We bereaved parents are a curious, complicated, broken lot. I remember the early days of grief and how inconsolable I was. No matter what anyone said, it didn’t seem to help, at least not immediately. I recall how I abhorred being asked, “How are you?” It seemed the most insensible question. I would silently respond in my head with, “How do you think I am after losing my child?!?” I simply couldn’t fathom why someone would ask, “How are you?” after Matt died. Yet, irrational as it was, I was also offended if someone didn’t ask! I wondered how on earth they could ignore the elephant in the room? To not ask how I was was, for me, to negate my loss. Honestly, it was a no-win situation. Unfortunately, those on the outside were the proverbial “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
I recall those who had to deal with me in the early days of child loss and feel so sorry for them. Some of them got the brunt of my anger, cast out like lightning bolts upon their unsuspecting persons. Ouch. Since there is no rhyme or reason to when those “grief attacks” would ambush, one never knew when it was safe to approach. Store clerks became the innocent victims upon which I would strike grief missiles should they ask, “How’s your day?” My day? My son died, I would reply. The shock in their eyes was akin to the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” How was I? I was horrible. And I was horrible in how I treated others.
“Grief does not change you, Hazel.
It reveals you.”
― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Little did I know much of this was shock, and all of it was “normal.” Yes, normal. The swing of emotions, the terrifying ride on the roller coaster of sorrow where the lows are so very low, and the twists and turns are so sharp they jerk your head around. You honestly don’t know if you’re coming or going, and you’re pretty sure you’re going crazy. Your memory is shot, and all you want to do is escape. The nightmare you’re living, however, isn’t even a nightmare. It’s real. This is your life now. Life without your child. Whew. Is it any wonder, really, that dealing with the bereaved is only for the brave?
For bereaved parents, life after loss is like trying to find your way out of a maze with no sight. We are blind with no guide, no map to this foreign country called Child Loss. For those who deal with us, it is treacherous navigation through fields of land mines. I stand in awe, and thankfulness, of those who stuck by us, who continue to support us even now, almost seven years later. It is cruel work, but so necessary for healing.
Simple things, like remembering Matt’s love of the Pack (Go Green Bay!) and wearing a jersey on his birthday (May 2) or drinking a Mocha Frappe from McDonald’s, brings great comfort to us as bereaved parents. The things one may deem as seemingly small are, in fact, HUGE to a child loss parent. Our greatest fear after child loss is that our child will be forgotten. The mention of our child’s name is a megaphone of love to us, a great balm to our always grieving heart.
The truth is, bereaved parents are not the parent they were before their child died. Those who can accept them in their broken state are treasured, indeed. If you’re wondering how to help a bereaved parent, then remember these things: Talk about their child; ask them what their child was like, what their favorite thing was about their son or daughter. Don’t expect to fix them. There is no fixing. Child loss is like having your house burn to the ground. There is nothing left but the foundation. Stand by them and help them rebuild from the ground up. Don’t expect their life to return to normal in a matter of months or even after a year. Rebuilding will, in all reality, take years. (Note the plural!) There is no returning to “normal” for a bereaved parent. There is only a “new” normal, and a new normal takes time to define.
Finally, recognize that grief is individual. It is as individual as fingerprints. And because it is individual, don’t expect that the way you would deal with it is the way someone else will deal with it. Bereaved parents don’t need judgement. They need support. Truthfully, they don’t need you to understand. They need you to validate their decisions, to support them no matter how you would do it. They’ve lost a child, a part of themselves. They don’t need your words or for you to have the right thing to say. They need actions that speak louder than words, actions that scream, “I love you!” above the grief.
It’s not easy dealing with bereaved parents, I know. The next time you’re tempted to tell a bereaved parent how brave they are, however, stop. Instead, be brave yourself and step beside them, dare to walk an ugly, slogging mile with them. Pray for them. Send them a note. Preface “How are you?” with “I already know the answer, but how can I help today?” Offer practical help and mean it. Weep with them. Laugh with them. Mark their child’s birthday and death date on your calendar and then, a month before those dates, shove the elephant out of the room by saying, “I’m thinking of you as the date approaches.”
Bravery comes in all shapes and sizes. It shows up in the faithfulness of friends and family who defy sorrow’s call, who understand that grief cannot be eradicated, but only carried in community. Brave are the ones who forgive, love, and hope in us curious, complicated, broken lot of bereaved parents.