Friday, August 08, 2008

When Children Die: More Questions

Lori, who writes here in memory of her daughter, and here about moving forward, asked me the following question, and it is certainly something that I also deal with frequently. Definitely deserving of its own post:

I was attending a planning session for a fundraiser to benefit the
Children's Cancer Association last night and of course told them about my
daughter. This inevitably led to tears (not mine surprisingly) and
multiple "I'm so sorry's" and lots of awkwardness. Have you found a good
response to "I'm sorry"? Cause thank you is not cutting it for me.
It's like they expect me to say more and I just don't know what to say.

This is what I call: An Awkward Moment. But these Awkward Moments happen all the time. Nearly everyone has the same reaction upon hearing about a child's death: shock, sadness, disbelief. But after a year or so, it becomes difficult to hear every time. Not so difficult that we will ignore that s/he existed when you ask us how many children we have, but difficult in the tedious and somewhat depressing sense. And then we thank you for your sympathy, which is appropriate, but then the sadness and head-shaking in disbelief go on for another moment and we feel almost as if we need to comfort you and tell you it's okay.

When I tell people my son died, the usual (and completely appropriate) response is extreme apology, offered within hushed tones.
"Oh I am so sorry. How AWFUL for you and your family."
This is kind, this is meaningful. But guess what? My little girl is right next to me listening to HOW AWFUL IT IS FOR US. And I gesture to her and smile.
Then I address the person who is offering the condolences.
"Yes, it is every parent's worst nightmare come true. But it is also just our family history. It happened. Her brother's name was Elijah, and she remembers him."
Almost always, this evokes some happy memory or delivery of information about Elijah-the-living, that my daughter (now age 7) feels compelled to share.

If my daughter is not around, I pretty much say thank you and remind people that we like to remember him. It makes us feel better.

For us, I guess part of it is the de-sensitization process; the Coping With The Reality, tragic or not.

If the words 'my dead son' continue to evoke ONLY tragedy, then my daughter has far too much to lose.


Jenny, the Bloggess said...

This. This is why I love you.

You make me learn. And think.

Never stop.

The Turtle and the Monkey said...

So true...I find that when people ask how many children I have and I say two...they look around looking for the other one. I tell them Monkey has a twin we lost (why do I say that? It's not like he is coming back) at 3 months. My answer is always followed by the "head tilt". They tilt their heads and them a moment of akward silence. They then proceed to say they are sorry. You are right, it's like it is our job to comfort them. I hate this interaction with people, yet I don't know how to change it. I actually avoid aquaintances just so I don't have to go through this. Sometimes, I say one, but I feel horribly guilty as if I am denying Noah's life. Sometimes I wish that I could just have a tattoo on my forehead that says my baby died. Then they wouldn't have to ask and would have the option to just keep on walking...

Bree said...

Geeze, you always hit the nail on the head!

When people say, "I'm sorry," when they hear about Michael, I sometimes say (depending on my mood), "You didn't do anything, don't be sorry." How am I really supposed to react to that...? I understand that they have NO. IDEA. NONE. They haven't experienced the same thing and can't possibly know the proper thing to say.

I'm having a bitter week, or two.

Thanks for just saying things the way they are and providing an outlet. I can't tell you how much it means.

gwendomama said...

i just read these comments and said to my husband, 'you know, i love parenting and my job isn't suckage, but since elijah died, this is probably the most helpful or purposeful i have felt.

thank you.

thank you.

Julia said...

I get a lot of practice with this these days, since I end up going in to check on the pregnancy a lot. My chart is clearly marked by my very nice OB, and, I expect, it says there to bring me in for every concern and to be extremely accommodating. So I get to see a lot of doctors and nurses in the practice, and every time I see someone new, they do the "I am sorry" thing. I appreciate them not sweeping it under the rug, but I really don't know what to say other than "thank you." I am not terribly comfortable with that part, and usually end up averting my eyes at some point. Or I ask them some question on the matter at hand, which gets the conversation moving.
I suspect that if I do get this one out alive, I may get more practice. At the part and other fun and crowded places.

Rachel Inbar said...

I don't remember exactly what I said when I was speaking to you at Macy's, but I hope I didn't sound incredibly stupid. I've really learned a lot reading your last posts. I sincerely hope I will never have to use this knowledge.

Tricia said...

I know I don't like to say I'm sorry when I hear of someones loved one dying- yet I am at a loss for what TO say.
I have said " that was unexpected", or "I'm shocked" or "You don't have to say thank you, but I am sorry to hear about _____ dying" or "That's not fair" or "what can I do" or "I'm here".

I think in general, American culture doesn't deal with death well...

Lori said...

Thanks for your wise words Gwendolyn. It's so helpful to hear how others manage through the messy aftermath of losing a child.

I have to assure people that "I'm sorry" is the ideal response. And if you can't hold back the tears, I completely understand. In fact, I prefer the teary-I'm-sorry to the brush-past-it-as-fast-as-humanly-possible-response. I'm usually the one who brings up my daughter because I LOVE to talk about her. So I'm usually the one getting myself into these Awkward Moments. I guess I'm everyone who is worried about saying the wrong thing, please don't let it stop you from saying something.

MountainMommaSpy said...

Lori -- that's well said. I think the loss of a child evokes the most primal fear of loss and most people are at a loss.

B said...

I agree with mountain, the loss of a child does evoke fear of every parents worse nightmare. So when people hear my oldest daughter died I say thank you to their, "I'm sorry" comment and answer their questions while slightly changing the subject nicely to the fact that I have happiness because I have two living children. I don't want people to think or believe I live with nothing but misery in my life because of my daughters death when I have much to be happy over.

Zip n Tizzy said...

It sounds as though you handle it beautifully, and that it's a wonderful opportunity for your daughter to share her good stories about her brother. As already said, it brings up peoples deepest fears, but to show through example that you as a family are moving through it, is a gift to all involved.

ConverseMomma said...

There was an article in O magazine, please don't tell anyone I read that, anyway... it was written by a woman whose child was born stillborn. She was giving a reading of the book she wrote afterand another woman, who had lost a young child, told her she should write a humorous book about losing her baby. The initial author was shocked and hurt, at first, by the suggestion. But, then she went on to explain that what the other woman was really trying to say is that she wants to be able to talk and share all about her missing child in many different ways, yes saddness, but also the funny things she remembered about him, the joys of who he was. I read this post and thought of that article.

Still, I'm sorry for your loss.

slackermommy said...

You make an excellent point that I don't think people think about. Our 6 year old nephew died a year ago from complications of Luekemia. I have seen first hand how awkward and uncomfortable people are about talking about him.

kitrona said...

Coming from the outside (and I know this is an old entry), my first reaction to hearing that someone's child died is, "I'm sorry. What was his or her name?" I don't know if that's appropriate, but to me it changes things from "child that died" to "small person who lived".

I've been reading about Elijah. What a sweet guy.