The following post was originally a guest post on Michelle Van Loon’s blog, “Pilgrim’s Road Trip.”
The author of the post, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote the following message to me via facebook:
Last June we accepted a foster placement of twin girls who were four months old. We’ve been foster parents for almost 7 years, but nothing prepared us for the sudden death of one of the twins, Ellie, at almost seven months. She went to bed a happy and healthy baby and when I reached into her crib in the morning I pulled out a corpse instead.
I am traumatized. I am an emergency nurse and not unfamiliar with death. I did CPR on Ellie out of reflex but with the full knowledge that she was gone and I couldn’t fix it. I can still taste the breath that I pushed out of her lungs. I’m never going to be the same…and I know it.
I am also a Christian. I think. In fact my husband is a church leader, making me the wife of a spiritual leader.
She then gave me the link to her post at “Pilgrim’s Road Trip.” I asked if I could also post it on my blog and she gave me permission. This post is immensely challenging, and will beg you to vicariously see the grief of a bereaved mother. This isn’t an easy read, but it’s one that will help you understand the grief of a parent who has lost a child. It’s written from the perspective of Holy Saturday … where doubt and silence are the only forms of faith.
Please stop attempting to spiritualize the death of my child. Assigning some thoughtless Christian platitude only serves to deepen my anger and further question my beliefs. If you don’t know what to say, a simple, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say,” would be far better than these actual attempts at comfort that I’ve received:
1. “God has a plan.”
Really? You serve a God with a plan that involves killing babies? Or at least standing by and allowing the baby to die when you believe that he could have intervened? Because the baby killers I’ve seen get life in prison. And even the convicts know which guy to attack.
2. “Some good will come of this. You’ll see.”
You think that at some point I’m going to see some direct blessing in my life or someone else’s that will make me think, “Aha! Here’s the good that came from my child’s death! I am now so glad that she died so that this could happen!” No! An Almighty God could surely think of some other really creative way to bring about good. Or else I don’t want that “blessing.” I will always wonder why it had to be this way, no matter what good things may come later in my life.
3. “Just think of the ministry you can have someday to parents who have lost children.”
No. At least not the ministry you’re thinking. That would require me to say that God is somehow in this for them and I happen to know that’s not helpful. Plus, I don’t want that ministry. I’ve spent twenty years of my life trying to serve God full time. I’ve put every major decision of my life through “God’s will” as a filter, including setting aside life dreams for myself. All of the big things I’ve tried to do for him have been heartbreak for me. I think I’m done with ministry at this point.
4. “God loves you.”
Imagine If I were married to someone who said, “I love you. I mean, you’re going to get hurt and I won’t stop it. In fact, I might even cause it. But I love you! It’s for your own good! It’s because of my great love for you.” You would encourage me to get to a women’s shelter immediately for my own safety. Where’s the safe place from this kind of “love?”
5. “God’s perfect love casts out fear.”
I’ve been dealing with a moderate amount of anxiety since my baby’s death. I’m not a very anxious person by nature, so I’ve sought some help dealing with the feelings of panic. I struggle with coming home after a night shift and wondering what I might find. I compulsively check on my children at night. Going to the doctor with another child of mine is a trip through some very dark places of fear. I’m constantly wondering which of my family members is next on God’s hit list. The advice that God’s love will fix those fears isn’t really resonating with me right now.
6. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Just depend on Him.”
The Christian grief counselor we saw put it this way: “God doesn’t give sorrow to people unless he knows they can handle it.” Really? Well, he was wrong. I can’t handle this. And if he doesn’t give me more than I can handle, why do I need to depend on him? The last time I was depending on him, my child died. So, yeah. That’s not likely to happen again soon.
7. “You’ll see her again someday.”
Is that day today? Then no, this isn’t helpful. It’s minimally hopeful if I can be sure that it’s true, but there’s no Scripture to really support this belief. There’s inference and tradition and conjecture, but there’s no chapter and verse that says, “Infants who die go to heaven.” Besides, If I live an average life expectancy, I will have to live at least another fifty years of missing her. ”Someday” could be a long, long time from now.
8. “Look at all of God’s blessings in this situation already! At least_______”
All of your “at leasts” aren’t blessings to me. Anything you say that starts with “at least” only minimizes my feelings.
9. “Just read [insert Bible verses here] and you’ll feel better.”
Passages that have been suggested to me include verses about God’s judgment, the story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, a passage instructing me that my heart is deceitful and wicked, and other similarly “helpful” Scriptures. This advice also assumes that I know no Scripture to which I can turn. You know which verse has been ever on my mind ever since the day my child died? “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” I’ve been reading the Bible for almost thirty years. I know where to find verses. Not too many of them are helpful right now. Bludgeoning me with Romans 8:28 is especially painful.
10. ”Just trust God. He is in control.”
