Recently I spent the day among a group of people I hadn’t seen since I was pregnant with Elliot. They are acquaintances, not close friends, but kind and friendly people who are aware of my hospitalization, and Elliot’s birth and death. I mustered the courage to spend the day among them, and knew I would receive condolences. After all, I hadn’t seen any of these people since Elliot died, so it would be only natural for them to say a few words. I know when people offer words of sympathy about my losing Elliot, it brings tears to my eyes and makes my voice break, so I kind of mentally prepare myself if I think it could be coming.
The day began and these people hugged me and said hi and that they were glad to see me, but no one said anything about Elliot or what I had been through. Okay. No big deal. It was a crazy beginning to the day. Then as the day went on, other opportunities to talk arose, and still no one said anything. Hmm. Maybe the opportunity would come when we all had lunch together. But forty minutes of lunch came and went without one person offering even the customary, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” It was getting weird, and I started feeling some of the anxiety I’ve struggled with since Elliot’s death building in my chest. I finished out the day and wondered if maybe those words of support and kindness would come at the end of the day. But still, they didn’t come. It was all I could do to hold myself together until I got to my car. When I was far enough across the parking lot to where no one could see me, I exploded. The tears and hurt and cries for my son shook me while tears blurred my vision (I probably should have pulled over). It’s like he never existed! I thought. It was over an hour before I could really get myself to calm down.
I didn’t understand why it hurt so much that no one mentioned Elliot. After all, like I said, these are not close friends. They don’t owe me anything. Maybe they weren’t even fully aware of all the details surrounding his death. And I have explored with many other bereaved parents the reality that people simply don’t know what to say. I know that before this experience, I have been apt to say very little to a bereaved person, thinking I would somehow make it worse by bringing it up. I try to remember this and not hold any ill will towards people for what they say or don’t say. But something about my expecting a chance to talk about Elliot and not being invited to do so left me in a confused funk. What was it about having to keep my pain inside that caused me to hurt so badly?
In some reading and discussions lately, I think I’ve found a priceless insight to that question: there is nothing that soothes the ache of losing my baby like being able to tell his story, to tell my story. There have been a core group of friends and family who have instinctively met me within the story. The conversations about all the details of Elliot’s life, death, and my journey of grief have kept me going. These friends have kept me breathing. They have validated me and supported me in ways I wouldn’t have even known to ask for.
One of my friends has continually loved on me and spoiled me by creating gifts in memory of Elliot, bringing me coffee, spending time with me. But she has most importantly been a listening ear. She reflects with me on the beauty of my boy, she groans with me at the unfairness of losing him so soon, she ponders the questions about God with me. She not only supports me in my loss of Elliot; she truly feels like she has lost him, too.
Another friend asks questions that make me wonder if she’s secretly a trained therapist. How did the funeral feel for you? How have you been sleeping? How was it when you visited the hospital for the first time? These are such insightful, open-ended questions that help me process things I don’t always know how to process. And then she listens, asks other probing questions, and listens some more. She never judges. She never offers cliches or unsolicited advice. She just makes me feel very, very safe.
A friend who is unfortunately in the baby-loss club with me has listened to so many stories of my Elliot and my journey since losing him. She and I kind of have an ongoing dialogue that alternates between our past memories, our current highs and lows, and our longing and hope for being reunited with our babies. Even in my struggles with God, I can clearly see that He placed her in my life. Sometimes talking with her is the only way out of feeling like I might truly be going crazy.
Oh, and there are so many more. I think I am exceptionally blessed to have so many supportive people in my life. Friends from years ago who’ve emailed or texted or called and have listened to Elliot’s story, and shared their own stories of loss and grief. A sweet friend who invites me to her house for coffee and commiserates with me about the pain of living apart from our babies. A sweet smattering of people from my Jim Elliot Christian School days-from coworkers to parents to former students-who have met me for coffee, come to my house, even walked with me at Elliot’s gravesite. Sweet family members who say his name and shed tears in longing for him. Close friends and even strangers who send me messages of love and condolence. All these people. They listen. They validate. They share their own doubts and questions about their faith. They share their stories. Because, as I am learning, we all have stories of loss and grief. Or we all someday will.
Reflecting on these relationships and how they’ve helped me offered me somewhat of an answer as to why that day when no one mentioned Elliot hurt so deeply. Whether I consciously knew it or not, I wanted to share. I was ready and prepared to share. Instead, I felt like I had to keep it all inside. It’s not the fault of the people I was with; they had no idea I came to the day with unspoken expectations. I didn’t quite know it myself. It was not the environment for long conversations or lots of tears, but something I’ve learned is that telling even a small part of the story helps. If someone had said, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” it would have helped me to be able to say, “Thank you. It’s been really hard.” Or if someone had said, “I saw a picture on Facebook of your son. He was so beautiful,” I could’ve released a few of the pent-up tears and said, “Thank you. He really was.”
