Down in a Hole

The Real Truth You Need to Know if You Have a Relationship with a Bereaved Parent

I’m a member of a few grief coping discussion groups. Most of them are specifically geared toward child loss. Interacting with others who’ve had like experiences can be pretty helpful. They tend to “get” you, and you don’t have to explain everything.

It can also be pretty draining. The life events these people have endured are often-times shocking. They’ve lost their children — sometimes more than one child — in the most random and heartbreaking ways imaginable and unimaginable.

If you had any small doubts about the existence of a good and peaceful God, spend a few hours perusing the posts in one of these groups and those nagging questions become a banging drumbeat in your ears. How could a God who loves us possibly let these things happen?

I won’t try to answer that one, by the way. No, I reckon I’ll spend the rest of my life asking it instead.

Many of the posts on these grief discussion boards are exactly what you’d expect — people struggling to find any sort of direction in their lives after losing a child. They post pictures, share memories, wonder aloud how they can possibly go on, search for any sort of meaning in their new world order, and try to support each other.

It’s not the blind leading the blind. They’ve all seen plenty. It’s the broken leading the broken.

In addition to the posts I expected to see, I also noticed a significant number that are entirely different and not at all what I expected. A lot of the most passionate discussions are about the significant conflicts group members have had with family and friends following the loss of their child.

Here I was naively thinking profound loss would draw us all together rather than tear us apart. Yet I have to admit, my own experience points to a more grim reality. The ripple effects of losing a child are far reaching and often unpleasant.

The common theme: disappointment.

In nearly all of these conflict posts, group members express dismay at the lack of compassion and understanding displayed by those who are supposed to be their closest allies. They talk about how friends and family have consistently disappointed them with insensitive comments and omissions.

Admittedly, I can see how we — and I say “we” deliberately because I want to be sure to include myself here — are sometimes hypersensitive. I thought I was crazy when I first noticed who was “liking” Facebook status updates I made about Ruby and who was seemingly ignoring them.

Years ago, a friend once quit speaking to me for months. I didn’t notice until, about six months into the silent treatment, another friend told me how pissed off this person was. Yet here I was after Ruby died — formerly Mr. Oblivious, himself — counting likes. This uncharacteristic behavior served as just another reason for me to feel really fucking pathetic.

Were these friends really even purposely ignoring or am I maybe just not the center of the universe? Is it possible my post just slipped by accidentally and wasn’t overtly ignored?

No matter, because blinded by grief, I didn’t see it that way. All I saw were people I thought were my friends liking a bunch of stupid status updates about what someone ate for lunch or what shitty store they just checked into, while ignoring my anguish.

If I wasn’t the center of the universe, well then I demanded to know why the hell not. What could possibly be more important than my dead baby? Your uninformed political opinion? I don’t think so, asshole.

As you can see, I was livid over some pretty small oversights. I still am, sometimes. I also thought I was nuts, until I saw other bereaved parents reacting similarly all over the grief support groups.

It isn’t always hypersensitivity on our parts, either. Sometimes the lack of simple common sense and decency family and so-called friends display is shocking.

I could relate countless examples, but most boil down to these people telling us how we should think and behave. You need to put your own heartache aside and show up for this or that function. You need to check in with me at such and such intervals. Stuff like that.

Oh, really? Is that so? Let me get this straight. I need to make you feel better? Got it. Now fuck right off. In fact, in retaliation I’ll be sure not to call in hopes you actually feel worse.

See how it works? Both sides are really at fault, whether they mean to be or not. One messes up, and the other goes out of their way to let them know they messed up. As if this situation wasn’t bad enough already, now we add the cluster fuck of human emotions and frailties into the mix.

Why in the world is there such a big disconnect between our expectations and the ability of friends and family to measure up in our time of greatest need?

It certainly can’t be that they take joy in throwing salt in our open wounds. People can be stupid, but most aren’t knowingly and purposefully cruel. Only a psycho like me is cruel for cruelty’s sake. In fact, I’m certain friends and family desperately want to be helpful, despite their miserable failings.

So where the hell did the ship veer so far off course? I have a theory, and like most theories, I didn’t entirely make it up. I read some stuff smart people wrote, like this article: Grief is NOT Self-Pity, Joel Osteen.

My theory, as simply as I can put it, is that timetables just don’t match up. Most of our well-intentioned friends and family have experienced some sort of loss in their lifetimes, whether it be a pet or a parent or sometimes even a spouse or sibling.

I don’t want to minimize these experiences. Loss is loss. I know a good friend who struggled for months when his dog died. And while I was too young to really remember the death of my father, I can only imagine that the death of a spouse or a parent (at least one you’re actually old enough to remember) is a traumatic event that sticks with you for the rest of your life.

But these losses follow the natural world order. Parents die first. Pets are with us for a decade if we’re lucky. Even a spouse or siblings… we’re all going to go sometime, and we just hope those closest to us make it to old age before that happens so we have plenty of memories of their full lives to cherish.

While all of these losses stick, we can generally at least make some sense of them and move forward as changed people. And because grappling with these sorts of losses is most people’s frame of reference, they expect that forward momentum from us as well. The problem is that there’s no making any sense of losing your kid — not after a year, or five, or ever.

