You don’t know what was lost
We are now a bit more than 3 months into the experience of the sudden death of our husband & father.
We cope well mostly but tears still sneak in frequently (like when searching for photos to include in this post)
Just the other day, my daughter asked me if I had to deal with much insensitivity. I told her “no”; almost all my friends and coworkers have themselves suffered some sort of death and they are very respectful of the magnitude of my loss. With a very weary tone to her voice, she told me that I am quite fortunate. She said that she is routinely treated as if her loss is nothing or something so small it should be recovered from very quickly there is (for reasons I dont understand) an assumption that they likely weren’t close.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
He loved her before she existed…he yearned for a daughter well before I had even considered the possibility. I was NOT sold on the idea of a girl-child. I had a VERY difficult mother-daughter dynamic growing up and I was NOT eager to try it again from the other end. I had 2 sons that I adored and could have easily been talked into the idea of being “done”. He felt that having a daughter would be a wonderful blessing to add to life and he cajoled me into considering the possibility. I had always thought that 3 sons would be a perfect family so we became pregnant and let God decide who got their wish.
My normally grumpy pessimist husband was thrilled. Our excitement was tempered by fear when the threat of preterm birth, hospitalization, bedrest and an emergency C-section delivery became part of the mix, but on that day 16 years ago, we heard her cries and Dave had his sweet, hoped-for daughter. Babyhood, toddlerhood, tween years into the teens he never tired of her. They never had an argument, there was never a slammed door between them. He even taught her to drive without complaint.
He and I did our best to give all of our kids a good life and for the most part we probably succeeded. She went to bed on Friday night knowing her dad didn’t feel well. On Saturday morning, he was dead on the floor…no warning, no “good by”, no hugs, no “I love you”s…just gone suddenly and forever. Life had not prepared her for this in anyway and it was a direct sucker-punch to her face.
This has started to remind me of the dynamic that many of the bereaved families I care for experience. People may not know what the lost relationship meant to the person they are talking to and it is human nature to project ones own values and experiences into what we think other people are living. Julia told me that she believes that people reflect on their attitudes about their own fathers when interacting with her…if they didn’t / don’t like their own dad then they figure she doesn’t have much to mourn over.
People reacting to the death of an unborn or newly born child often have polar extremes in attitude – that it is either a non-issue and doesn’t matter or that it is unsurvivable (both of those things are wrong and make life harder for the bereaved).
The news this week of the carnage in Connecticut is a shared experience of grief for many reasons but partially because any sane person would easily grasp that the death of a 6 year old is profoundly horrible and fraught with pain and difficulty. These same people might be puzzled about how much pain they would expect in a person who might say “My father died” (he might have been a prince among men or a mean drunk) or “my brother died” (he may have been a distant stranger or a twin) or ‘my grandmother died’ (who may have raised them and been their only source of love) or “my roommate died” (they may have been lovers) or “My baby was stillborn” (read my post about that word).
So what are we to do?
I propose that we leave open a dialogue with bereaved people to freely express the degree of loss they feel if they want to. Perhaps a “Oh I’m sorry, were you close?” might be a good opener. In the hospital caring for newly bereaved perinatal loss moms, you could say “help me understand what this baby meant to you” (thank you Kathie Kobler for the “help me understand” phrase). I have also said “If you ever want to tell me their story, I would be honored to hear it”. Depending on the context and setting, I have been known to say “Tell me about your____”. Allow for the possibility that the relation ship may have been very close and the loss very painful…it would be better to err on the side of caution and be extra kind than to assume their pain is slight and inflict more. What other suggestions do you have?
I encourage you to do something positive with the angst you feel over the deaths in Connecticut….allow it to help you be a better helper of the bereaved. You may easily be able to empathize over the pain of a mom you never met there, but you aren’t likely to get the chance to go there and comfort her. What about the bereaved in your midst? Please consider the long grief journey that child in your class / kid’s scout troop / at Church has ahead of them.
