Meditations on Grief
As we've been observing Memorial Day here in the U.S. this week, I've had some thoughts swirling around in my head about loss and grief.
Grief and Social Media
Social media is often (rightly) accused of connecting us only on a superficial level. But I've recently realized that it also has the power to make us aware that others are suffering—much like the black armbands or mourning attire of ages past. It's a signal to be gentle with those who are fragile, to mete out an extra dose of love and understanding.
Were it not for my very haphazard monitoring of my Facebook feed, I'm not sure whether I would have heard about an old college roommate who recently buried her mom. Or a former work colleague who lost her husband to cancer. Or a woman in my church congregation who recently suffered through a stillbirth.
The kinder side of social media has the power to connect us to our entire extended tribe on our very darkest days, the power to invoke kind words and prayers from all corners of the globe.
I have a friend from high school and college who lost her husband to suicide last last year, after a long and private battle with depression. Although we had barely interacted with each other in the past 16 years, apart from random comments on each other's Facebook posts, I found myself weeping for her for days, weeks, months. She has been using Facebook as a public diary of sorts, which is a wonderful thing. I can check in on her daily and know how she's doing, since I'm thinking about her anyway. She can share her dark moments and her triumphs with an audience of family and friends—both old and new—who want to help her in any way that they can, if only by a few words of encouragement left in a comment.
She is finding that she has a gift for the written word, and that every expressed emotion lifts a bit of the burden from her heart. Every task she accomplishes in the face of overwhelming grief (her own and her children's) can be shared and celebrated by her circle of friends, since her beloved partner is no longer there to celebrate with her.
Her honesty and vulnerability have inspired me, and apparently everyone else she knows, judging by the comments. She reminds us all to look past the detritus of life, find and celebrate our hidden reserves of inner strength, and focus our thoughts and energy on the things that matter most—like lifting and serving those around us.
I've blogged about it before, but one of my favorite quotes about grief is from writer Anna Quindlen. She calls it "the continuous presence of an absence" and "a whisper in the world but a clamor within."
I don't personally know much about the grief one feels at losing a spouse or a child, but infertility is its own kind of grief. In some ways, grief is grief. In other ways, it's a completely different experience for everyone, every single time.
I have another dear friend who is an angel mom. She buried her little baby just 2 months after birth. She has become a member of one of those clubs you never wanted to join. Just like the infertile, who understand one another in a way no one else can, angel mothers have a terrible and instant kinship.
And yet the very thing that unites them can also divide them. My friend has heard other angel mothers say things like, "Oh, she's so lucky she got to have her daughter until she was 14. I only got a few months with my baby." Whereas the mother whose teenager died might argue that her grief is deeper because the more years together, the bigger the hole that is left.
Sometimes people try to relate to my friend's pain with stories of losing a grandparent or a pet. Some angel mothers take offense at these kinds of comparisons, and perhaps rightly so. But my very kind and generous friend looks at it this way: maybe that loss of the family dog is the most significant grief this person has ever experienced. And that's their only frame of reference for trying to understand and relate to her. And at least they are trying. So she accepts the gift of attempted compassion, and she does not diminish it. I admire that.
I remember when I was in my early 20s and suffering from a broken heart, someone I knew laughed at my pain just a little. Admittedly, what she had gone through in her life was an ocean of grief compared to my trickling stream. I could easily recognize that, even at the time. Yet when she brushed off my pain as something insignificant, it only made me feel small and stupid and disconnected.
When we're our most generous selves, we would simply recognize a kindred loss and never diminish anyone else's. But we're not always capable of selflessness and generosity. Sometimes we're hurting so much that we succumb to feelings of envy and the tendency to compare. And I understand that, too.
Mourning with Those Who Mourn
What I'm learning from my own experiences and friends who grieve is to never, ever judge. Everyone responds differently to loss. If this is the best a suffering person is capable of in this given moment, then they deserve my compassion, not my judgment. Heaven knows I've wished for that myself.
The more I've tried to "mourn with those who mourn" (a phrase I love from LDS scripture) the more I've learned to let go of my expectations of what a grieving person should think, say or feel—and when they should think, say or feel those things. For a million different reasons, the loss I feel for my grandmother is not the same as the loss you feel for yours. Every individual relationship is unique, and the grieving experiences will be too.
Generally, I try to err on the side of being available to those in my circle who are suffering, rather than retreating in fear of saying the wrong thing. I believe that stumbling through my words imperfectly—and my efforts are always imperfect—is far better than never showing up to say anything at all.
That said, it never hurts to brush up on a list of unhelpful things to say. In every grief club, there are certain remarks and questions that are especially hard to take. They are uttered in innocence, but they can cause pain nonetheless.
To any parent anywhere, I try never to ask, "How many children do you have?" I know more than one angel mother who dreads this question. She has to decide, based on how long she's likely to know you, whether to answer "three" and include all of her children, "two" and include only those who are still living, or the more descriptive "two here on earth and one in heaven." If she chooses the last option, she may have to endure your embarrassed apology, sympathetic looks or questions. A safer approach is to say: "Tell me about your family." This allows angel mothers, those who are childless by choice, and those who may be childless not by choice to frame their answer however they want.
To adoptive mothers, avoid asking about the child's "real mom." While I may not have carried my daughter in my womb for 9 months or given birth to her, I am a real mother who is doing the hard, daily work of parenting. And I'm eternally grateful to the birthmom who gave me the opportunity to be a real mom.
To birthmoms, try not to say that they "gave up" their babies. She "placed" her baby for adoption. She will keep her baby forever in her heart, even though circumstances may have made it impossible for her to parent the child. I wish there were a more elegant expression than "placed," but that's the preferred term in adoption circles, and you'll earn compassion points for using it correctly.
To infertile women, try not to tell stories about friends who managed to get pregnant right after they "stopped stressing about it so much" or after they adopted a child. The first makes women feel that they are to blame for their situation, and trust me, they already feel that enough. The second frames adoption as a means to a different end, rather than a beautiful choice in and of itself.
To women who have suffered pregnancy loss, especially when it occurs later on, it can be painful to hear the term "miscarriage" or especially the more active construction "she miscarried." Both terms subtly imply some fault on the part of the mother, as if there's another way should or could have carried the baby, and it can minimize late-term losses that are more correctly described as stillbirths. I'd never thought about this before, until a friend who is in this club enlightened me. I've learned that a better thing to say is, "I'm sorry for the loss of your baby."
Clearly, this is not a comprehensive list. I'm certain there are other innocently insensitive remarks that are often made to other "grief clubs," probably even by me. And after hearing these kinds of comments often enough, those of us in a particular club become inured to them over time. Nevertheless, a little extra compassion goes a long way.
We've all been on the receiving end of stumbling remarks made by well-meaning people who are just trying their best to identify with us. Perhaps, to help lessen the feelings of offense, we can give the other person points for trying and realize there are no magic words anyone can say that will make it all better.
Above all, it helps to remember that we're all walking wounded, in one way or another—and connection is the only way through.