The following post is from a series called ” A letter to someone who stopped talking to me.” The posts from this series will appear on Stigma Fighters and Bank Back Together.
It’s been a while since I wrote you. Six months. What was the last thing I sent you? A postcard, probably. Someone – one of your sisters, my aunts – told me a while back that my letters to you went unopened. Hence the postcards: nothing for you to open (or not open), a pretty picture for you to look at, and less aching white space for me to fill each week. It made it easier – for me at least. Nothing too heavy. News from up here in the north. Family. Friends. Work. Then best wishes for your well-being and family down there.
Phone calls from me ceased when you could no longer take them. When you could no longer remain awake at the phone or even, perhaps, know who I was. You used to love texting, before illness took its final hold, but the special large screen phone we got you so you could take and make calls from your room languished unused and uncharged.
I cherish the times I came to visit with you, on my own or with Pam. The time I took you to Washington Wildfowl Trust to see the ducks. Holding your hand. Sitting with you in your room while you slept. I remember the moment (not precisely when but how it felt) when the question “When will I go down next?” shifted into the knowledge I would not.
And then the phone call telling me you’d gone. A week or two of uncertainty, doubt, fear. Then plans to be made. Hotel rooms and a hire car. Routes. What to wear. That was okay. I’m good with that stuff.
And then there I was, back in Liverpool one last time. Squeezed in the back of the funeral car. Your face staring at me all the way to the church from the framed photo they’d propped at the back of the hearse. Carrying your coffin – no weight at all really – up the aisle of the church I remembered so well. The priest’s eulogy. “She was a saint. Literally, a saint. She always put others first.” And I wanted to scream.
YES SHE WAS. SHE DID. AND LOOK WHAT IT FUCKING DID TO HER.
I didn’t scream out, of course. I stayed quiet in my seat. I own my share of the blame. The depth of your need terrified me and I left you to get on with it all. I wasn’t there when you needed me to be. It was easier to pretend I didn’t notice. To visit occasionally and then not at all. To phone occasionally and then not at all. To write letters, and then postcards, that said very little and needed no reply. I’ve learned a lot about being there these past years but too late for you and me. There is no going back but I would do better by you now.
I don’t believe these words will find you now any more than the postcards did. You are gone. Not gone somewhere. Just – gone. But there are tears in my eyes and perhaps that stands for something.
Just did some spring cleaning and deleted all of my Facebook messages.
The oldest messages I had were from Michael, who was a good friend to me.
Sadly, he passed away a few years ago and I regret not making the time to get together again, and I’m sorry that I didn’t know he had passed until over a month after it happened.
Here’s the trouble — We always think we have time.
Time for that catch-up coffee get together, time for that dinner/ drinks night with that person we bump into at whatever store in town, and we’d really like to take the time to properly nurture that friendship, but we’re busy, so busy! — we’re working, we’re getting married, we’re catching up on our favourite TV shows at home, we’re doing household chores, we could be raising families, and we’re tired, we’re worn out, we’re run down, and we’ll get around to it, we truly will, just —– later.
We might have that family member or friend present on the periphery of our lives, somebody with whom we haven’t always had an easy relationship, and they’ve got stuff going on that complicates things further, and one day, in the future, we’ll patch things up with them properly, we really will, we truly mean to do so. Except we’re busy, we’re so busy, and we’re tired, and we might have our own messy stuff to deal with, and it’s not easy or convenient right now, but we’ll do it, we will, we mean to, at least. Just… not at this moment.
And then suddenly, it’s gone, that window of opportunity to make amends, to say hey, let’s grab that coffee, let’s catch up, let’s grab some emotional spackle and mend the cracks in our strained relationship. Either too much time passes, and the opportunity is lost, or the person passes, and, well… y’know. We’ve missed our chance indefinitely, and we’re left behind with complicated feelings and some weighty emotional baggage that we’ll get around to sorting through — one day.
—- Virtual high fives to anybody who has read this far. You can’t feel ’em, but they’re there.
My mother passed away in February of this year, and I never made a post on here expressly stating so, because condolences are so, so hard. And I’m not looking for them now, either.