I was trusting God at the time my baby died. She still died. If God is in control, that assumes that he killed my baby. My sweet, smiling, dimpled baby. If he didn’t kill her, he stood by while she died and didn’t stop it. Still guilty. I’d much rather believe that fate or chance had a hand in her death. I’m a lot more likely to have a continued relationship with someone who didn’t cause my baby’s death, either directly or indirectly.<
11. “This happened for God’s glory. Maybe someone might even get saved!”
This has been said to me with much excitement and expectation. You mean to tell me that God couldn’t have orchestrated some other way to get glory or reveal himself to someone? Or that some person out there is going to say, “Oh! God allowed ‘T’s’ baby to die. I should start a relationship with him and trust him with MY life!” Doubt it. And even if that actually did happen, should I then feel that this was all worth it?
12. “This world is not our home. She’s in a better place now.”
Yeah? Well, I live here right now, so it’s my home. If you actually believe this, why haven’t you committed suicide yet? As for me, I’d finally be in a better place if I died, too? And no, I’m not at all suicidal. I’m just saying that no matter where she is, I’m in a really painful place right now.
13. “Just imagine what tragedy or heartbreak God saw in your baby’s future that he decided to save her from.”By killing her? I’m sure there was another possible work-around or two. For that matter, this has been a devastating tragedy and heartbreak for me. Why didn’t I die as an infant so I wouldn’t have to go through this now?
14. “God will carry you through.”
If this is the kind of thing God is going to carry me through, I’d like him to please put me down.
15. ”Be thankful for what you have.”
The assumption here is that I wasn’t thankful before (I was), that I’m not thankful now (I am), and further minimizes the loss I feel. How do you suggest that I answer even the simplest question of how many children I have? I’m thankful for what I have AND for what I no longer have. It’s impossible to answer this question correctly now. Similar, but even more guilt-producing is “You have your husband and children to think about now.” Thank you for the suggestion that my grief and pain are invalid by comparison and should be left unmanaged for the good of my family. See? There. I was thankful.
16. “Things will get better.”
When? How do you know? Because for me, bad things just keep happening. It can get worse and I can name at least fifty ways it could get worse right now. So don’t say that things will get better. It could go either way.
17. “Maybe God is trying to teach you something.”Well, maybe he could have just texted me the instructions instead. Seriously. All I’m learning is that God can do whatever he wants and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A similar platitude, “Maybe God is trying to draw you closer to himself”, is equally insulting. Can’t he see the future? Didn’t he know that using an infant’s death to deepen our relationship might backfire? Please don’t presume to know the mind of God or impart your opinion of it to me.
18. “She’s with the Lord now.”
She wasn’t before? How about the rest of my family? I’m not with the Lord? Well, I’m glad he’s with someone, I guess.
19. “I know how you feel. I felt exactly that way when my grandparent/great Aunt Lucy/Fluffy died or when my child was sick, but then got better. But I just prayed and kept my eyes on God and he got me through. He’ll get you through, too.”
You have no idea how I feel. I wouldn’t wish how I feel on anyone. And what will he get me through TO? Can you guarantee that whatever is on the other side of this trench in life is something less painful? Because whatever it is, it will be a life missing my child and all the things that loss means.
20. “I was so devastated when your child died that I couldn’t go to work that week/I’m still struggling a month later.”
Both of these are actual things said to me by people who had seen my baby fewer than six times in her whole life. Other ways people who barely knew her have tried to be a part of the drama and somehow connect themselves to this tragedy include Facebook statuses or tweets with her name as a hash tag, prayer requests without my permission or in inappropriate places, and most difficult: “How are you doing? Because I’m so sad that ____.” There was an expectation that I should comfort THEM. Exhausting.
21. “You should_____.”
Don’t tell me what to do. I don’t want to exercise more, eat better, read that great book about God, go to a grief support group, focus on God, get involved more at church, get alone with God, go away for a weekend without my kids, take sleeping pills, talk about it more, or think about it less. I can’t afford to take any more time off work. I can’t concentrate enough to do much of anything right now, honestly. And a bigger list of things I “should” be doing right now is simply not helpful.
22. “If you need anything, let me know. I’m here for you.”
No. I’m here. Alone. It’s not possible for you to be here for me or I’d gladly give it to you. I’m glad you want to help, and I don’t doubt your sincerity. But this comment is a substitute for any kind of real help. You’ve absolved yourself of actually helping me in any tangible or intangible way and placed the onus on me to come up with some idea of what I need. You know what I need? I need my child. Alive and giggling. I need the image of her lifeless in her crib out of my mind and the taste of her dead skin out of my mouth. I need her siblings to grow up with her. I need for my husband to have never experienced this depth of pain. If you can’t give me any of these things, you’re kind of on your own with suggestions for helping me. Maybe send a sympathy card. It will make you feel better.
