To Be Like Sadness

You know Sadness, from the movie Inside Out? She knows something profound.


This morning, I read:
If someone asked you if you were compassionate, you might readily say yes. Or at least, "I believe so." But pause to examine the word compassion...For the word comes from the roots that mean literally to "suffer with"; to show compassion means sharing in the suffering "passion" of another. Compassion understood in this way asks more from us than a mere stirring of pity or sympathetic word. 
To live with compassion means to enter others' dark moments. It is to walk into places of pain, not to flinch or look away when another agonizes. It means to stay where people suffer. Compassion holds us back from quick eager explanations when tragedy meets someone we know or love. 
In some ways you might think such opening ourselves to other' pain would only intensify our own. How many people run to where others are suffering? Who easily hears someone weep or cry out or reveal a quiet sadness? Confronted with poverty or hardship or mourning, we say to ourselves, "Let's go where things feel a little more comfortable." Such is our natural logic.
In so many encounters we try to look away from the pain. We try to help our friends quickly process grief. We hastily look for ways to bring cheer to a child or ailing aunt. All the while, however, we act less our of genuine "suffering with" and more out of our need to stand back from the discomfort we fear we might feel. We secretly restlessly want to move from the place where it hurts. Our evasions do not help others, of course, but rather cause them to put up defenses and drive away those who need someone to care. 
One reason we react to others this way grows out of our skirting of our own pain. We resist getting near the suffering of another partly out of our unwillingness to suffer ourselves. For another's hardship suggests to us what can also hurt us. Such reminders unsettle. But our hesitation to look squarely at another's suffering, to sit or stand with someone in pain, weighs on conversations an obligation for the other to "act happy." Even worse, our persisting in denying our losses leads to mounting desire to control other people's lives. In his penetrating study, The Betrayal of the Self, the psychoanalyst Arno Gruen shows convincingly how "the actual source of our cruelty and callousness lies in the rejection of our suffering." 
For we may fall into the illusion that we own people, that we can use them, that we have a right to manage their feelings. By offering premature advice on how to cope, by rushing to reassure, by prodding with advice, we say much about or own needs for easy closure. When we barge in with such consolation, we make hurting souls into objects or projects. 
For all the ways this approach seems to insulate us from the hurts and needs of others, it ends up not helping us at all...We find relationships bending or even breaking under the weight of expectations we place on them in our discomfort with another's suffering. We end up even more alone and walled within our disappointments or sadnesses." 

-Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning into Dancing

By being brave enough to look deeply into our own suffering, we become able to sit with others in their suffering. By learning to show genuine compassion, to truly "suffer with" another, we will build gentleness, gratitude and even joy in our own hearts as well as meaningful relationships with others. Our hearts will be bigger and our world will be better if we can be brave enough to look into and understand the depths of our own suffering.

Self Compassion

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Compassion for myself was something that I had to learn in a new way after Lach died. It goes very much hand-in-hand with the “letting go” post earlier this month. At first, I had to learn compassion in regard to the emotion that I was experiencing. I didn’t have much tolerance for the difficulty I had in holding myself together, especially trying to do routine things out in public. Shopping for clothes was one of those things that, for whatever reason, stands out to me. It was unbearable to look for the 3T size without needing one in the 12 month size. I fought back tears… no one needs to see this wreck of a woman standing in the children’s clothing department. Hold yourself together! Go do something else! I always seemed to lose that battle and the tears won anyway.

Eventually, I think I just got tired of fighting myself. I decided to let go of the fight and allow myself to feel whatever it was I was feeling. I allowed the tears to flow whenever they came. I had to acknowledge that I was going through every mother’s hell and I had to meet myself with the same compassion and understanding that I would give to others on this path. I had to somehow trust that it wouldn’t always be like this, and I needed to give myself permission to work through those things rather try to stuff them away. Not everyone will understand. I might get a few extra looks, but that’s ok. If they knew my story, they would say that’s ok too. Shopping and church were going to bring tears and I learned to let it be… and brought along the tissues I was probably going to need.

Developing enough compassion for myself to allow the craziness in my thoughts while I was working on picking up the pieces was the other part of that. At Compassionate Friends meetings, a group for bereaved parents, many people talked about how crazy you feel after the death of a child. I was glad to know that I wasn’t alone in that, and that just because I felt crazy, didn’t mean I was sure to jump off the deep end.

Even now, I have thoughts that I have to treat with compassion and just let them be, without giving myself a hard time about them. When I get a phone call at work, especially when I’m scrubbed in and can’t answer it, my first thought is “I hope nobody died.” If my phone rings again, I find myself running through the scenario in my head. I know, it’s irrational to jump straight to that, but it’s happened to me before.

