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.
Last week we had a funeral here at the funeral home. I was outside parking cars in the procession line, like I usually do, when a hot rod truck, with yellow racing stripes and a flare-side bed pulls up into the procession line. Our parking lot is laid out in such a manner that the only people who just “pull up” in the procession line are the one’s who have done it before. Although I didn’t recognize the truck, as soon as I saw it pull into the procession line without any need of my direction I was pretty sure I’d recognize the face of the driver being that he or she was probably a regular at the funeral home.
Sure enough. It was Donnie Smith. Donnie steps out of his truck, we shoot the bull for about 20 minutes, him telling me that his dad (Donnie Sr.) has been running low on health while he’s been running high on the idea that his dad might be needing us in the not too distant future.
There’s some people that I know only through funerals, and Donnie’s one of them. We buried his daughter a couple years back, and being that Donnie knows half the people in Chester County, he finds himself at funerals nearly as much as I do. In fact, at this particular funeral– after he was done talking with me — we put him to work as the door tender and he was greeting everybody that came through the front door with his genuine smile and warm presence.
Sunday came along and I see a note on the desk when I got into work: “Donnie Smith’s body is at the Hospital: not released.” I figured it was Donnie, Sr., being how Donnie Jr. was telling me about his dad being low and being unsure how much time he had left.
When we take a death call, we usually write the age of the deceased on the “first call” sheet and I saw in the upper right hand corner something that confused me: I saw “57.” I thought, “Donnie Sr.’s got to be in his 80s … that ’57′ must refer to something unrelated to the death call.”
I was wrong. The deceased at the Hospital was Donnie Jr., age 57.
No warning, no time for his family to say “good-bye”, no time to tie up loose ends. He told me how he was taking care of his dad, looking out for his dad. Nobody expected this. He didn’t expect it. In life, there are few things that are worse than a loved one leaving without saying “good-bye.”
Today we had the service. Probably close to 300 people came through the church during the viewing.
Before we began the service, we invited the family upfront to the casket to say their good-byes. At this point, I usually stand at the foot of the casket and observe what is often one of the harder moments for a bereaved family to handle: the last moment you have to touch, look at and speak to the deceased. After the family said their goodbyes on a day none of them expected to come so soon, we close the lid.
While this family was still having their final moments around the open casket, I noticed something right in front of me: sitting in the front pew of the church were two little girls –one a blond, the other a brunette (which is how I’ll distinguish them from here on out) — both about the age of seven. One was wearing what appeared to be her white Easter dress, her hair combed straight and her shinny white dress shoes fitted to feet that were dangling back and forth off the floor. Next to her was a little blond girl, dressed in black pants and a black shirt. I’m guessing they were Donnie’s granddaughters.
As most the adults were crying, the blond reached her arm across the back of the brunette and held her, at which point tears started to roll down the brunette’s porcelain face. They didn’t know I was watching them, and as far as I know I was the only one looking at them, as all the adults were huddled around the casket; but I was taking in this little slice of life like a parched plant taking in the sweetness of a desert rain.
The blond got up, walked back to the second pew and opened an old Phillies cigar box that she was using as a kind of purse. She opens the lid, reaches into the box, pulls out a tissue from the stack she had neatly placed in the box and rushes back over to where she had been sitting only seconds before, catching the tears as they run down the grief filled face of her friend.
At this point I got emotional. There’s a certain sense of hardness that creeps in after years in this business. And I’ll be the first to admit that few things bother me … few things touch me anymore. Death makes us into altogether different creatures … we can become like rough skinned rhinos who need something incredibly poignant to piece our outer shell.
I watched this compassion from this young girl for a couple minutes and then I saw my grandfather nod my direction, causing me to switch back to my job at hand, which by this time was the task of closing the lid.
Who taught this young child to do such a thing? Sure, she may have learned it from her mom, or maybe from Donnie himself, but nobody told this child to love. She just loved.
I sought the little blond out after the service was over and I asked her if she wanted to take any of the leftover flowers from her grandfather’s funeral back home with her. She pointed to the big casket spray. Being that the florists fill the back of the casket spray with water, I got it for her because it was probably nearly as heavy as she was, and I carried it to the bed of her dad’s truck. I guess when we witness the pure heart of children, it inspires and multiplies kindness.
Funerals sometimes put on display the worst of life and the best in humanity.
The funeral industry as we know it now in America allows for some of the greatest examples of both human graces and disgraces. The disgraces are all too publicized, and rightfully so. Most of us may remember the 334 bodies found in the back yard of the Tri-State Crematory in Georgia. Instead of fixing their retort, the crematory simply placed the bodies in the back yard to decompose and in place of the actual cremated remains, they gave the families boxes filled with wood chips, cement powder and wood ashes.
