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Mum and Dad

The one thing bereaved parents should know

The one thing bereaved parents should know


Tara Shafer

posted in Parenting

This time of year is tricky for bereaved parents. Ringing in the New Year feels like an unimaginable effort. If there is one thing I wish I had been better able to understand at the time of my December loss, it is that comforts offered should be received in the spirit in which they are offered. People always mean well.

To be fair, a large part of me did know this. But not all of me. I had moments of extreme weakness I will share here.

I remember my best self in those dark days. This is when I remember how much it meant to me – how healing it was – to sit and write thank you letters for each condolence card I received. Notes for every act of kindness. There was therapy in this simple act of acknowledging the acknowledgment – a drilling down on unimaginable, nightmarish reality. I liked the act of letter writing.

But there were also times when I was not my best self. There is an impulse that bereaved parents sometimes have to lash out. It is unconscious. It is not personal. Nevertheless, it is worth some honest self-reflection.

People will struggle to find words when a baby dies. They will not always (or even often) say the right thing. That elusive right thing eludes us all. This is because there is no right thing to say. The awkward and bungled attempts made signal a touching wish to connect. Ergo, they are, in and of themselves, acts of courage and kindness.

I remember being at a party – a disco for children – that took place one weekend morning. I was not my best self that morning. I was grieving and postpartum and my son spilled an entire salad bowl of M&Ms and, while I struggled to clean them up, a woman I did not know well attempted to relate to me by sharing a stillbirth story of someone close to her. The detail was too much for me then. I remember leaving the party full of hidden and misdirected vitriol. I see now that this was wrong of me. This woman was only trying to let me know that she saw me and saw my struggle even at a birthday party.

I was angry but I was not angry at her. I was angry that my arms were empty at this birthday party. I was angry at the absence in the din of this sprawling presence of children dancing and laughing. As I drove away, I was tipping towards bitter.

So my only guidance (unsolicited, forgive me) for bereaved parents starting out 2018, is to accept all attempts at comfort in the spirit in which they are offered. All efforts to console are meant kindly. They may sometimes lack art in execution but in a way this only makes them more authentic and genuine. No one is trying to negate. No one is trying to be trite.

Everyone is trying to help you face the unimaginable. That people do not know what to say is not surprising. That they try to at all is a beautiful act of friendship. Learning to set aside the rage you may feel at the circumstances when accepting an effort to extend grace (however clunky the effort is) is a valuable skill.

And it may even preserve great swaths of your “friendscape” months and years after loss. This is well worth doing. Do the best you can to hear all expressions of sympathy with the love that accompanies them. It is natural to be angry about a tragic loss – but be careful about the targets of anger and honest about your responses. People are really doing the best they can.  Years out, I am here to tell you that you really can’t ask for more.

What advice would you offer bereaved parents?

Photographs Courtesy of I-Stock. Used with Permission.

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