Timing-wise, it was inconvenient, as I was 7 days away from starting a shiny new job for which I had really high hopes, and working full time at a “training wheels job” that was getting me re-acclimated with being an active part of the workforce after 8 long months of job-seeking. So I never properly dealt with the unfortunate occurrence, that emotional luggage that I’m sure is still sitting on my shoulders and weighing on me in subtle, almost imperceptible ways. I’m not sure how to go about addressing the feelings that I have. Most days, I’m unable to even completely sort out what those feelings are, and how they might be impacting my daily interactions now without me even knowing.
I know my mom loved me, and even though I didn’t say it often enough, or make enough of an effort to show it, I loved her, too, and I should have made it more apparent, and loved more freely and openly, and made more time to display it properly — not just on days that are societally-designated “love fests” like Christmas and birthdays and Mother’s Day and whatnot.
If any of this resonates with any of you, please, pick up the phone and call whomever you’re thinking about right now, if you can… while you have time.
Didn’t know that your phone can make phone calls, too, and not just send text messages and e-mails? Didn’t know that it’s not just a business tool, and not just it now. It might not be easy, or convenient, but it could be the only opportunity you will ever have. Make it count.
Didn’t know that your phone can make phone calls, too, and not just send text messages and e-mails? Didn’t know that it’s not just a business tool, and not just for emergency purposes, y’know, like calling your loved ones only if you get a flat tire on the highway, etc. etc. etc.? Phone calls can be made without occasion and sometimes the unsolicited ones (not from telemarketers, though… blech) are the most meaningful and memorable.
Do it now. It might not be easy, or convenient, but it could be the only opportunity you will ever have. Make it count.
It was a beautiful Memorial Day Weekend a few years ago. I had gone with a good friend to the Indianapolis 500. I was very recently divorced and my son, age 8, was with his dad at an amusement park fairly close to our house. I had just returned to the area when my ex-husband called with a pretty horrifying story. His normally tough-as-nails mother had called him, hysterical, saying something about a pool, but he couldn’t make out anything else she was saying. He was on his way back to town, but in the meantime asked me to look for his mom.
So, I did. I think I knew all along what I would find. I knew my brother and sister-in-law were having a pool installed for my niece and nephew, ages 5 and 8. I stopped at a couple of places where I knew they hung out with no luck, so I headed for the hospital.
I went to the ER desk and told them who I was looking for. Just the last name, mind you. Immediately, the front desk person said I could come in the back. I didn’t know that meant really bad news. I said, “No, I can wait out here, no problem,” but she insisted. Into the back I went, and immediately I was confused. There was my mother-in-law, surprisingly calm, or so it seemed. I went to her, and she said it was my niece, it had been the pool where the football cookout had been held, my niece had been missed but there were too many toys in the pool to see her at the bottom.
And I said, “Well, how is she?”
She said, “Oh, she’s dead.”
A lot of the aftermath is a blur now. I went to my brother and sister-in-law, who were holding my niece’s body. She looked perfect and beautiful, but blue. I remember my sister-in-law looking at her almost reverently. I remember sitting on the curb outside the ER, waiting for my ex-husband to get there so I could tell him. I remember my son’s horrified face as he saw her as it sunk in that he would never argue with her again over who got the middle part of the back seat. And I remember the feeling of absolute hopelessness that I couldn’t protect him from that, or from the other ugly things in life.
That night, something broke inside me. I went to bed that night knowing things would not be better in the morning. My sister-in-law’s wails echoing in my ears.
It’s been years now. My sister and brother-in-law are doing as well as I think anyone could and I was diagnosed with PTSD. I thought I had a good handle on it, but I got a comment from someone that brought it all back. This person told me she hoped someone in my family, like my child, got sick so I could understand why she missed a ton of work.
She didn’t know how close to home she hit.
