First of all, you’re a great friend if you are reading this. Child loss is the depth of despair, the lowest valley, the deepest hurt. At least that’s what I’ve felt.
I’ve lost babies through miscarriage. I’ve lost my 5-year old son to illness. Each loss was unique. I grieve each baby differently. Some feel more raw, some feel like a shadow over my life. All of my sweet babies will be a part of my life forever. I live with these holes in my heart that no one can fill.
People do remember. They often remember my 5-year-old. Losing him is the most obvious. He was here. Then he wasn’t. The loss of babies I never held, never toted around on my hip, never shared pictures of . . . those losses are different. The invisible loss of a dream, a future. But a loss nonetheless.
I think it’s really important you understand this before I go on. It’s wonderful for people to remember birthdays and holidays and even the season we were in the hospital with my son, Thao. But what’s really important is that you remember the mundane Tuesday. The everyday. The times when the youth group at church stands up and talks about a recent trip. Yeah, my kid should be there, too. Or the graduation I’ll never get to go to. Or the girlfriends I’ll never get to scrutinize. The weddings, the family dinners, the game nights, the grandkids. The phone calls. Or even the mumbling and teenage arguments and lack of phone calls. I don’t get any of these things. It’s really nice when you remember.
A lot of people remember that first month. Just after the funeral, first year milestones and of course, his birthday. What about the Tuesday in the middle of winter? The snow he never got to play in? The movie he wanted to see? What about a random day in the middle of summer when we get with friends for a cook-out? Do you see that missing person, too? Do you see his empty chair? Do you see what I cannot see anymore? His spot. In every place I go. There’s always room for one more.
So here’s what I say to people when they ask. This is how you can help your friend going through child loss. And remember, you’re a great friend for asking. I know you want to help. You also need to know, there isn’t really a right way to grieve. There isn’t really a wrong way to grieve. As long as your friend is allowing herself to grieve, she’s doing it well. What happens though, when your friend feels stagnant in grief? Let’s talk about that more in-depth next time. But for now I will say, don’t let them go very long without checking in on them. Ask questions. Be there.
1. Check In
Stop by your friend’s house. Just a quick visit to say hi is good. Face-to-face is really important. We are really good at faking it over the phone. But sometimes, when that friend randomly stops by just to check on me, the real feelings pour out. I know I often say I’m fine. I am pretty much fine, I can survive. I can power through. But sometimes I need that reminder that it’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK, good even, to be sad.
If you can’t stop by, at the very least call or text. Literally whenever your friend or her child pops into your head, stop and text her. It feels good to know we share some memories. That you remember my child. That he is a part of your life and day. And I feel a lot less alone. I also feel like you are a safe person when you do this. So when I am having a bad day or I’m just sad or I want to talk about his life, I know you are one I can call. This text or call or card can be as simple as “I remember when . . .” or “Saw this and thought of your little one . . .”
2. Ask Questions
I know this one may be difficult. But as time goes on we struggle to bring him up in our normal conversations. There’s a lot of questions we have, too. What would he be like now? What would he want to do for his birthday? Who would his friends be? What would he be interested in? What would our lives be like?
Maybe these aren’t the right questions for you to ask. But it’s nice if you allow me to ask them. Here’s some questions for you to ask.
How are you, really?
Do you get a chance to think/talk/reflect/remember?
Has anyone told you how much we miss him, too?
Do you want to talk about him?
What’s your favorite memory?
What did he like to do?
What was his personality like?
Tell me about him.
Do you ever wonder why? (Now this one is hard because really, we all do, but it opens up conversation. It lets mamas talk about their struggles, their fears, and hopefully, their resolution.)
3. Be There
I don’t care how long it’s been, when you lose a child, it’s painful. For the rest of my life I will be the mom who struggles to tell people how many children I have. I don’t want to answer. Sometimes I don’t want to talk about Thao and explain his illness or death. I want to talk about his life. But people always ask what happened in death, instead of asking about the way he lived life.
So be there. Be there for your friend. Show up. After all the funeral food is gone and the flowers have wilted. After all the first year milestones have passed. After everyone stops telling them how sorry they are and they don’t know how you do it. Show up then.
Take food (whether or not they will eat it.) Five, 10, 12 years later, bring her coffee. Text a picture of something that reminded you of that baby or pregnancy or time period. Give her a small gift. Whatever it is that reminds you of that child, spend the $5 on something tiny and silly. Maybe you feel awkward because you don’t know them well. I promise you it will be well received. Anyone remembering my Thao with a donut sticker or dinosaur t-shirt is more than welcome to say so. Drop it off at my house. Bring it to me at church. Send it through another friend. I may keep it for a while and pass it on to someone else to remember. But it’s a token of remembrance. It’s a feeling of love.
On that note, sometimes it’s OK to push a little. Just a little tug done in love is fine. But this balance will have to come with time and practice. Because all people grieve differently, I think it’s best for you to have that conversation with your friend. Even tell her, “I’m going to trust you to tell me when you need me and what you need.”
Go out of your way to make sure your friend knows she is not a burden for you. Pray for her. And tell her that. Let her do things for you. Caring for others. surprisingly enough, often will help with our own grief. When we suddenly don’t have that child to care for, we feel a little lost. We question a lot of what we are doing and the purpose of it all. Channeling that into caring for another person helps us to figure out how we can use this to help others. It makes it a little less lonely.
Three Things Not To Say
- At least you have other children. Maybe this is true, but it’s not the same. No one can ever replace my son. My relationship with him was unique to us. I have three more sons and each relationship is completely different. I am thankful I didn’t come home to a silent house, but it was a different kind of quiet without Thao. We were still lost without him. I may have had other children to care for and keep me busy, but I’ll figure that out on my own just how blessed I am. It feels like you are discrediting his life and my loss.
- Time will heal. In my raw grief this stings. I cannot fathom time right now. I cannot figure out what crackers to buy at the store. I cannot think about living day after day without my son. And also. It doesn’t heal. My broken heart will not heal this side of heaven. Time will change the pain, mold the grief, alter the way I deal with my loss. But time will never heal me. It’s like the skin growing back on a wound, the scar is still there.
- You’ll get over it. Losing my son or my three babies to miscarriage is not something I want to ever get over. And please don’t tell me to stay busy or distract myself. Slow down, friend. I’m not there yet. I don’t plan to get over anything. I plan to let this mold me. I plan to let this change me. I plan to be. Be still. Be grieved. Be loved. Be in the moment. Be me, a new me. But I never plan to be without. Because this is my life now. I am that mom. I once had what you have. And now he’s gone. I once had all the hopes and dreams of a future with my children and grandchildren. And now that’s gone. I’ll deal with it and move with it in my own way, in my own time.
This truly is a grief dance and she’ll learn it in her own time. She still needs you, friend. She needs all of this and more. She needs what she cannot even explain. She needs what she doesn’t even know. This wasn’t her plan. And she may not do it well all the time. But she’s learning to navigate this grief journey. And most of the time all she can do is one day at a time. One step at a time. One breath at a time.
Thank you from this grief mama, on behalf of all the others out there. Thank you for not leaving us alone, not running scared. Thank you for loving us well.
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