23. “Well, I’ll pray for you.”
Aside from the doubt that exists over whether you’ll actually do it or not, how is this helpful? Who knows better than God what I need and why hasn’t he already given it to me? Your asking for it will make it magically appear? The worst part about this statement is that it usually comes at the end of your listening to me or grieving with me. As in, “You’re done now. I’ll pray for you, okay? You’re making me uncomfortable with your intense sadness and hard questions.”
I know that I haven’t left you anything to say. Maybe that’s the point. I also know that, if you’re a typical Christian, you’re defensive and even deeply wounded by what I’ve said here. You’re thinking, “But remember, here’s what God is REALLY like and here’s where you’re wrong. Here’s where you need to adjust your theology and get your heart right with God.”
Whether you like it or not, no matter how uncomfortable this makes you feel, no matter what you believe or even what I believe, these things you’ve said are not helpful to me. In fact, many of them are so hurtful that I’ve been awake more than one night trying to work through them.
Maybe someday I’ll be ready to accept my child’s death with a little more grace. But for now, I’m afraid you’ll have to stick with, “This sucks,” or a simple, “I’m sorry.” You know what’s even better? The sound you make when you stay quiet.
Today’s guest post is from Brigid. Brigid is from a small Louisiana town. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Psychology. Passions of hers other than Psychology include creative writing, reading, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and bird-watching. She has a pet dachshund and a zebra finch. Brigid writes poetry, prose, and random thoughts at her blog, Scraps of Madness: http://scrapsofmadness.
Make sure you give Brigid your like at her facebook page, Brigid Mochroi – writer.
I buried my best friend yesterday. It was the hardest, most intense and exhausting experience of my life. I knew her since Kindergarten. She was the first friend I ever made. We grew up together. Our lives have been intertwined since we met. Her name was Aimee. She has influenced me more than I can even fathom. But I can pluck out her greatest lessons. And I want to share them with you.
Aimee was born with a kidney illness. She was not supposed to live past infancy. Then she was not supposed to live past childhood. But she defied the odds and made it 28 years. And no matter how sick she got, how bad off she was in the hospital now and then, she always bounced back. Yes, she would have moments where she got frustrated at her medical conditions, but she NEVER let any of her conditions define her. She pushed the limits.
I remember recently, when she was beginning dialysis 3 days a week, a big rock fest came into the town she was living in. She went to it and partied the whole time it was in town. That’s the kind of person she was. She never passed up an opportunity to have fun. And she never met a stranger. She made friends with everybody. Upon meeting her, most people had no idea of the health struggles she faced on a day to day basis. Her illness was something she had to deal with, but it was never who she was.
Aimee’s greatest lesson was in her example of how she made the best of any situation. She had a strength and resiliency that most of us can’t even imagine. She was fire and lightening. Full of pure energy, life, and love. And no matter what she was going through, she was always there for you if you needed anything. She lived to help people and would give you the shirt off her back if she thought you needed it more.
We always knew it was a possibility that she was destined for a shorter time on this earth than we would have liked. But we also understood that she was already defying the odds by having survived infancy and childhood. She focused on the present and on enjoying every moment she could. She and I only had the death conversation a handful of times in all these years. She would not talk about it for long. She did not like to waste time dwelling on things out of her control and she did not want to worry anyone else.
“I know my kidney could stop working any day. I know that I’m lucky I’ve made it this far. I know that I could die anytime. I don’t like to think about it, nobody likes to think about that kind of thing. But I’m here right now and I’m going to make the best of whatever time I have.” That was what she said to me. And that was as far as the discussion went.
She truly did live life exactly as she pleased. Grasping each moment with full awareness and making the absolute best of it. I think that inner strength was a large part of why she defied the odds.
She passed away suddenly in her sleep. The end did not come as we all feared it would. We all feared it would come after weeks of lingering in the hospital and hooked up to machines. We all feared it would be the end to a long drawn out suffering death process.
Yes, she had been in and out of the hospital a lot lately for various reasons, but she was functioning well. She had just been on several short vacations recently. She had just gotten engaged. Her mother and father told me they just saw her and she was her usual energetic and happy self.
She just went to bed one night during the happiest point in her life and slipped away in her sleep. And I think if she had been given the choice of going that way versus going the way we all feared, she would have chosen this. This was yet another blessing. Even in dying, she defied the odds and made the best out of a bad situation.
I hope that I have captured some degree of her shining example in this post. I hope that by posting this, her influence will be extended to those who never had the honor and pleasure of being part of her life. She lived to help people. And by writing this, I want to give her the chance to continue to help people.