Our society has so much compassion for the grief of adults who grieve the deaths of children … I simply can’t understand why we have significantly less respect for the grief a child experiences when an adult they love dies.
The most ordinary of moments….perhaps the ones you miss the most
[UPDATE Feb 11, 2013]
When I see my daughter get ready for school in the morning, she looks like a gladiator going to do battle…as each accessory is put on I see her demeanor get harder and harder, by the time she gets ready to leave the house, she has her whole hell-on-wheels vibe on. I believe that she wanted to grieve peacefully, surrounded by support and understanding but the assumption that she would be fine after a few days and her loss was no big deal pushed her into a corner not of her choosing. People have not been willing to ask her about her grief and it is so big and raw. I believe she feels like she has to defend her fathers memory in the only way left and that is with hostility. She is a prissy suburban girl but this reminds me of ways I’ve seen young poor people defend their honor the only ways they have left; its very primitive. My precious daughter, how I would take your pain on myself if I could.
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Beautifully written, Tammy. I continue to pray for all of you. A girl and her daddy is a most precious thing, and my heart aches for your baby girl. I love how God is using you, and I’m really sorry that you are learning so much more than you ever wanted to know about grief by going through it first hand. I truly pray He turns your mourning into dancing….. I know He will in time. I wish sooooo badly I could stroll out my back door into yours and just squeeze you. I miss you sitting here at my counter, just chatting. I always took away a nugget you’d taught me, and lots of funnies. Yours was our first Christmas card this year……I’m sure that was very painful, but a blessing to all of us who received it. I miss you friend, and think about you daily. Praying you are surrounded by those you love and who love you. Grateful for those caring so closely for your family. Love you sister….. tracey
I just stumbled upon your blog and love it – though I’m so sorry to have read about the tragic loss of your husband. I will be praying for you and your family. My favorite quote is the one you wrote awhile back about the man in the arena. That quote got me through a tough time. I feel like you and I would have awesome conversations in person because we think so much alike. I’m a social worker and would love to work in perinatal palliative care…any advice?
Two years ago, I lost my son due to an umbilical cord accident during week 17 of the pregnancy. I stumbled across your blog while searching for “miscarriage” on Pinterest. I am so sorry for the loss of your husband. I greatly admire the work you do, and will pray for you and your family.
Tammy (and Julia),
The whole M.U. Family looks forward to new entries on your blog. We all take a few quiet moments to read and discuss it. It seems to always be the beginning of wonderful, and emotional discussions. We thank you for sharing your feelings, suggestions and “nuggets” (thanks for the word Tracey!). Your suggestions and words have been used by our family when speaking with bereaved families and we find them quite helpful.
Please give Julia an extra big hug from our family. We appreciate her side of your “story” as well. Like Julia, all 3 of us daughters have a strong bond with our father and we cannot imagine the aching in her heart.
You both have a special place in our hearts.
Sending love, as always,
Your Pacific Northwest Family
As I prepare to acknowledge, certainly can’t say “celebrate”, the 1 year anniversary of the death of my beloved sister, this column touched my lightly scabbed wound of intense grief. The callous attitude of others that my particular loss should be “no big deal” or “easy to move on from”, causes me to retreat to my proverbial corner every time. I save my tears for the shower, my pillow, my drive to Food Lion when I am alone. No, my sister was not my child. She was not my spouse. She was not either of my parents although I have already experienced the wrenching grief of both. But for all intents and purposes she was my “better half.” My significant other. My life partner. She was the first person I spoke to in the morning and the last person I spoke to at night, with 5-6 chats squeezed in between. She was the one that knew every secret I ever carried, every dream I ever spoke of, every fear, every joy, every sin, every win, every every every. But in the end she was “just my sister.” I wish society would not assign and assume grief timeframes on the relational proximity of one’s loss. Just sayin’. Thanks Tammy.