I’m a little weird about pictures, too. Talia just had some professional photos taken. I’m excited to capture that cuteness that makes all the 3-year-old tantrums worthwhile, but I also get some sort of satisfaction in knowing that I’ll have those recent and beautiful images if she dies. It’s not in the budget to purchase all of the images, so I wonder how long the photographer keeps the files and I wonder if she would give them to me if Talia died …I know, morbid, right?! Things like that are regular occurrences in my head. They are not the average thought processes, but I suppose burying a child is not an average life event. I don’t bother other people with that mess in my head, I just try to meet myself with compassion, and acknowledge and allow the thought and then let it go. It’s not socially acceptable to think that way, so it’s not something that gets discussed much, but I don’t think it’s necessarily unhealthy to have those thoughts either. To be honest, I think we’d all do well if we spent a little more time considering death. Recognizing the finality of my own life and the life of those I love helps me to live a little more fully and to appreciate the people in my life a little more deeply—my life and theirs is a gift that won’t last forever.

I once heard this quote that I really loved: “Emotions are like small children—you can’t let them drive the car, but you can’t stuff them in the trunk either.” In sudden grief, it’s like unleashing a mindful of unruly and unreasonable toddlers. They are bouncing around EVERYWHERE. Ignoring the situation won't help. Sometimes you have to stop what you are doing, acknowledge the chaos, and grapple with them one by one to put them back in their proper place. Compassion goes a long way in calming the disarray of thought and emotion. It gives you the time, the space, and the understanding necessary to allow the healing process to unfold.

Consciously Becoming

Today’s prompt is meant to highlight the differences in ourselves before the loss and after it, and who we are becoming. I’ve said it before, and most bereaved parents will say it…I am different after losing a child. Before Lachlan died, I was able to somehow feel protected from suffering and tragedy. Bad things happened to other people. I could be sympathetic to the suffering of others, but I wasn’t touched by it in the same way that I am now. Their tough stuff remained separate from me. It wasn’t out of coldness or an intentional attitude to protect myself, but there was an innocence or a naivety that didn’t really allow me to feel the suffering of others very well. It was inexperience with how hard life can sometimes be. I was able to be happy and content in my controlled world.

Then Lach died and that innocence died with him. Suffering was real, it was personal, and it was deep. I guess when a heart breaks open, it is given room to grow. Now I am able to be more open-hearted to the misfortune of others. I can more quickly move beyond a sympathetic response to an empathetic one. I want to choose a heart that remains broken if that allows my heart the room to continue to grow. I want to consciously become better at living with hope, mercy, truth, and love…always striving to be a softer, richer, deeper, wiser, and better version of myself. 

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She showed up first. We were little more than acquaintances at the time. She knew of Lach’s death and she came. She had such a way about her that things seemed better when she was there. She stayed in the background but relieved me of the pressure of having to tend to people. She let people in, she answered the phone, she made coffee, and she gave us a ride to the hospital. We had been away from home for a week or two during the time of Lach’s funeral and burial. She called and asked if it would be ok to clean the house for us. As we were returning home, I couldn’t help but be a little anxious about this new normal that we were going to have to find, and that we were going to have to start back into the daily chores of living. It lightened my heart to find things cleaned and tidy. Lach’s room was untouched, his things as we left them, the fingerprints still on the mirror. There was a vase of fresh cut lilacs on the table, fresh fruit and a new gallon of milk in the fridge. Maybe it’s because she was the first one, maybe it’s because we didn’t know each other well enough that I might have expected it from her, maybe it’s because those things were outside the box of casseroles and sympathy cards, but those were some of my most memorable moments of empathy. Since then, we have grown to be good friends and she has continued to be a wonderful support for me along the way. 
Empathy is as unique as the individual who is giving it. I think they key is just to do something! You don’t have to know the person well to give an incredibly kind and meaningful gesture, even if it is small and simple. Many people out of true love and concern make themselves available, “Call if you need anything. I’m here for you.” Even on the hardest days, I would let the dishes and the laundry pile up before I would ever call someone and ask them to do those things for me. People bring casseroles. They know you’ll have company that needs to eat even if you can’t. Those things are certainly appreciated, but the things that stood out to me were the things that were outside that box. Having someone take care of mowing the lawn, offering to take Westin for a couple hours, getting a group together to help us create a memorial garden for Lachlan, help in creating the memorials, Lach’s Legacy, and the Run for Their Lives, and even simply a coffee date and a loving conversation or a walk around the neighborhood.

