It’s so hard to find the right words to comfort a grieving person, especially when that person has lost a child. It’s even difficult for me, and I have been through it. Having lost someone you love is no guarantee that you’re an expert at anything remotely related to grief and grieving, particularly because everyone grieves uniquely.
Sometimes we forget that people are grieving, or we expect that they should be done grieving, or we’re not sure why they would be grieving so much. Sometimes I wonder if people are perplexed that I keep writing about our sweet Joey like he just died yesterday. Sometimes I wonder if every time I write about our three miscarriages people are thinking, ‘At least you had five other babies.’
And there it is. Those two words: At least.
Those are the two words that grieving parents – and grieving people in general – wish you would stop using.
Imagine yourself in these scenarios, if you will:
- You are 6 weeks/2 months/however early in your pregnancy. You are super excited. You buy all the pregnancy books and start talking about names and themes for a nursery. You can’t wait to tell people; but most of all, you can’t wait to hold the baby you’ve been dreaming of having. Then you start spotting and cramping, and you know you’ve lost the baby. You’re devastated, and scared about what this means. A confidant tells you, “At least you know you can get pregnant.”
- You enjoy a fairly uneventful pregnancy. You love feeling the baby move and kick, and you are totally ready for its arrival. Nursery is ready, names are chosen; and then the doctor delivers this blow: the baby has died in utero or is still born. You hold the perfect little baby, not sure of how you will be able to hand him back over when the nurse comes for him. Your family tells you, “At least you can try again.”
- You are over-the-moon excited to be having multiples. You know that it will be hard, but you are giddy with glee thinking about the matching outfits and cute pictures and friendship and fun times two (or three or four!). After long and anxious weeks in the NICU, one of the babies dies in your arms, never to know her sibling. When you tell people your story they say, “At least you have a survivor.”
- You are settling into new parenthood, loving life with a little one. Drinking in his coos and smiles until one day; you find him unresponsive in his crib. People try to comfort your loss by saying, “At least you had him for two months.”
- Your happy, vibrant five-year-old is suddenly getting headaches. You take her to the doctor only to discover she has an inoperable brain tumor. Despite treatment, she dies a year later. You knew it was coming, but it doesn’t make missing her any easier. Mourners say, “At least you got to say good-bye.”
- Your child is born with severe birth defects that keep him confined to a wheelchair. He is in and out of the hospital and has several surgeries in his short life before his body stops working. People tell you, “At least he isn’t suffering anymore.”
I could go on, but you get the point. You get the point that a parent’s love isn’t quelled by hollow words. It isn’t erased by promises of something working out better the next time. It isn’t sustained by a few moments of touch and connection.
A parent’s love never fades. Whether it was six weeks of hopeful love for a fetus, two hours keeping vigil by a sick newborn’s side, five years of smiles and laughter and memories, or whether it was eighteen years’ worth of hospital visits and NG tubes and seizures – a parent’s love doesn’t die with her child. It’s always there; and like the love for someone right in front of us, sometimes it’s joyous and sometimes it hurts so much we feel like we want to die.
Now and fifty years from now.
I’ve been guilty of using “At least.” When I hear about the horrible freak accidents that take the lives of children in an instant, I think, ‘At least I got to say good-bye to Joey.’ But I’m not being fair to myself. I’m not validating those emotions that swallow me whole when I hear about a child being taken away from his mother. Those emotions that scream, “I know how you feel!”
I’ve been guilty of saying of an elderly person, “At least she had a long and happy life.” But I am not validating the feelings of those who miss her. I’m not validating her grandchildren who wish they could stop by her house and chat or ask her about her secret ingredient in their favorite recipe. I’m not acknowledging that she was someone’s parent, and you never get over needing a parent.
Try to keep “at least” out of your condolences. I know you’re trying to be sweet and sympathetic. But really all a grieving person needs is a hug and a few other powerful words like, “I’m sorry,” and “I’m here for you, friend.”