We all agreed that instead of sending flowers to Aimee’s funeral we wanted to encourage everyone to donate to the National Kidney Foundation or the Ronald McDonald House in her name. I hope that some of you will be compelled to make a donation to help these causes. They were very important to her. If there is another cause that is of particular importance, then consider making a donation to whatever that may be. Aimee was all about helping people in whatever way possible. Another great lesson in life.
In conclusion, I want to share a lesson I have learned from this experience of loss. Losing someone close to you is the hardest pain you can imagine. But the pain comes from how close you were to that person and how much you loved them. Yet, you never regret the closeness. The things you regret are missed opportunities to see them, the times you put off calls or visits, or the things you had planned that never came about. You never regret loving as hard as you can.
Today’s guest post comes from Celeste Donohue. Celeste is a writer/comedian who lives in Los Angeles and is also the daughter of a 3rd generation funeral director. Her blog “Death To Hollywood” is about her life growing up in a funeral home and her current life in Hollywood.
The way we brought the bodies in to the morgue was through the alley (SEE PHOTO to the right). There were big white doors (with brass door knobs of course) that would open wide enough to bring the stretcher in. For everyone else on our street, it was their garage. So technically, the morgue was in the garage that was connected to the basement. After the person was embalmed and dressed, we had a motorized lift to take the dead people up from the basement to the first floor. My dad told me that before it was a lift, it was an electronic chair for my grandfather to go upstairs after he had a stroke. Once my dad built the morgue in the basement he took the chair off and replaced it with a piece of wood that he could lay the bodies on.
That lift was fun. When I was really little my dad would let me ride it. I’d sit on it and he would turn the switch on and I’d start to go up the stairs. There was a light bulb on the other side of the steps that I used to pretend was the moon and I was an astronaut on my way up to the moon. Normal kid stuff, if you consider riding a lift for dead bodies normal.
That lift was later replaced with another one that was much more elaborate and cool. The new one actually came up through the floor of the parlor so that the body would already be in the casket and ready for their big day. The other lift couldn’t have held a casket, just a body. Once everything was in place; flowers, etc. no one would know that the lift was underneath the casket.
One time the body came up through the floor, was in the casket and everything seemed fine until the leg of the stand underneath the casket collapsed. We were upstairs watching TV when we heard a loud thud followed by my dad yelling a string a curse words. That may have been one of the few times I heard him say “fuck,” except he yelled it. The leg collapsed, the casket fell and the body rolled out. Luckily this didn’t happen during a funeral, it happened while he was setting up, but the family was due there soon so my dad was freaking out. Naturally, we ran downstairs and the dead lady was in the middle of the floor.
Dead bodies aren’t really fit for moving around once they’re in the casket because they’re so stiff. The body was facing down and when my dad rolled her over, her hands were still folded. Can you picture that? It was funny because people who are alive are just the opposite. My dad wasn’t able to laugh about that one right away, but we did.
Of course, my dad and brother got her back into the casket and everything was fine after she had a slight touch up. The family never knew that their loved one had been face down in the middle of the floor in her fancy dress a couple hours before that. And that’s for the best because there really isn’t room for a lot of error when it comes to a funeral. People are so distraught they probably wouldn’t find it funny to watch a dead body roll out of a casket.
Four months after Newtown, People magazine has published a series called, “Life After Newtown Shootings” where the parents describe their grief and how they are coping. It’s a beautiful series and well-worth your time and the three dollar Kleenex box that you’ll go through.
One of the parents mentions that she still sleeps with her son’s pajamas so that she can be soothed by “his smell.” Certainly, considering the tragedy of Newtown, there is nothing abnormal about her practice. In fact, it’s healthy and I can’t help but feel the heaviness of her grief as I think about it.
Here’s a question: A what point has her son’s smell disappeared and what she thinks is her son’s smell is actually her own smell. At what point in sleeping with his pajamas have they stopped smelling like her son and started to smell like her?
At funerals, you’ll often hear people say, “Cathy lives on in all of our memories” or, “Cathy will never die as longs as we remember her.”
There’s a difficulty that comes with remembering our loved one.
I remember an old man, who was married to his late wife for over 50 years, stopped into funeral home to pay his bill and he said, “I both grieve the loss of my wife and the distortion of my memories of her. Even now, when I remember her, I ask myself, “Is this memory real or is it my mind’s adaptation of her? I only want to remember the good, but I miss the bad and messy nearly as much because it’s who she was.”
There’s a time when the smell on the pajamas becomes our own. There’s a time when memories are distorted by our desires for comfort. But, this is why we must grieve in community … so that community can help us piece together the real.
Grief must take place in community! We have to share, we have to be vulnerable with our friends and family.
Share at your family dinners … over the holidays.
Be brave an ask your parents old friends about mom/dad. Ask your child’s friends … your spouse’s co-workers.
Have people write down their memories.
Talk. Talk. Talk. Talk about your deceased loved one. Don’t let the memories die. Don’t let them become distorted.