Here are my tips on offering empathy to a newly bereaved parent: 
1. Know that there is more going on than what you can see. From the outside, I may have appeared to be holding myself together. I may have been playing with Westin at the park, I may have been talking about my trip to the grocery store, I may have been working just like everyone else. But what was on the inside was something different. I was being eaten up inside that I could give Westin undivided attention without Lachlan there, that the grocery trip was too easy when you’re not wrestling a 10 month old while you do it, or that I could work without a baby in my arms. 
2. Ask. Coming into a conversation with a newly bereaved parent can sometimes be scary. We are unsure of what to say or how to say it, we are afraid we might say something that will be hurtful. Keep in mind that grief is as unique as a thumbprint. There are some common threads, but no two people will look at any part of it the same way. What might bring comfort for one griever, may be painful for the next. Don’t expect to know what they might People who could come to me with an open mind and an open heart were always a blessing.
It was a relief to be able to talk about Lachlan without feeling judged or worrying about falling short of expectations, or feeling like I wasn’t doing it right because I wasn’t doing it as they thought I should. It was healing for me to have a conversation with someone who was willing to ask and ready to hear.
The questions you could ask to show your empathy and your love are endless: Are you able to eat? Are you able to sleep? What are some of the things that have brought you the most comfort? Is there anything in particular that has been hard for you lately? Have you thought about any kind of memorial? How are you feeling about going back to work? Are you finding it hard to take care of your other kids? Can I see some pictures of your baby? Tell me about him… Those kinds of questions helped me to know that someone cared, that they were interested in actually knowing my struggles and not giving any expectations on what I should think or feel or do. Share your own experiences of loss or grief, but remember that they are your own and what worked for you may not be helpful for them. 
3. Do something. Pick out something you would like to do for them and ask for permission to do that. It was much easier to say yes to someone who said, “we would like to take care of your lawn for the next couple weeks, is that ok with you?” than to call someone to say, “my heart hurts too much today, will you mow my yard?” Remember that now every item the child has ever touched is sacred to the parents. They are the physical proofs that the child was there. Make sure to ask before helping with anything that is the baby’s. Even the unfinished bottle, the poopy diapers, and the dirty laundry. A time will come when those things will have to be addressed, but the right time to address them is different for everyone. 
4. Remember. Remember birthdays and anniversaries. Remember that Thanksgiving and Christmas are happening without their child to share it with. Mother’s day is hard when you can’t hold the child who made you a mother. Remember times that you spent with the child and memories of the child. If you didn’t know the baby ask them to tell you about them. When you see something that makes you think of them, tell them that. 

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Support Circles

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When someone reaches out to me after the death of a child, it’s usually not the bereaved themselves, but close friends and family. I often get the question, what can I do?! How can I help? How do I be a good support person for these parents?
I truly admire those who are able to say that and to reach in to parents who are hurting. It’s not an easy thing to do. In our culture, we tend to want to avoid topics and feelings that are uncomfortable. Being a support person for someone who is grieving is especially hard because there’s no advice, no words, no deed that you can bring to the table to take away the pain. The path of grief is a lonely journey that can be travelled only by the griever. For a support person to understand that you cannot hurry them along the path of healing, but that you are simply there to sit and walk beside them as much as the path allows is essential. 
For most people, it seems, that being allowed to talk about their loss and their hurt is the number one thing that is helpful. Don’t be afraid to ask about their baby, how they are doing, what they are struggling with, and what seems to help. Before Lach died, I didn’t understand that very well. If someone went through something difficult, but by outward appearances seemed to be doing ok, I didn’t want to ask, or say something about it in the case that I might be ruining an otherwise decent day. After Lach died, I learned that even if by outward appearances I looked ok, my thoughts were completely consumed by him in every. Single. Moment. Having someone ask about Lachlan or my grief, may have brought tears, but generally they were very welcome tears. It was a huge weight off my shoulders to be able to talk about what feels like the elephant in the room. To know that someone cares and they were willing to just BE with me in my grief lightens the load. If someone is really not in a place that they would like to talk about it, usually grievers will find ways to be brief in answering your questions and finding ways to suggest that this isn’t a good time.

Don’t let being scared stop you from asking. Let me tell you, even with living the experience of loss and making a point to reach out to others who have experienced similar losses, I am still scared every time I talk to someone new. What will I even say?! Nothing can make this better! However, I know that saying SOMETHING is better than saying nothing at all. The hardest step is just getting up the nerve to start the conversation. My best advice is to ask questions. Really hear them out. Don’t allow yourself to be judgmental when you hear their responses. Thoughts and feelings after a big loss are wild and crazy. They can be scary to the griever themselves. People often feel like they must be crazy for the thoughts that they have. Giving advice or telling people what to think or feel doesn’t meet them where they are and can be much more likely to be hurtful. Bring coffee, take a walk together, make a phone call and as much as you can, just listen with the intent to understand.
I really have been very fortunate in the support I’ve had in my grief. People from many different avenues in my life have reached out to us in one way or another to show they care. One of the places I have found the most comfort is in the company of other bereaved mothers. I learned very quickly that in general other bereaved parents had a different way of asking questions and talking about the loss. They tended to be very open, understanding of the craziness in my head, empathetic and encouraging. Since then, I have been fortunate to meet so many other parents who have had to say goodbye to their precious babies. Even when I am the veteran griever reaching toward someone in their new grief, there is comfort for me when they reach back. Even 8 years later, I find that telling my story and hearing the experiences of other grieving parents is therapeutic. For all of you who have been willing to reach back…thank you!