My counselor gave me a book to look through a few months ago, and it had a section specifically on child loss, and then within that section an even more specific section on pregnancy and infant loss. This quote stuck out to me:
“In addition to being able to tell their story, and to do so as often as seems necessary, parents also need to be able to speak of or make reference to the dead child and events in his or her life. The tendency of others may be to avoid the subject or to repress any inclination to mention the child, perhaps with the best of intentions. They may not want to upset the parents or bring back painful memories. However, in reality, the parents are upset and the painful memories are rarely far from the surface. And in all likelihood, the behavior of others would be perceived as more sensitive, and thus more helpful, if the parents had permission to openly acknowledge their child and her or his life that has come and gone.” In the Presence of Grief p. 112
The friends who have given this permission have allowed me to begin to heal. I am starting to feel out who are the special people in my life I can trust with my story. God has given me several people who fill this role in a variety of ways. It is really okay if not every relationship in my life can do that. It is a delicate thing to handle the broken heart of another human being.
I’ve also learned that telling my story not only helps my healing from grief, but from trauma. These are really two separate things, but they are intertwined. I have written about the sudden and traumatic circumstances of Elliot’s death. I certainly have symptoms of PTSD, the most prominent of which for me is flashbacks which lead to panic attacks. These episodes are scary and debilitating, but my counselor has helped me learn that in trauma, the brain’s synapses disconnect and then try to reconnect by making sense of what’s happened. Thus, the traumatic event and circumstances surrounding it play over and over in the traumatized person’s mind. It’s no fun. My amazing counselor works with me at creating new synapses that will help my brain heal from the injury of the traumatic death of my son. But another way my brain can heal from this injury is simply by telling my story to the people who are open to hearing it.
One of my supportive friends recently gave me a book called Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss. In this book, the author (also a dad who lost a baby boy, and a psychologist), challenges the old-school thought of the “stages of grief,” as if grief is something to simply work through and then finish. He instead focuses on what seems more natural and instinctual: that grief is an ongoing story between people who love each other, one of whom has died. He spends some time talking about how grief is complicated when the bereaved is also dealing with the aftermath of trauma.
“Clients who have suffered traumatic loss certainly present a more complicated therapeutic challenge, because both trauma issues and the underlying anguish of loss need to be addressed. Clients are often unable to fully touch the pain of their grief until the symptoms of trauma have lessened. And that often doesn’t come until after the story of the trauma has been talked through many times in a safe therapeutic environment. The repetition of the story allows the brain to assimilate the images of the traumatic event. With familiarity, the brain’s defense mechanisms trigger less and less. Life is no longer one continuous nightmare.” Getting Grief Right p.87
Those first few months after Elliot died were, indeed, nightmarish. Many days I paced the floor in a panic, finding it hard to breathe and crying for my baby. I didn’t know that traumatic memories could so completely take over the brain and make ordinary life impossible. But that’s what trauma does. So it makes sense to me that, because of my husband, my counselor, and the friends who have listened, life is still hard but not always a nightmare. It’s because the people in my life who have allowed me to share my story have actually helped my brain start to heal from trauma. What a gift to me.
I hope this will compel me to do for others what the listeners in my life have done for me. They open the door to hearing my story by asking or by mentioning Elliot. I hope this will remind me in the future when I have that inevitable doubt in my mind: should I say something? I should.
When in doubt, say something. Not advice. Not cliches. Just a kind something. And then just listen.
I don’t expect all conversations to be about Elliot, or how I’m doing with my grief. It would be exhausting if that’s all I ever talked about. It is very nice to talk about other things sometimes, and to remember there is much joy in life even in the midst of sorrow. I need a mental break from the hard stuff, just like everyone else does. And I know I am not the only one going through something hard, so I don’t want relationships and conversations to be all about me.
But the reality is that Elliot and Avery and Everett will never be far from my mind. On occasion, when you ask me about them, or ask how I’m coping with life without them, or when you say their names, you will be helping me heal. You will take a small piece of this heavy burden called grief, and you will make my burden a bit lighter. You will relieve me of the exhausting pretense of keeping my thoughts of them on the inside. Maybe there’s someone else in your life who needs you to relieve a little of their burden. Or maybe you are that someone.
I hope I will listen to your story and help you walk the hard road of life with a little less weight in your step. I hope Elliot can help me be a better listener. I’d like that to be part of his legacy and gift to me. When another mom shares with me the story of her child who has died, I feel so honored because I know she is trusting me with the most precious story in her world.
And I’m trusting my listeners with the most precious story in my world. Thank you for those of you who help me bear this burden.