First, people are afraid of what to say, and often say nothing. This is a mistake. Many people are afraid to bring up the deceased child, fearing it will open wounds and raw feelings. But in my opinion the hardest thing is when people don’t talk about Maddie. It feels like she was never here, and this is what is heartbreaking. It is nice when people say, “I thought of Maddie today,” of “I saw a kid in a dress like the one Maddie wore at whatever today.” Or “I miss Maddie.” These things help, not hurt. Make us feel she is not forgotten. Sending a keepsake with the child’s photo or name, things that help her be tangibly remembered are nice. We have received AMAZING things and we cherish everything.
Six years ago, one of my friends lost her father. I was living across the country from her, and I was terrified. I felt guilty that I had my dad and she didn’t. So I didn’t say anything, and I ruined our friendship for a while. I am very lucky she gave me another chance. She has been there for me since Maddie passed away. I have horrible regret about the whole thing – all I had to do was call her and say, “I’m so sorry.”
Religion is a potentially explosive way to comfort. Unless you absolutely know 100% percent the person will be comforted by mentions of faith, don’t go there. Religion is a very complicated thing in the wake of a child’s death, and they may be angry at God or confused as to how to incorporate the death of a child into the religion that they have known to have their best interests in mind. Even someone you know to be intensely religious may be having a crisis of faith in the wake of a child’s death, and could be angered/saddened by mention of religion. Especially stay away from, “God wanted her more than you,” or “God needed her more,” etc.
I don’t care if it is the all powerful creator of the universe, you don’t tell any Mama that anyone wants her baby more than she does.
So many people hate seeing their loved one in such pain and want to fix it. Consequentially, they start talking about how you have to move on, that you will see them again, the child is with God, it will get better in time, etc. All things they think will “fix it.” Don’t try to do this. Follow the lead of the parents. Discuss what they want…if they go to those places you can discuss those things, but don’t try to steer it there. Sometimes I want to talk about Maddie and the unfairness of it all, and other times I want to hear funny stories or talk about reality TV.
Don’t be afraid to show emotion. Many people feel they have to be strong for their friends, that they can’t cry or show emotion. I don’t think that is true. You can be strong AND be emotional. If tears come, don’t fight them. This shows your friends that you, too, are crushed and sad and lost.
Address the horror. People often worry about addressing how awful the situation is, but the parents want to hear that people get the hell they are in. The parents feel alone when they don’t think people understand how awful this is. Saying things like, “This is the worst thing. I am so sorry and sad that it had to happen to you and your child,” helps.
Food is very helpful. The last thing you want to do when mourning is worry about eating. There are always people around after a death, and the last thing you want to think about is feeding them. Mike and I never would have eaten if food hadn’t been sent to us. A gift of food also tells the parents they are loved.
Say or express something you never have before. If you have never told the person that you love them, come right out and tell them that you love them. If you’ve never held their hand, hold their hand. Give hugs. These expressions mean a lot.
Finally, my biggest advice is to not be afraid to take initiative. We often say, “let me know what I can do,” in a situation like this. Well, I can tell you that Mike and I had no idea what we needed. We were so lucky that we had friends and family rally together and just take care of things. A few came to town to help out. One friend organized food, another cleaned my house, two bought the clothes Mike and I wore to the funeral, one put together Maddie’s slide show, a few organized the reception after her service. I could go on and on. I didn’t have to worry about anything because I knew my friends and family would handle it.
Be there for your friends. Call, email, text. Tell them they don’t have to respond. Let them know you are thinking of them, and their child, all the time. Don’t drop away after the funeral – that’s when they’ll need you the most. Be the kind of friend that you would want to have.
Maybe you will read this and nod along thinking to yourself, “ugh, why do people say stupid stuff” or you have a friend or coworker that needs comforting and you don’t know what to say. Here are some tips on what to say and what NOT to say to bereaved parents.
WHAT NOT TO SAY:
“It’s so much better that it was so early or he was so young, or she didn’t have to suffer.”
No parents should bury their child. No matter HOW old or young they are. It’s just the wrong order of events.
“You’re young and have time to have other children.”
You don’t know how long we’ve been trying to have THIS child. You don’t know that I haven’t had a hysterectomy because of some terrible disease. You don’t know any details that would lead you to think this statement would be true.
