I know, it makes many of you squirm a little…or maybe even a lot. It’s uncomfortable. Our society doesn’t do death, or pain, or life-changing grief, so we follow the crowd and look away. Pain that can’t be cured is like leprosy…it must be pushed aside, driven to the outskirts and left to fend for itself. Society teaches us that it’s acceptable to rally around the child fighting cancer. We all get warm-fuzzies in supporting that family and that child in their fight. It feels good to support a cause like that, but when death wins that battle we quickly drift away. What society does not teach us is how to be present to a pain that can’t be cured. It’s too hard. It’s awkward. We don’t know what to say. The reality of a dead child is too much to bear, and our culture encourages us to bring a casserole and then carry on with our lives, not daring to take the time to truly peer into that grief.
So, when I talk about my grief and the child that is no longer in my arms, it’s often easier to pass by the post without acknowledging. We’d much rather protect ourselves from the reality of unjust tragedy, however, that tragedy is now my world. I can no longer look away. When I share my world, it’s easier for others to wonder if I’m stuck in my grief, if I’m seeking pity or attention, or if I’m broken forever, than it is to imagine a pain that deep. Society implies that if we openly express our grief, we are immature, needy, or we simply can’t cope with our grief...so it’s easy to assume that I must be doing something wrong.
The truth is, expression of my grief is the work of mourning. There are so many thoughts and emotions bottled up inside of me that I have to get them out! That is exactly what mourning is; it is the outward expression of my grief. This mourning, this outward expression, is not just a small part of the grieving process, it is ESSENTIAL to it. I’m not making my thoughts about my broken heart and my dead child public because I’m stuck; I do it because I’m healing. Alan Wolfelt, a leading grief teacher and expert points out, “ Mourners who continue to express grief outwardly are often viewed as ‘weak,’ ‘crazy,’ or ‘self-pitying.’ The subtle message is ‘Shape up and get on with your life.’ The reality is disturbing: Far too many people view grief as something to be overcome rather than experienced.”
When I talk about my child, I am doing my grief-work. My world has been torn apart. Nothing makes sense anymore. My feelings, and emotions, and the chaos in my head are overwhelming to me, too. But the thing is, that chaos is normal for someone who is grieving. While anyone who has grieved intensely will tell you how normal that “crazy” feeling is; yet it feels anything but normal to me. I need to be affirmed in my feelings and to be reminded that I’m not as crazy as I feel.
I tell you about my dead child because telling my story helps close the gap between my head and my heart. My head knows that my child is no longer here. That he is dead. My heart can’t possibly bear that. My heart has dug in its heels and refuses to come along on this ride. I must coax it gently into this new world that my child is not a part of.
I know, my mourning makes you feel helpless and no one likes to feel that way. In order to heal from my hurt, first I have to explore the depths of it. As Alan Wolfelt puts it, “To honor your grief is not self-destructive or harmful, it is self-sustaining and life-giving!” I need to know that there is good reason for the depth of my pain and I need to be affirmed that the loss of a child arguably the most painful loss that can be endured. I need to know that every sting, ache, stab, crippling pain, and unexpected flood of tears is acceptable and normal. Please don’t tell me not to grieve, or not to cry. Don’t encourage me to “be strong”, or to pick myself up and carry on. The most helpful thing you can do for me is something our culture teaches us to run from. If you want to help me heal, then sit with me for a moment in my sorrow. Be brave enough to feel my pain for just a moment. I need to know that while the depth of my pain is as it should be, and then you may gently remind me that I won’t always hurt so fiercely. Remind me of the hope for meaningful life to re-emerge and that joy won’t always be lost in the shadows. But as you give me that reminder, I ask you to remember to hold space for my sorrow. I will heal, but I will never be the same. I will experience joy and laughter, but it will always be tangled with the strings of sorrow.
The grief work after the death of a child is a lifelong job. Yes, it will be most intense in those first years, but it will need to be re-visited regularly for the remainder of my existence.
Please be patient with me while I mourn. Share my pain with me for just a moment, in those times that I reach for comfort. Every time you see a post that makes you want to look away, don’t see me as weak and needy. Instead, dare to see my courage. Know that in my weakness I am being strong and courageous. It takes tremendous energy and courage to stare into the depths of my pain. Some of the world most beautiful people and missions are a result of intense sorrow. So remember that by giving my attention to those ashes, I am cultivating ground that can allow something profoundly beautiful to grow.