I may have told this next story before, but these are the memories I cling to fiercely like a wino strains to get those last few drops from the bottom of the bottle. One night I was lying in the pitch black with Ruby trying to get her to fall asleep before me. The struggle was real. In utter darkness, she was compelled to reach over and begin stroking my eyelashes with her fingertips.

MY EYELASHES! I couldn’t see anything, and this rambunctious baby with all the dexterity of a moose — the same child who once accidentally head butted me so hard she loosened a tooth — somehow steadied her little hand enough to strum her fingertips over my eyelashes without poking my eye right out. Magical.

She did this for several minutes while I didn’t dare move and spoil the moment. And then she reached down, took hold of my index finger, brought it up to her own eyelashes, and began moving it back and forth so I could experience what she just had.

That was at once one of the most beautiful moments of my life and, in retrospect, a source of immense pain that will never ease. I’ve laid in bed alone in darkness many nights since her death and replayed that sequence over and over in my mind’s eye, tears of frustration streaming down my cheeks.

Where is my little baby now? How do I get to her? Will we ever touch eyelashes again?

The chain is broken and unbroken all at once. All our hopes and dreams for the many milestones in their lives — driving and prom and graduation and marriage and a career and family of their own — are extinguished with their death. The story just cuts off somewhere in the middle with no resolution.

And yet the chain of love transcends time and space. Those questions I ask in the darkness have no answers. I don’t know where she is or how to get to her or whether I’ll ever hold her again.

But the love is as strong today as it was that day. It will be as strong tomorrow and next week and next year. Lying on my death bed, I’ll be thinking about touching her eyelashes in the darkness.

Maybe I was just trying to be nice above, and that’s not really my strong suit. Maybe loss really isn’t loss. Maybe this loss is different. When family and friends expect the wounds of our loss to scab over like theirs have, maybe they’re expecting the impossible.

When our wounds remain gaping wide open even three or four or twenty years later, they don’t understand. They can’t, because they haven’t experienced it. See, timetables and expectations just don’t match.

Or my kid died. Same difference.

So what is it that bereaved parents really want from friends and family? I’m kind of speaking for myself here, but also hopefully for the collective group I’ve come to know.

We live our new lives down in some hole. Maybe we even get to a point where we can come out once in a while, give a glimpse of our old selves, and see an old friend. But the pretending to be okay or to be thinking about anything else for very long is exhausting, so at some point, undoubtedly before friends and family are ready for us to, we retreat back into that hole.

If you really want to help, stop trying to drag us back out before we’re ready. Stop telling us it will all be okay when clearly it won’t. Instead, come down here and join us just for a little bit. That’s what we really want from you more than anything else.

We won’t lie to you; it’s bad here. We know it frightens you to see it up close and that you’re petrified of something like this happening in your own life. Get too close to the leper and maybe you’ll catch it too. We get it.

Does that really seem like the decent thing to do, though? Turn your back and look away because you can’t handle it, or because we’re such an unpleasant reminder of the worst thing that can happen.

Are you that fucking soft? Man up. Deal with it. We’re not asking you to bear this oppressive burden every minute of every day like we do, but you can’t ask us to be free of it in order to spend time together.

What is that??? I’ll see you on your good days and we won’t mention your dead kid, because that might make you sad again and then I’ll be sad too. Fuck that. Don’t bother seeing me at all if you can’t handle sadness (and anger). I’m better off without you if you only want the version of me that you want.

A friend contacted me for advice on what to say to make a recently bereaved parent “feel better.” I guess this friend thinks I’m some beacon of wisdom on this topic, seeing as how I’m now well over three years into the journey and am doing so fucking peachy. I was immediately incensed, and I know I have to watch that seething anger.

But c’mon. You really think you’re going to utter some magical words that make the person feel better? That shouldn’t even be your goal; compassion should.

All child deaths are bad. There is no good one. In this case, however, the person’s daughter committed suicide, and the family found her hanging from the basement rafters. That’s their last mental image of their beautiful teenage daughter.

Did you ever stop to think this probably won’t get much better and that there’s not much hope you can offer? In fact, offering hope is sort of insulting. “Oh, time will help. Things will return somewhat to normal.”

No, they won’t; not when your kid dies. Not when you have to cut the rope and let their lifeless body fall to the floor or pull the plug and let their last bit of life force dribble away to nothing.

You’re stuck dealing with this forever, and it’s likely never going to soften much. It’s survival mode now. One day at a time takes on a whole new meaning as you literally grit your teeth and fight like hell just to get out of bed for days, months, and years on end.

You’re never going to feel like celebrating holidays like other people do. It’s not just that first year or two. It’s all of them.

So if you’re going to talk to a bereaved parent, my advice is to keep it real. False hope only serves to minimize the person’s grief experience. They’re dying inside. The last thing they want to hear from you who couldn’t possibly know is that it will all be better someday.

They didn’t miss a fucking tax deadline. They were robbed of a life they created. A piece of their soul died. Acknowledge that, not just once, but over and over again, and you’ll be well on your way to real empathy.

Note: Perhaps I’d soften this piece a little if I wrote it today. For that reason, I’m glad I wrote it back then with that perspective. I think it can help more people being so direct.

Originally published at on January 13, 2017.

Author of Will Little Roo Ever...? & Inside the Mind of an Iron Icon. Writing: Strength Training:

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