“I know how you feel, my dog died last week.”
This was actually said to me at Charlie’s visitation. Kid you not. Enough said.
“Please call me if there’s anything we can do for you.”
This is a really sweet sentiment. But we don’t know what we need right now. I’m sure we need our grass cut, some meals, somebody to babysit our other children, or any number of other things-be creative. But we don’t have any clue what day it is or even how to put one foot in front of another. So we sure as heck don’t know what our to-do list looks like.
“Things happen for a reason.”
This is probably THE most insensitive thing anyone can say. Though this is true, that there is some “order of events” that our lives take and things happen in the order they are supposed to. BUT this is not a comforting statement and one that most people who are grieving a loss of a child, a diagnosis of a severe or chronic illness, a major accident or surgery that is life-changing, find offensive. If you take nothing else from this, DO NOT SAY THIS STATEMENT TO ANYONE. EVER. Thanks.
So, CharliesMom, what CAN I say to someone?
People get really funny around situations they are uncomfortable with. They panic when they don’t know what to say. They freeze and THAT is when stupid stuff is said.
Here are the basic rules:
1. Acknowledging the situation is better than saying nothing.
2. Saying nothing is better than saying something stupid.
3. Giving a hug and saying “I just don’t have the words to tell you how sorry I am” is better than saying nothing OR saying something stupid.
Other ways to offer comfort:
Send a card with a gift card to a local restaurant. It’s not flowers that die and it will get them out of the house which is normally needed.
Call and tell them you are going to be mowing their grass, shoveling their snow, pulling their weeds (or whatever fits) on Saturday.
Remember that food, flowers and help flows in for about two weeks. Then it’s like the rest of the world picks up and moves on quickly without the grieving people. The rest of the world doesn’t remember, or care that they lost their child or their child is sick. About a month later, or two months later, offer to help or to bring a meal or to take the mom out for a pedicure.
Acknowledge the child in the future. I cannot tell you how much I love this one lady. To this day, and it’s been seven years, when she sees my son Henry, she calls him Charlie. Every. Single. Time. She blushes and gets embarrassed until I tell her that it’s flattering to me that she remembers my baby that she actually never met. People like to hear their child’s name. And they like to know you remember and think of them.
Continue reaching out. If you are really close with the bereaved person, call regularly. I know I never returned calls, turned down lunch dates, didn’t want to go to parties but I had friends who were persistent and at a certain point, I was ready. And I said yes. Don’t give up on the person. They are hurting and are scared to have to leave their comfort zone.
JUST BE THERE. And don’t freak out when we start talking about our situation. If it freaks you out, you just need to listen and offer hugs and support. If you are a good friend, it shouldn’t make you uncomfortable, though.
Seven years down the road, the letters you sent, the meals you brought, the ear you lent, the shoulder you offered, the memories you helped us keep will be remembered.
And the insensitive stuff other people said will still sting when you think back on them
Today is when our baby was due.
Today is when we would’ve met our child and become parents.
It’s hard writing those words, but even harder thinking about what they actually mean. We never knew if our baby was a boy or a girl, though we’re convinced our little one was a tiny princess. We named her, though only we know her name. I try to look at our faces all the time and imagine what she would’ve looked like. There is an emptiness in my heart knowing our family isn’t complete, that there’s someone missing.
I posed a question to people a while ago. I asked if they would consider someone a mother if their child never made it into their arms, and as would you expect, the answers were divided. I’m half in the park that “I am a mother,” and half in the “I’m not” as well. Without having her here in my arms, I feel like I don’t deserve the title of ‘mother,’ but I can’t deny she was here, even if only for a short time.
Her initials are CG, and I wish I could tell you her name, but somehow it doesn’t feel right. I’m tired of her being our secret though, and I want the world to know I should have a daughter here. I’m angry, frustrated, and hurt. I want people to know about her, I want others to miss her, I want others to care.
Today, I should be a mother, holding our little angel, breathing her in and going over all of her little features with the awe only a new mother can have.
Today is a lot harder than I thought it would be.