par for the course. Feeling sorrier for our child, all the ways we failed to save them, even more so. Indifference. A kind of dissociation that happens when we can't make ourselves feel something deeply with or for another because it is simply too benign in our newly acquired perspective.
And likely, except sometimes when it is still very early, compassion stirs as well. Because we know what it is to hurt. We know what it is to lose. To long. To yearn for what cannot be. We know what it is to press on in spite of enormous emotional and energetic opposition. We know what it is to sit in the dark, to cry an endless stream of tears, to be utterly fucking alone with our worst nightmare. We know. We know those still moments in the middle of the night when it is all right there, waiting, and your throat closes over the words you cannot say, the tears you're tired of crying, the screams you stifle again and again. We know. We know the worst. We know how to own it. How to feel it. How to live it.
And we know that whatever somebody else is suffering, however small it might seem compared to our suffering, it is big to them. However bright their particular moment is to us, it is dark to them. However dull their pain by comparison, it is sharp to them. And guess who can sit at their side without squirming, without finding the discomfort of their pain just too much bear, without needing to smooth it over with hollow words? We can. Because we know worse. Because we lost more. Because we are so unequivocally familiar with pain.
When the compassion stirs, we are capable of enormous empathy, comfort, generosity, understanding, love, validation, action. It is not always a role we are called to fill, but when it is, we can fill it like no other. Yes, by all means, describe for me how dreadful it is. You see, I am intimately acquainted with dreadful. I am the one of every couple hundred people who won't flinch at your description. Because I've been there. I've seen so much worse. Your pain could never frighten me. I can take it.
Right now, with the world in upheaval—Covid and riots and a contentious election looming—we all know someone whose crisis is our cakewalk. Someone who has lost money or a home or a loved one. Someone whose kid can't go to school or find a job. Someone who's experiencing depression or anxiety or grief for the first time. Someone who's afraid or angry in ways they've never been before. Someone who's sick or on the verge of losing a valuable relationship.
Sure, the knee-jerk reaction we might feel is get over it, this is nothing. But deeper than that is the part of us who remembers what it was like to have a break up or a financial meltdown be our worst imaginable outcome, the scariest thing we could face. And yet we have faced far worse. We have walked through fire. We do it everyday. Sitting beside a friend who is feeling a bit of heat won't even register on our Richter scale. We can do that with compassion, with empathy, with power, without minimizing, competing, or dismissing it with toxic positivity. And we might just be the only ones who can.