Many of us have seen the Nightline reports where funeral directors were caught bypassing laws on a regular basis, trying to scam money off of the elderly and acting more like greedy salesmen than compassionate professionals. Unfortunately, there are many funeral directors who are all too willing to use disadvantaged people to their own advantage. It’s ugly. It’s exploitation at its most base level. Yet, it happens. The unfortunate result of mixing grief clouded minds and greed poisoned hearts.
But, there are those of us who work hard, with undying honesty and integrity, sweating yellow tinged stains on our white collars. We withstand the sweat rolling down our backs into our cracks on the hot summer days as we stand in the caustic sun at the graveside. My great grandfather used to mow the funeral home yard in his shirt and tie. We’re probably still the only practitioners who ask for winter suits … they only make the medium grade suits today because white collar workers just aren’t out in the cold. Our backs are one of the main occupational hazards in this industry. And we get dirty too … crimson red on a bright white cotton shirt. Our collars may be white but our hearts are bleeding blue.
There are those funeral directors who see their profession as a calling; who find a sacredness to their calling, as though there was something spiritual about their work. As though they are more so ministers than death merchants. They are understanding, compassionate, hard-working, service oriented people who are more concerned about the richness of life in death then the wealth of their bank accounts. There are those who give their services for free to the less fortunate and downtrodden. Those of us who push families to buy caskets under their financial means instead of over. There are those of us who go above and beyond our contract expectations; who spend that extra five hours making the car accident victim viewable so that the family can see him one more time. There are those of us who offer more than just pre-need and at-need services … those of us who are there for the family months after the fact. There are those of us who understand that our integrity and honest direction can make Death a lot less hard for a whole lot of people.
The ancient and famed Egyptian embalmers understood that to be good death practitioners you also had to have religious and moral over and under tones in your life. And although we don’t divine like Egyptians, there are those of us who view this profession first as a practice of spirituality and secondly as a business; and, who do both with a strong work ethic. That’s the mold that I’m trying to fit into. A blue, white and clerical collar.
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.
(Some days I play the role of advice mallard. So, hang with me as I dish.)
I want to give you permission to pursue your doubts about your faith.
In some faith communities and religious families, the doubters are ostracized. Doubting isn’t just seen as questioning; it’s viewed as something that’s underpinned by rebellion, by sin. The prevailing idea is that, “You’re doubting the faith, so you can leave the faith; and by leaving the faith, you are leaving our family.”
To stave off being ostracized by family and friends, many doubters keep their questions about God to themselves. And, to a degree, it’s okay, except when that doubt is part of your grief.
Doubt and grief are directly correlated. Kenneth Doka suggests that “one of the most significant tasks in grief is to reconstruct faith or philosophical systems, now challenged by the loss” (Loss of the Assumptive World; 49). All forms of grief, normal, complicated and especially traumatic grief produce doubts about one’s faith.
Goodness is sucked away in grief; and many of us base our faith off the presumed goodness of God. When that goodness is sucked into the darkness of grief, the foundation of God’s goodness begins to shake; our faith trembles and sometimes it shatters.
The dilemma that results is this: we need our family and friends during grief … to share our grief with, to remember and to receive acceptance; yet, we’re afraid we will be ostracized by our family and friends if we express our doubt. Do we: 1. Pursue our grief induced doubts at the expense of our community and at the expense of experiencing the grief within the community; or, 2. Do we pursue our community at the expense of our personal faith searching?
We do both. You need both. You need to accept your doubts and find acceptance in community. And it might be nearly impossibility.
If you are experiencing doubt in a faith community during your grief, tell someone you trust something like this:
“I need to talk and I need you to just hear me and accept me right now. I know your faith is strong and I respect you for your faith, but my faith has taken a hit since ____’s death. Instead of forcing my faith, I’m processing my doubt. _____’s death is changing me.”
If they can listen, you need to talk it through with them. It’s healthy to express your grief within the community of grievers; and if your grief includes doubt, sharing will only help diminish your pain and clarify your outlook.
On the other hand, I want to give you permission to pursue the faith you’ve never had.
Grief can also enliven a newfound belief in God. All of a sudden your darkness sees a light and now – in your community of “unbelievers” – you’re the religious nut.
And you need to say the same thing to your community:
“I need to talk and I need you to just hear me and accept me. I know we aren’t very religious and I respect you and how you live life. But, I’m pursing faith since _____‘s death. I don’t want to convert you, but I want you to know I’m changing.”
The grief that can produce doubt can also enliven faith. And both are okay. And both need to be done in our communities.
Accept your grief. Accept your enlivened faith. And, to the best you can, do so in your community.
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